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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Coronavirus, Virtual Learning, and the 5 Stages of Grief

By Peter DeWitt — April 19, 2020 5 min read
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We have all felt this pandemic in different ways. In many ways, it has made us question our identity as teachers or leaders because we went from the typical classroom and school building experience to going virtual, where it is uncomfortable and seemingly out of our control. There have been moments over the past month when we question how we fit into all of this. Some of us have tried to control every moment of a student’s day at home in fear that their parents might think we are not good teachers because we didn’t “assign” enough school work to keep our students “busy.”

From an educational standpoint, it’s mind-blowing to think about. UNESCO estimates that over 1.5 billion students, or 91 percent of all enrolled learners worldwide, have been out of school due to the coronavirus pandemic. Parents and caregivers are home with their children trying to balance their own work from home options. That, of course, is if they were fortunate enough to keep their jobs.

Over time those parents have gone from feeling the pressure to make sure their children are doing everything assigned, to relaxing their “homeschool teacher” approach and reverting back to be a parent. It’s a good thing, because in his research about what works and what doesn’t work when schools are closed, educational researcher John Hattie recommends parents not putting their children under surveillance, because it could have a very negative impact.

Teachers, who also may have their own children at home, have found themselves in a place where they cannot control the day-to-day operations of the classroom like they once did. They can provide the schoolwork, but that doesn’t mean it is always going to get completed. It’s overwhelming for so many educators to go from running the day-to-day operations of the classroom to having it all go online without much notice.

What’s worse, and few people understand, are the students who do not find home to be a safe place or even a structured one. We see so many funny memes from parents and caregivers about trying to balance it all, but many teachers worry about the students whose parents aren’t finding the humor. They worry about the students whose parents have a different phone number each month, or children who lack access to technology or lack a quiet place to do schoolwork. They worry about the students who only get one good meal right now, which typically comes from school. According to the FDA, nearly 30 million students in the U.S. qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

What’s happening to those children? What does their day-to-day life look like right now?

Five Stages of Grief
I feel like most of us went through, or are currently going through, the five stages of grief. I mean, the suggestions of how to prevent the spread of the virus go against who most of us are and how we operate from day to day. We shake hands, we hug. I almost miss those people who do not respect personal space and lean in too close when they are talking to us.

When it comes to the classroom, we try to provide deep learning through technology, but the reality is that it’s the personal connection and the contact that we enjoy as much as it’s the content we like to teach. The pandemic, and how it rocked our worlds, has made most of us question who we are as professionals. I feel like this has shattered the identities most of us have created for ourselves. The classroom and school have been so much a part of our identities, and now, we are not in those classrooms and schools every day.

The smell, yes the smell, of the classroom when we first walk in. The students we always have to check in on when they come into our classrooms because we need to see if they got a good night’s sleep the night before. The eerie quiet before students come flooding through our doors. The noise of children playing, laughing, and talking. We don’t have that right now, we miss it, and that’s hard.

This pandemic has demanded that we all teach in new ways. We no longer have students or workshop participants right in front of us. We have to learn how to connect with our students in very different ways, and those different ways are all mostly virtual, which is uncomfortable for us. This rapid change in teaching and connecting has created a space where we are going through stages of grief, which were first written by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross so long ago.

Those five stages include:
Denial - Surely, we will not need to go to virtual learning? This will all be over quickly. We don’t need to go virtual ... right? I’m not sure I can do virtual teaching.

Anger - We are out of school for two weeks! I am not a virtual teacher! I need to see my students every day! How do I virtually teach everything that I teach in the classroom? This is not what I signed up for! Do you know how many hours a day I’m working!!!

Bargaining - I will do this online teaching stuff now, but the moment I get back to the classroom with my kids, I want things to go back to the way they were. I will follow all the guidance right now because the sooner we get back to our classrooms the better.

Depression - We are closed for another month. I miss my students. My seniors are missing out on their last months of school. I am not good at being a virtual teacher and I’m definitely not having the impact I normally do. I don’t think I want to do this anymore. Change is hard. Especially when we didn’t have time to think about it.

Acceptance - I need to figure out how to move on and have a deeper impact with my students. What virtual tools can I use that will help me meet this goal? Maybe I will join one of those Teaching During the Pandemic Facebook pages to ask questions about how I can improve my strategies. Can I offer surface, deep, and transfer learning opportunities during a time of review? How might we offer new content to students, at the same time we do not expect them to “do school” all day long?

In the End
The coronavirus has rocked our worlds in very real ways. Most of us identify with our professional selves. In my personal experience, I identified as a classroom teacher for 11 years, a principal for eight years, and as a consultant and author for the last six years. When people first introduce themselves to us, the most common question is, “What do you do for a living?” Our identities are wrapped up in what we do for a living. Now, we find ourselves needing to adapt and change quickly, which forced us to go through the five stages of grief. Know this, as we experience the stages in our own, personal ways, we will come out of this pandemic much better than when we went into this pandemic.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is the author of several books including his newest release Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (Corwin Press. 2020). Connect with him on Twitter or through his YouTube channel.

Introduction photo courtesy of Getty Images.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.