Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

What Our Children Need Most From Us Right Now

By Justin Minkel — March 24, 2020 5 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE

Five days after the coronavirus pandemic hit my state, my 8-year-old son and I took a rainy walk up the mountain where we live.

“If you could have five superpowers,” he asked me, “what would you choose?” I told him my top choice would be the ability to speak and understand any language; he would go for invisibility and the power to fly, among others.

A little later, when I pointed out some crumpled white leaves hanging from the trees, he said, “What if those are really fairy cloaks, and the fairies are asleep in there?”

We didn’t mention the “Alternative Methods of Instruction” packet he had completed that morning. I didn’t quiz him on multiplication tables, minerals, or analog clocks.

We didn’t talk about contagion, either. We didn’t discuss supply chains, incubation periods, or the difference between “social distancing” and “shelter in place.”

Our time together was the balm we both needed during a truly terrifying week in our nation.

Mike Soskil, one of the greatest teachers I know, recently wrote in a Facebook post:

In a matter of a week or two, we’ve faced the equivalent of a societal nuclear bomb, and we’re looking ahead at a societal nuclear winter.

Between the bomb and the winter, there has been a helter-skelter rush to photocopy packets of worksheets, convene teachers for curriculum planning in schools emptied of students, and figure out just what the hell “school” looks like when it’s no longer safe to be together in person.

I wish we could all just take a breath. A single somber day, maybe even a full week, of reflection.

Our daily schedules have been stripped away. The things we have long taken for granted, from the mundane certainty of canned beans on the grocery shelves to the luxury of our preferred brand of toilet paper, are gone.

America is burning. Whether the fires of contagion in our own region are little blazes or massive conflagrations, we all smell the smoke.

Whether we are teachers, parents, or both, this crisis is forcing us to confront the big existential questions. Who are we now to our families, our colleagues, and the children in our care? Who are we going to be?

The Most Important Thing We Do for Our Students

Ninety-seven percent of the children I teach live in poverty. Most have very few books at home. Some don’t have computers. Many of our students depend on school for two-thirds of their meals, and several get snack packs on Fridays so they don’t go hungry on weekends.

We all have to do our part to make sure those needs are met. But we also have to remember that our students’ first week of learning from home is like the first week of a new school year.

What are the fundamental things we do as teachers during those first days of school?

We make sure our students know they are safe. We convey to them and their families, through words and actions, that they can trust us to do right by them for as long as they are in our care.

Mike Soskil continued his post with the words I needed to hear.

I get that teaching is what teachers do. I get that finding some kind of normalcy in this time of upheaval is vital. Before we start looking for the next new tool, the next website we can use, the next learning opportunity, let’s just find ways to connect. The most important thing that we do for our students is love them. That’s more important than ever right now.

This Is Happening

Like many teachers across the country, I spent the last couple of days calling each family in my class. I texted them a video message, telling them that I am still their teacher, we are still a class, and we will keep learning together.

I made videos on Flipgrid of short read-alouds they can watch as many times as they want and invited them to record their own videos of themselves reading at home.

I want them to keep reading, writing, thinking, and counting during the days ahead. But above all, I want them to know they are loved. They are seen. They will be OK.

Conveying that message does not mean that we pretend there is no pandemic. In fact, it means exactly the opposite: directly acknowledging that this is a weird and scary time. That we will provide our students with the space to talk about it, to think about it, and to feel hard emotions that may swing and shift throughout each day.

I was teaching in West Harlem 19 years ago when two passenger planes exploded into the Twin Towers and brought our sense of safety as we knew it crashing down. When we all returned to school after that attack, I could not simply carry on with Unit 4, Lesson 5.

Instead, the kids and I started sitting in a circle together each morning. We took a minute of silence to begin our day. We talked about how they were feeling and what was weighing on their minds.

We did a series of read-alouds about Arab Americans and Muslims when I realized that many of my 4th graders were internalizing racist notions about entire religions and groups of people. The curriculum became what the best curriculum always is: a reflection of their experiences, questions, priorities, and needs.

A student named Heather told me at recess one day, “I feel sad and scared all the time. Every time I see a plane in the sky, I think it’s going to crash down on my head.”

I talked with my class about their ideas, their fears, and their hopes. Mostly, though, I listened. And listened. And listened.

What We All Need Most

Children need their parents to hold them close right now. Part of our job is to remind parents to do just that. To take a break from working at home or ordering canned beans on Amazon and take a walk with their child. Invite them to help cook a meal. Cuddle up on the couch together and read a favorite book. Ask them how they’re doing and really listen to their answers.

My own children’s teachers have been nothing short of extraordinary during this time. This is what one of my son’s teachers wrote to us this week:

I encourage you to spend as much time with your family as your time allows, whether it’s dancing, playing, walking, cooking, cleaning, being silly, or just hanging out. This can be a scary time for kids, and nothing will help ease their fears and encourage their cognitive and social development like spending time with you.

This same teacher is also emailing us a daily photo of a bird to identify, sending out links to websites like Epic that read books to kids and sharing out-of-the-box ideas for the students’ unit this month on an appropriate topic: survival.

I appreciate all these resources. But the words above are the words I will treasure as a parent for a long time. They will remind me to take a break from refreshing the updated coronavirus map, checking my school email, and cursing Amazon’s multitude of out-of-stock items.

Instead, I’ll look my 12-year-old daughter in the eyes and ask, “How you doing, Baby Goose?” I’ll accept my son’s challenge to a muddy soccer game in the backyard. I’ll take him by the hand and walk up our mountain one more time, grateful that during a crisis when all we have is each other, “each other” is exactly what we all need.

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