(This is the first post in a two-part series.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
What are you doing—or trying to do—to sustain your morale and the morale of your students in the face of Omicron? What are you doing—or trying to do—to sustain any kind of learning momentum you had built up before the winter break?
Remember those few weeks last June when many of us thought we were over the worst of the pandemic, and then Delta hit. Next, just as many of us felt we were getting “back in the groove” of instruction and learning, and Delta seemed to be waning, Omicron came roaring in.
It’s a tough time to be a human being, including if you happen to be a teacher or a student.
One way I, and I think many of my colleagues and our students, have chosen to cope with all the uncertainty is by concluding that we are all going to get COVID-19 at some point. That doesn’t mean that any of us have reduced our mitigation measures but, instead, have generally replaced much of our fear with acceptance and gallows humor.
But that doesn’t mean my colleagues and I are indifferent. I have had countless face-to-face conversations and exchanged numerous texts with, and made numerous phone calls to, students (and staff) over the past week sharing sympathy and support about their COVID infection and/or infections of family members.
Even though concurrent teaching is every educator’s nightmare, I have invited quarantined students to Zoom in, and students in the physical classroom have bent over backward to include them in class activities.
Many of us teachers are “April-tired” (if not “June-tired”) at this point but have still tried hard to bring high energy to the class and help students learn and be distracted from the pandemic around them over the past several days. I have initiated many new and, I hope, positive activities to help students feel like they have more autonomy and power in the classroom. These changes have also included deepening personalized learning by increasing the role of peer tutors and peer mentors and developing leadership teams in each class. I have begun experimenting with incorporating games in as many ways as possible.
Of course, at the rate staff and student COVID-infection rates have gone over the past few days, many of these in-class efforts will be moot—at least in the short term. We’ll likely have to go remote—we just won’t have enough teachers to staff our school.
Whatever happens, my colleagues and I will continue to do our best. I’m just not sure I’ll have much gas left in the tank if and when the next Greek letter comes along.
In addition to that personal commentary, teachers Bill Ivey, Sarah Cooper, and Amber Chandler share their thoughts during this first week back from winter break.
‘The Cloud of Omicron’
Bill Ivey is middle school dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School, a gender-inclusive girls school in western Massachusetts:
As we turn to the uncertain future of resuming school under the cloud of Omicron, I need to acknowledge that I am lucky to work in an independent school that has been able to prioritize health more than many. My room is large enough to permit adequate social distancing and has two air purifiers as well as windows that open. We have begun requiring either a highly effective mask like a KN95 or a cloth mask over a surgical mask. We canceled all athletic competitions for the moment. We are small enough to be able to seat three kids at a table during each lunch period (employees eat in our own spaces), we have weekly pool testing, our counselor has been doing an unbelievable amount of good work supporting kids, and so on.
All of this means we both recognize that we have relative privilege and that even with all the precautions we can take, nothing will completely tame the anxiety everyone is feeling. As a colleague put it on our first day back, “I’m delighted to be back. I’m anxious. I’m thrilled to see everybody. I’m terrified. This cupcake is delicious.” We opened the first day back with an all-school meeting to go over all the new protocols, and my Humanities 7 class met next.
After making space for the usual odd mix of student announcements (this is how we usually start class, and I well know the importance of routine in managing stress), I asked the two-thirds of students who were present (where were the others???) if anyone had any thoughts or feelings they wanted to share or questions to ask. We’ve made time for these conversations before, and the ongoing themes of weariness with the seeming endlessness of the pandemic, social disconnect, and worry over elderly relatives returned, mixed with a new level of anxiety centered especially in dining hall protocols: “I get why we need to be wearing two masks, but what about at lunch when we have to take them off?!?!” All I could think of to say was to reiterate all the things we were doing to maximize safety and remind them that they could and probably should leave the dining hall—or at least put their masks back on—as soon as they finished eating. They nodded slightly, whether genuinely feeling better or simply appreciative of my attempt to address the question.
Another part of our daily routine is reading aloud, and I am devoting extra time to that as the kids seem to find it comforting. My students choose our read-aloud books. The current one, Going Viral by Katie Cicatelli-Kuc, deals with managing life during the pandemic from the perspective of a teenager who is upset and scared as her life is turned topsy-turvy and must also navigate difficulties with her girlfriend even as she meets a new girl. It’s the perfect way for students to think about and process their own feelings while also having the chance to escape from them, depending on where in the story we find ourselves.
Finally, I’ve been working in games—get-to-know-you games since we have two brand-new students, and just plain fun games like Pictionary. I know it breaks routine, but it breaks it in a way that helps create a space where we can feel the normalcy of kicking back and relaxing. We round out the day, as always, with unit-based group work and individual “choice time.”
As I write, it’s been a whole 27 hours since we started back. Right now, doing the best we can to maintain normalcy for as long as possible, one hour at a time, and to make space to be human, seems the best we can do.
Finding ‘the Balm’
Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and civics and is associate head of school at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, Calif. She is the author of two books, Creating Citizens (Routledge, 2018) and Making History Mine (Stenhouse, 2009). Sarah speaks at conferences and writes for a range of educational sites, including MiddleWeb and Well-Schooled:
Over winter break, I walked with a childhood friend through a local botanical garden and I found myself briefly ranting about my job. All the COVID changes and restrictions are enough to make you want to leave education, I said.
To be clear, I’m not leaving—I love teaching and being at school too much. But the whiplash that we teachers and administrators have known over the past two years is very real.
As we’re heading back from winter break, though, I’m surprisingly finding myself in a better head space than I anticipated. Surely this feeling might dissipate with the potential realities of staff and student illness, schools closing because of staffing shortages, or the necessary quarantining of students who’d much prefer to be at school. But for now, here’s what’s helping me a little.
First, at least in California, we are in such a better place than we were a year ago at this time. Last January, I was having lunch with myself each day on an empty campus and lamenting the lack of middle school sprawl. This year, we have vaccines and even boosters for all adolescents. And the will to keep schools open is fierce. Those of us who lived through shuttered campuses from March 13, 2020, to late March or early April 2021 are loath to return to the long tunnel of Zoom.
Second, after serving on our school’s COVID task force for nearly two years, of course I’m tired along with the rest of the team. At the same time, though, I’ve become a far better problem solver, and my anxiety about problems has lessened. It’s not because the issues are smaller, or I’ve become inured to them. Rather, I’ve internalized that every issue can be tackled by a series of steps. I used to believe that every solution had to be nicely packaged from the beginning, but COVID has shown this to be impossible. The steps will be imperfect, but usually just taking one, and then the next, is better than not.
Last, the adrenaline rush of being with 8th graders again in the classroom, in person, full time, has stayed with me even over the weeks of vacation. Yes, I dislike the masks along with everyone else and I’ve been shocked more than once not to recognize a student at lunch when they’re eating, because I know them only by their eyes.
But to be with students in a space that is ours, together, remains nothing short of magical.
- To laugh with them again, since laughter was in such short supply on Zoom.
- To have a daily chat, where they talk with their desk partners about the day’s question—what they find cozy about the rain, anything they are anxious or happy about or both, something they are looking forward to doing for a family member or friend this weekend.
- To spool out a discussion about a current event that connects to the constitutional history we’re studying, seeing a leap of understanding happen across time.
- To tell students while they’re working on a project that they can spread out around the room—on their desks, on the floor, against the walls—and then sit cross-legged next to them to chat about how their work is going.
- To get ready to ask them, as we do every year during third quarter in U.S. history and civics, to research a change maker who made a difference, so that they, too, can make a difference.
This year, I have never been more grateful to see students, more interested in who they are, or more invested in who they will become—as citizens solving the world’s problems and as human beings connecting with others.
This is the balm, for now.
‘The Little Things’
Amber Chandler is an 8th grade ELA teacher, author, and speaker in Hamburg, N.Y.:
The day before New Year’s Eve, my 16-year-old daughter and I spent a few hours at the Well-Now Emergency clinic. No COVID. No Strep. She was “just sick.” We were thankful for this, but when we began discussing how she had to cancel her plans for New Year’s Eve, she exploded into a crying mess. This wasn’t a big party. This was a sleepover with three friends. When I pressed her—explaining that she could have them over the next week—she said something that is going to define how I “do school” during this crisis. She said, “You know how when we were little, you always told us what was coming next? Like, the next thing to look forward to? Well, there’s not that much to look forward to, so the little things like this is what I’ve got right now.”
As my students and I begin the next segment of the pandemic, I’m going to keep this view in mind. The fact is, Zoey’s right. There’s not that much to look forward to because there is so much uncertainty. I need to give my students more in-the-moment support, surprises, and accolades.
My co-teacher and I are trying to bring a little more joy in their day to day. For example, I have two couches in my room. Instead of randomly assigning students, we decided that we’d have “Students of the Week” for each period. Each student gets a couch for the week, based on a “randomish” compliment we give them. They can keep the couch to themselves or invite a friend to sit with them. This week’s “compliment couch” winners heard what we noticed or liked about them.
Sydney had been out for two weeks, yet had gotten a 100 on a test because she emailed us to stay up to date. Adri was always smiling under her mask and nods encouragingly at us when we teach. Troy always says goodbye when he leaves. I had witnessed McKenzie being really nice to a student who was having a bad day. Carol helped translate when we got a new student who spoke no English. Students were appropriately bashful and embarrassed as we announced these achievements like Emmy nominations, but they LOVED this corny reward.
In addition to our “compliment couch” plan, my co-teacher is a huge sports fan. She began each period today with trivia and rewarded students who knew the answer with candy. These two things are small, yet there’s a difference in my room in the course of just a few days. We are planning to deliberately spread joy not by the big things we do, but instead by the ways we help our students feel a part of our unique community, and we plan to keep connecting with our students. Of course, we laugh because no one was that appreciative when we allowed students to remediate and retake their last test! We look forward to the day when it isn’t quite as hard to find something to look forward to, but I think this newest lesson in pandemic teaching is worth remembering.
Thanks to Bill, Sarah, and Amber for contributing their thoughts!
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