(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)
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?
In Part One, teachers Bill Ivey, Sarah Cooper, and Amber Chandler shared their thoughts during this first week back from winter break.
Today, Tairen McCollister, M.A., M.Ed., Alice Mercer, and Andrew Simmons contribute their responses.
It Is a Season of ‘Lack’
Tairen McCollister has taught all grade levels, including higher education. She is currently in her 14th year of teaching high school English and as an adjunct professor at university. She is a trauma-informed educator, SEL advocate, diversity and equity coordinator, and children’s author and podcast host (The Namaste Stories) with a passion for meeting the needs of the whole child:
Omiricon is truly bringing education to its knees. It is a season of “lack.” There is a lack of proactivity at times, a lack of consideration, a lack of consistency, and a lack of accountability. Students are tired. They are exhausted. They are in need, and rightfully so, they are not totally focused on education.
In an attempt to provide what students, no matter the circumstances, need in order to learn, I have tried to show structure, stability, and allow a safe space for processing and navigating the world we find ourselves in. Curriculum, yes, it’s necessary and must be followed, but if we need to shift midclass, shut down the novel we are reading, and do some deep breathing because the energy in the room is heavy, we do it.
I could get into the neuroscience, the needs of the nervous system, and the impact that stress has on learning, but let’s keep it simple: We can just pay attention to our students. That’s been my guiding light through this. Pay attention to the energy and space, and it will tell you all that you need to know about what your students need and how best to proceed.
This past week, we got an asynchronous day that also ended up falling on an unexpected “what would have once been a snow day!” Sure, I could have created a screencast, posted an interactive assignment, had students begin the literary-analysis essay assignment that we should have been starting, but no. I knew that my students didn’t need that.
Instead, I had them reread a passage from our current text, J. D. Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye. Holden, the teenage protagonist of the novel, is struggling his way through the adolescent years, just like my students, and as he travels New York City trying to find himself, he ends up in the midst of a snowstorm. The assignment: Go outside and record yourself in the snow assuming the character of Holden, submit, done. They needed it, deserved the break, and judging by the laughter and smiles in the videos filled with faces I had only seen behind masks, most actually ended up enjoying it.
Socially and emotionally, students (and staff) are not doing well; they are both at the mercy of people in charge with limited knowledge of how things are really going. Morale comes and goes. I have simply tried to remain honest with my students about the importance of staying present and in the moment. Mindfulness exercises, our class-playlist music breaks, impromptu dance parties, even hangman all seem so simple, especially with high schoolers, but they can work wonders. My goal as their teacher has always been to teach beyond the academics and encourage them to look beyond themselves and the moment. This pandemic has truly allowed me to travel that path even more.
School Counseling Is Needed
Alice Mercer teaches 4th grade at an elementary school in Sacramento, Calif. She started her career in Oakland, Calif., and moved to Sacramento in 2001. She is the parent of a now-adult son with ASD and is a caregiver to her husband, who is medically fragile. Alice is active in her union and on social media:
Larry asks, what am I doing to sustain my morale and the morale and learning of my students in the face of Omicron? I’m going to start by saying that while all the ideas that follow are great, they are likely not enough. Does that mean you should not even bother trying to do things like this? No, but it also means that our working conditions, and student learning conditions, are in serious peril as this pandemic grinds on no matter how hard we work. I’m trying to adapt my approaches to both my class work and my personal situation to limit the inevitable damage.
Here are things I am doing with our class:
- I try to end each day with a daily reflection, and since returning from break, I am also trying to add a daily opening to think about and help frame the day.
- I’m adding more information on Google Classroom to explain assignments AND I’m doing some videos for that as well.
- I’ve gotten into a flow, and the kids seem to really know what I’m expecting at this point, so I’m trying to keep a schedule and process that they have become used to. Routine matters, and it is good for them to be able to predict what comes next.
- I’m doing Zoom check-ins with students who are out on quarantine.
- I’m trying to introduce some new and interesting elements. We did a science lesson with some fun activities (comparing leaves, celery with colored water). I’ll probably look into having my sister do another art lesson via Zoom next week or so (which can happen however we’re teaching).
- I’m always advocating for more counseling services anywhere I can. At my school site, there are none. This to me is the most critical need, while also the hardest to staff. It’s a tight job market, and not many have gone into the profession because they’re one of the first positions cut. Folks talk about how damaging being out of school has been, but this hasn’t led to providing services sufficient to address the challenges. This is a significant problem.
Here are things I’m trying to do for my own self-care because this is hard. For the most part, these all involve making space for myself, physically and emotionally:
- I’m taking daily bike rides along local paths. It’s harder now because the sun drops at 5:00 p.m., and so I’ve got to get started at 4:30 p.m.; this means not a lot of down time when I get home.
- Taking baths. I had been visiting a local spa/bath house, but with this new outbreak, that’s on hold. I’ve upgraded my Epsom salts, lotions, etc.
- Always asking for help. This week, I’ve asked others in our household to pick up more so I can do less.
- Listening to audiobooks about something that has nothing to do with politics or education. I’ve been listening to James Herriot’s “All Creatures” series, and I’m now on to Aubrey-Mautrin series of Hornblower-esque tales.
Returning to the issue of counseling, there is a reason I’m consistently advocating for school counseling services. Simply put: I cannot be the sole source of psychological support for my students, most of whom have needs that exceed my training and skills. I’m getting pulled into doing things that normally would be under the purview of a school counselor.
While all these changes help to some degree, the amount of psychological, emotional, and social support my students now require is an urgent need they have that I cannot meet, and trying to respond where I can just is not sustainable for me, either.
Andrew Simmons is a public high school teacher and writer living in Oakland:
If I’m being honest, I want to foster a classroom community that improves upon the society outside.
Just two years ago, I almost never called in sick unless my daughter had to stay home from school. I was willing to teach while deliriously ill, hopped up on cold meds, losing my voice. I was great at soldiering through. And I would have minor panic attacks when I did call in and a less-than-agile substitute would email to say they skipped an assignment because the projector wouldn’t turn on.
The pressure to maintain productivity and efficiency, to have perfect attendance, to be rewarded or at least not punished for that soldiering through faces many American workers with far less flexibility than I enjoy. You see it when people who work from home go on social media and blame teachers for school closures they say have ruined American children. The shadow concern is often about blows to their productivity and efficiency in the wake of lost child care.
On Tuesday, I told my students that we were entering a phase of acute stress. It’s Day 3, and I’ve had about 15 of my 120 students email to say they’re out with COVID. And there are other absences, more than usual, I can’t help but guess are often also COVID-related. Because my school’s population is heavily vaccinated (all but one staff member, I’m told), the fear is less about deaths or hospitalizations than destabilization, the uncertainty around when a teacher might have to leave for a week, or how a lesson that might work beautifully one day won’t fly the next, when half the class is suddenly out. For me, it’s actually easier; instead of a flu swooping in by surprise and knocking me out for a few days, I know it’s coming and can calibrate my planning to accommodate it.
Every week’s agenda is on Canvas on Sunday or Monday morning. Every text is scanned, every assignment posted. Every piece of news can reach students and parents in seconds via email, ParentSquare, Canvas—all the platforms! If I have to Zoom in (and I’m feeling fine), I know I can because I’ve, sadly, done it before.
My Lit 12 students in particular read a great deal of literature in which uncertainty and powerful, practically inexorable forces buffet characters: The Stranger, Hamlet, There There, The Handmaid’s Tale, and so on. In such real-life circumstances, we can control our responses, express our best selves through actions. Vaccinations and masks aside, we can’t control the virus, but we can control how we react to the way it scuttles our best-laid plans, our reassuring rhythms—which maybe aren’t always the healthiest anyway.
I told my students Tuesday that we will have to be more flexible, adaptable, and fluid than usual for at least the next month. Communicate frequently and clearly with me. You will not be shamed. When you return, I will not harangue you about missing assignments. Do the reading and writing from home if you can. Ask me questions. But if you’re sick or caring for others, don’t let this class be an added burden. It can wait. I will not dock your pay, vaporize your vacation time, or demote you. I will welcome you back and ask you if you’re doing OK.
But is that not a better approach in any month? I know of a colleague (also a parent, someone who should know better) who seems to take particular glee in reminding a heavily concussed student that she’s falling behind and has tests to make up. What good does that do but stoke that teacher’s sense of their power and make a student feel like health must be subservient to the whims of authority?
I don’t think an academically rigorous and engaging classroom is incompatible with helping students see that a healthier society is possible. One silver lining of the pandemic is that it offers a glimpse of what could be: living at a more deliberate pace, making personal choices informed by what helps others feel safe and secure, and prioritizing health over a relentless push for productivity.
This is an opportunity to educate students about that as well as classroom content.
Thanks to Tairen, Alice, and Andrew for contributing their thoughts!
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.
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