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.
In Part Two, Tairen McCollister, M.A., M.Ed., Alice Mercer, and Andrew Simmons contributed their responses.
Today, Annie Holyfield, Ann Stiltner, Jennifer Orr, and Erick Espin wrap up this series.
Annie Holyfield is a K-1 teacher and literacy coach at Joe Shoemaker School in Denver. She has been teaching for 13 years:
All of us in education remember March 2020. It was the beginning of the pandemic and, as schools closed down, the end of teaching as we knew it. At the time, honestly, it felt like a much needed and welcomed break. Eleven years into teaching, I was tired. Teaching, being a literacy coach, running dance club and school fundraisers had taken their toll, and the thought of an extended spring break felt like the universe giving all of us a chance to rest. To breathe.
I mean, it was just going to last for a couple of weeks, right?
Fast forward almost two years, and man, do I wish the universe would help again, this time with a return to normal. A time when there were no masks, so students didn’t have barriers to learning phonics skills or facial cues, so they could see their teacher smiling at them to start the day. A time when assigned seating at lunch wasn’t mandatory in order to support contact tracing for COVID exposure. A time when large amounts of student absences weren’t expected daily and the practice of constantly being OK with living in ambiguity wasn’t the norm.
But it is.
When this school year started, the hope of returning to some normalcy quickly vanished. I was faced with the reality that the trauma that our students had faced in the last two years—the real life ping-pong ball style of education, bouncing from remote learning, to hybrid, to in person, and heightened social-emotional needs—had taken its toll on all of us in ways we couldn’t even imagine. Our “surge capacity” had been depleted. How could this be? The “hope and zest” that I was known for was gone. The desire for doing big, ridiculous projects was drained. The “magic” that I pride myself on bringing to the classroom had disappeared, and, truly, I was scared.
Could I do this anymore?
Learning to Fall in Love With Teaching Again
Fortunately, I have an incredible principal who has had my back since the beginning and was ready with a listening ear. She asked me point blank, “What can I do to help you fall in love with teaching again?” That question struck a chord deep inside because I didn’t want to be out of love with teaching. I still don’t. I’m not ready for this chapter of my life to be over.
So what did I need to do for myself to find joy and more importantly to show up for my kids during a time when they needed me most? My principal reminded me that there was no “curriculum police,” that I had the freedom to create engaging learning experiences for my crew, and as long as we were meeting the standards and the purpose was clear, as always, she would again have my back.
So I listened to my principal and I took action to fall back in love with teaching.
I Added More Play Into My Curriculum
My school uses the EL Education Language Arts Curriculum, which is filled with opportunities for play, but I hadn’t been consistently taking advantage of all of them. I began to leverage more of those opportunities, like the Literacy Labs, to expand on students’ natural curiosity and to get outside and to have fun, which truly was my main priority. In fact, I began to incorporate play into all kinds of elements of our curriculum. Learning target letters this week? Why not write them in white crayons and have students paint to reveal each letter as they find it on the sound card and practice its name and sound? Working on narrative story elements? Let’s make personal puppet theaters and use character puppets to reenact key details and sequenced events. Learning about the sun, moon, and stars? Let’s go on an adventure to the main office’s huge restroom, turn off all the lights (squeal really loud because it’s so fun to be in the dark), and then use flashlights to transform into the sun and have kids practice being the Earth to learn about night and day.
When my students look back on their elementary life, I don’t want them to remember masks and social distancing. I want them to remember a love of learning, adventuring, and the magic that is school. That desire started to fuel my “hope and zest” again, and we started to gain momentum. Most importantly, we started having fun together.
I Added More Unstructured Play to Our Day
To support my own mental health and, of course, my students’, we start each day with play. With so much isolation from peers over the last two years, the chance to connect and develop interpersonal relationships is paramount to human success and, of course, success in learning in the classroom. During unstructured morning play, students get to talk and imagine with their friends, and I get to check in with every child to get a gauge of where their heart and minds are each day. We then have crew (a meeting structure like morning meeting) to really focus on building relationships and social-emotional skills through the lens of play. Every day is started with a play-based team challenge or art project, a silly greeting, and a read-aloud.
Leveraging play and fun has given me life again, increased my stamina, and better supported my students. It has also allowed me to take the pressure off. Yes, all students need to learn to read and do math, but they also need mental health and SEL support. They need connection and they need me. My job is not, and has never been, to drill and kill concepts into their minds for the sake of “rigor”; rather, it is to build on curiosity and how humans learn and to support students with what they need to grow and learn, especially in the middle of a pandemic.
My advice to all teachers is to trust yourself. You know what your kids need best. You are smart and capable. Don’t march through a curriculum because you think you have to. Use it as a guide for your standards and targets, but then get as creative as you can. Have fun. We all need that more than anything right now.
Ann Stiltner has been a certified special education teacher for over 20 years working in public high schools in Connecticut. She writes the blog from Room A212 (annstiltner.com/blog) and tweets @fromrooma212:
I came back from winter break to a classroom of two students. Now, suffice it to say, I am a special education teacher, so my class sizes are already small. But I was supposed to have six students. Throughout the day, I averaged about 50 percent of my high school students in class.
Like in many schools, we have recently struggled with teacher absences, a lack of substitutes, and a dearth of bus drivers. But what I find gets little coverage is the lack of students in our classrooms, whether because of their own illnesses, the need to support their families, or fears of getting sick. Add this to our struggles before winter break—a wave of threats of violence on social media and an increase in physical fights—and you have a recipe for chaos, confusion, and unpredictability that would stress out even the most laid-back person.
I have followed all the “self-care” advice. I am getting fresh air and exercise. It helps a little, but our current times are challenging the basic, tried-and-true advice. At the same time, I am trying to use time in the classroom for learning, balancing the pace of my instruction so students who are out don’t get too far behind with no way to catch up. With so many competing needs and such unique times, teachers have to start at the beginning to maintain their morale. So, I am making it up as I go along. Here is what I have been doing to sustain my morale and the morale of my students.
The most helpful approach for me has been to be very aware of my mindset and my stress level in real time. I observe my thoughts, actions, and self-talk through this lens. I don’t think ahead but stay grounded in the present. Recently, I snapped at some students in the hall and I quickly, in the moment, observed the tone of my voice and my reaction, and it was a wake-up call. It was not the voice I normally use and it signaled to me that I needed to take a deep breath and be aware of the pressure and stress I was experiencing from the recent disruptions in our schedule. I listen to this internal voice surveying my self-talk for any hints of negativity that need to be addressed and unpacked.
Another key to ensure some hint of positivity is to surround myself with supportive people. My colleagues reassure and refresh me. Just a few minutes of talking and checking in with these educators rejuvenates me. I am also limiting my use of social media and other types of media—print, radio, and television. Finally, it is just not possible to teach as I used to. Flexibility is key! I think this is a major oversight of many of our leaders at the district, state, and federal levels. We are being forced into a new reality that cannot be maintained based on the old structures, expectations, and systems. We are living a new normal that requires innovation, flexibility, and creativity.
The more calm and centered I am, the better it is for my students. High school students are proud and protective of their families and often will not share what is going on. The grace I give myself is the same grace I need to give them. I rely on the rapport and relationships I have created with them before break to motivate them and maintain some momentum in learning. Lesson objectives are made clear and explicit with time for explanation and review, review, review. I give more time for conversation and discussion. Lastly, I let students know how thankful I am to have time with them in a physical classroom. I luxuriate in this time and I soak up the energy of being surrounded with them in person. I feel grateful for this time, remembering how much I missed this feeling last year during virtual learning.
In closing, I am reminded of the Brené Brown quote: “Sometimes the bravest and most important thing you can do is just show up.” I feel there’s no better time for this advice than now—for myself, my fellow educators, and our leaders alike.
‘We Have to Get Back Into Our Routines’
Jennifer Orr is a national board certified elementary school who has taught for more than two decades in the suburbs of Washington:
I was in the unenviable position, two days before our winter break, of testing positive for COVID. As a result, my 3rd graders and I didn’t get to wrap up 2021 in any meaningful way. To add to the out-of-control feelings, our first week back in 2022 was all snow days. So we’ve been out now for more than three weeks. Coming back after a break that long, whether planned or not, is a challenge for me and for my students. We have to get back into our routines and reestablish our community.
Through the fall months of 2021, COVID was constantly a specter in the room. It impacted everything we did, but we were learning to navigate that reality. In our area, a suburb of Washington, we have high vaccination rates and strong mask wearing. So our cases, across the region, in the fall were fairly low. That allowed us to ease up at school. We worked with partners and in small groups. We had flexible seating and lots of movement in our days. We played math games and did science experiments. Masking and distancing during meals and snacks were the most notable ways we were impacted by COVID.
Omicron has changed that. We’re going to feel its impact much more significantly. We’re going to have to make noticeable changes in the way we do school for a while. My goal is to find ways to make those changes, to keep my students as safe as possible, without it feeling cumbersome to them. I want to carry the weight of it and keep school as much as it was as possible.
I’ve ordered multilayer kids’ masks for my students. The masks they, and I, have been wearing are not going to cut it for Omicron. So I can take care of that and offer them safer, rainbow-colored masks.
We’ll return to assigned seats for a while. At the start of the year, we did so, and they stayed in those seats for several weeks. I don’t think that will fly with them after having flexible seating for some time now. So I’ll take on the burden of creating pods of kids for use in our classroom and at lunch and changing them every week. I’ll get their input on who they want to sit with to honor, as much as possible, their wishes.
I’m going to rethink our academics some. As I’m restricting choice in our space, I want to compensate by offering more choice in their work. We’ll turn our social studies units into inquiry and research on questions of their choice about each of the ancient civilizations we study. I’m searching out math games, both with partners and independently, for students to decide how they want to practice the multiplication and division skills that are up next for us.
My students are young and have had minimal time in school that wasn’t impacted by COVID. My goal is to offer them as much of what school can be, academically, socially, and emotionally, while keeping them as physically safe as possible.
Erick Espin is a 12th-grade history teacher at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) in New York City:
I thought last year was the hardest of my career. One-third of students attended school in person and the rest attended via Zoom. Pandemic learning further highlighted the inequities embedded in our system, and my students faced the disproportionate impact of COVID. Throughout last year, I often felt like I had lost my favorite part of teaching and it was replaced with a camera-off, chat-less void of Zoom—few faces, little human connection, and low joy.
After such a hard year last year, I started this year with hope. The first week of school I kept telling my students I was so happy to see them. The mask couldn’t hide my smiles. I naively thought now that we were in person with an increased emphasis on social-emotional learning and mental health, it would be a smooth transition back to “real” school. Once we worked through the initial few weeks, we would all be reacclimated to the world we missed last year and were lucky to have back.
By the end of October, I knew I was very wrong. The stress of the situation continued to bear down on me. Each day at work, I came to understand the deeper and continual impact of 18 months of pandemic survival. Each night at home, feelings of inadequacy and failure consumed my thoughts. My mind replayed my students’ constant phone use and talking out of turn, my long-winded “mini-lessons,” delayed teacher feedback, tech-heavy lesson plans, and tone-deaf expectations. I knew it was time for some changes.
My most important adjustment has been increased communication. My struggle with good communication lies in what it requires: patience, listening, understanding, and honesty.
However, the communication with my CREW of 15 students four mornings a week has been such a lifeline this year. (CREW is a daily meeting structure similar to advisory.) I’m so grateful for such an open group of students who volunteer their feelings, are respectful of the entire group, and recognize how the group can better serve them and their own needs. Their willingness to laugh, be vulnerable, and give and receive constructive criticism has been invaluable. These intimate conversations with my CREW motivated additional conversations with each of my classes. Those class conversations have improved all aspects of my instruction, including note-catchers, assessments, and lesson design.
Additionally, at the suggestion of the grade-level team, my colleague Jared Fox and I have led cogenerative (cogen) discussions with a small group of students. The en vogue educational lingo aside, at its core, cogen is simply talking with your students as partners. The conversations are grounded in respectful listening as stakeholders with a shared purpose. This dialogue has strengthened my understanding of student experiences, perspectives on the school year, and how teachers can better respond to current challenges.
Feeling like a valued partner can be rare for students. School, like many things compulsory, can suffer from a lack of personal investment and commitment, compounded during the pandemic by feelings of no control, low motivation, and little purpose. To counter this, I increased opportunities for student reflection and ownership of learning.
In December, I brainstormed “GŌL” (Guiding your Own Learning) plans and reflections. The GŌL plan begins with a preview of the week of lessons. Students then determine their priority learning target, explain why that was their priority, and, most importantly, share a goal for a particular HOWL (Habit of Work and Learning), addressing things such as participation, planning, and organization. At the end of the week, students reread their GŌL plan to remind them of their priorities and goals. They then complete a GŌL reflection, evaluate their progress, and use it to establish priorities and goals for the following week.
I’ve reflected plenty this year and recognize the key to showing up better for my students and colleagues is granting myself some grace. I have too much respect for this profession to ever forget how difficult it is to do it well. The struggles are indicative of constantly pushing to improve. This is not a normal year, and it is unhealthy for me to have normal expectations. It doesn’t mean I have no expectations, but I need to temper them. Those cogenerative dialogues, GŌL plans, and increased student-reflection time are all great and may not change much this year. I need to trust that I am doing my best. Gwendolyn Brooks said, “Even if you are not ready for day, it cannot always be night,” and I need to grant the grace for my students, colleagues, and myself to persevere through this present challenge and be prepared for tomorrow.
Thanks to Annie, Ann, Jennifer, and Erik for contributing their thoughts!
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