I think of the months we spent from March of 2020 to May/June of 2021 as a 20-month school year that began in August of 2019.
Educators spent that time emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted. We gave everything and then gave a little bit more. Pandemic teaching and learning meant surviving. Pandemic anything took everything we had. We survived by using our instincts as teachers to plan and to power through. We were busy and didn’t have to stop to realize what we were feeling. To realize that maybe everything wasn’t actually okay. We weren’t okay. Our students weren’t okay. And yet, some days we were. Other days we didn’t even know. And on the worst days, we forgot to ask and wanted to numb ourselves with a Netflix binge.
After what I hope was a summer spent intentionally healing from the trauma and stress that we experienced, we’re preparing to begin the next school year. Maybe the masks are gone. Maybe they’re not. Maybe everyone is vaccinated. Maybe we’re not. Maybe we’re full in-person. Maybe we’re not.
Despite all the maybes, this truth remains: We’re not the same. Our students aren’t the same. We’re both grateful for a return to a sense of normal, but hesitant at the same time. I don’t want to perform my back-to-school song and dance ritual like I always have. A new outfit and a new pair of shoes won’t energize me like in previous Augusts. After a year spent wearing scrubs and jeans, I forgot I even owned most of my teacher clothes. I don’t know if I like them anymore or if they even fit, but it feels like StitchFix chose me for a teacher wardrobe makeover. I’m grateful to be irritated by the old August familiars: alarm clocks, packing lunches, and in-person staff meetings. I don’t want to be asked: How was your summer? Or pretend to listen when someone tells me about theirs.
What I do want is to be asked how I am and for the person asking to listen to my story of survival. The cringe my face makes when it hears the Microsoft Teams or Zoom ding. The 12 COVID PCR tests I took to keep myself, my students, and my family safe. The bunny-like nose wrinkle I made when I got to take a mask break. The celebrations of OG Purel instead of the slimey hand sanitizers made at distilleries. I don’t want my experience of pandemic teaching and learning to be dismissed nor do I want it to imprison me. But I don’t want to just move forward as though nothing happened. I want to create space to feel and for others to create that space for me. As Edith Eger writes in her books The Choice and The Gift, when we are occupied with survival the feelings come later, but “you can’t heal what you can’t feel.”
We did it. We survived the hardest, craziest school years of our careers. We’re okay, and we’re also not okay. We are as my students say, “in the feels.” As we heal and transition from survival to thriving, we must continue to create spaces to talk about being okay or not okay … to tell our stories. This is the essential work of education, not what we do when there is extra time after we meet all the standards. Want proof? Look back on what you prioritized during pandemic teaching and learning. As educators, we made being human our number one priority. We focused on making sure our students were seen and heard before we worried about a lesson plan. And guess what? They learned. Maybe more than ever before because we saw them; we heard them; and we let them see and hear us. In doing so, we collaboratively create space for gratitude and grief, for hope and healing, and for celebration and compassion.
Here are a few strategies to create opportunities for students to feel seen and heard in your classroom. I work primarily with high school students, but all of the strategies below can be modified to use with any age group:
1. “Both/And” statements
This strategy allows us to embrace the paradoxes we’re living in without having to succumb to toxic positivity. It works by creating statements that include BOTH something you’re grateful for AND a challenge you’re facing.
Basically, you follow this equation to create the statement:
- I am BOTH thankful that the snow brought moisture AND tired of shoveling.
- I am BOTH grateful to get to see my students in person AND frustrated with having to wear a mask all day.
- I am BOTH happy to see signs of returning to normal AND not wanting to get used to yet another schedule this year.
This strategy works well as a whip-around with students or as a quick write to begin class. Look to resources like the Greater Good Science Center out of UC Berkely or Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast to see this strategy modeled.
2. Internal Weather
This popular Social Emotional Learning, SEL, strategy offers a fairly risk-free way for students to communicate how they’re feeling. Much like viewing a weather forecast on your local news station, class members share their internal weather. You can choose to just have students share the weather or explain their choice.
I prefer to have students complete it as a check-in assignment using a Google Form. In the form, I give students the ability to select from a preset menu of “weather types,” but they also have the ability to submit their own weather. By using a form, like this one, I’m able to get a quick sense of the room and to identify students with who I need to follow up with one-on-one. I also make a point of sharing my internal weather with the students … sometimes as part of the form or as part of the class debrief.
3. Mood Meter
The Mood Meter stems from Marc Brackett’s work at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, which features the RULER method and was recently published in Brackett’s 2019 book “Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive.” Learn more about Brackett and his work by clicking here.
RULER, as stated on the website, “is an acronym for the five skills of emotional intelligence: Recognizing emotions in oneself and others; Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions; Labeling emotions with a nuanced vocabulary; Expressing emotions in accordance with cultural norms and social context; Regulating emotions with helpful strategies.”
Essential to RULER is developing a vocabulary for emotions, which Bracket and his team share in a powerful visual, which can be found here. While the classroom implications are endless, simply adding emotional vocabulary to your interactions with students or colleagues can help move the conversation past just “okay” or “not okay.” The MoodMeter App is a great place to start for your own well-being as a teacher.
Finally, this additional popular SEL strategy pairs well with spring themes. In Rose-Bud-Thorn, students employ all parts of the rose as a metaphor. Step-by-step instructions for this strategy along with a printable PDF are available from Mindful Schools. While the strategy can be used as a formative assessment at the end of a lesson, it can also be used as a well-being check-in.
Students reflect on all three elements: rose, bud, and thorn.
- The rose represents a success or celebration.
- The thorn equals a challenge or an area in which the student needs more support.
- The bud represents possibility, perhaps something the student is looking forward to.
May your students be seen and heard this school year. May you be seen and heard. May you celebrate, thrive, and experience joy.
Writing and ELA
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