Like countless teachers across the country, if someone had told me six months ago that overnight I would be asked to transition my classroom from in-person to virtual, I would have panicked. The reasons I love teaching, the reasons I look forward to showing up for class every morning, lay largely in the in-person experiences that cultivate the rich connections I share with my students and with my school community.
How would it be possible to hold time set aside specifically for students to exercise their own freedom of choice and explore different interests in small groups over the internet? How would I be able to tell if each child was engaged during our morning meeting story, and if they weren’t, adjust accordingly, if I couldn’t see their faces or read their body language? Would I be able to continue to effectively and positively impact the students I was tasked with teaching?
Now, over three months from the beginning of a pandemic that has turned the world we thought we knew upside down, the answer seems like an unequivocal yes. At Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton, we managed to pull off what I thought was impossible: creating a community that is somehow even more emotionally connected and engaged months into online distance learning than we were before.
Our transition to distance learning was not perfect, and it won’t be as we face off with what’s to come in the fall. We don’t have all the answers and we’re still making mistakes as we go, but this moment has opened my eyes to new kinds of lessons, ones that are different from those I usually teach and ones that will continue to help us navigate the constantly evolving landscape of education in the era of COVID-19. Here are three big takeaways as we prepare this summer for an uncertain fall:
Lesson 1: Embrace change head on.
We don’t jump into any immediate change because we know exactly what to do or because the change itself isn’t challenging; rather, we jump into change because we know we’ll never learn by waiting. During our switch to distance learning, we initiated a change before we had all the answers, a move that allowed us to navigate the experience together, work off one another and iterate and reiterate until we found what worked. We also had leadership that encouraged us to “fail forward” and lean into risk-taking rather than flee for the safety of more one-dimensional learning.
Within two days of leaving school due to COVID-19 concerns, we had fully transitioned to virtual learning. What was a period of sudden and immense uncertainty gradually transformed into a breeding ground for creative ideas. Students who were broken up into smaller groups used their free time to pick up musical instruments at home and make their own band. When students had been staring at their computer screens for too long and were losing focus, we all stood up, put on some music and had a dance party. Going through this time of confusion together created a space for innovation, for both students and faculty, to search for ways forward and make meaning out of the moment.
Lesson 2: Build community and sustain emotional connection.
Throughout this period of distance learning, we have also continued to build and strengthen our community. What were monthly events for students pre-COVID-19, such as Shabbat Shira, a spiritual and lively Shabbat program celebrated on the first Friday of every month, became exciting and grounding weekly occasions for entire families to share. Rather than canceling special graduation and end-of-year events for eighth- and third-graders, socially-distant ceremonies were held. Though students drove their cars down a red carpet instead of walked, the live music and sense of celebration remained the same. The ability to create structure and normalcy for students during a time filled with the opposite is crucial for stability and thriving.
Communication is also essential to this sense of community. From the first day of virtual school, our staff was communicating with one another, with parents and with students. Teachers and parents worked together to monitor students’ screen time and mental health. Both parents and school leaders continuously checked in on teachers, ensuring we had the tools necessary to show up for our students. If engaging students in the classroom is integral to educational success, so is engaging teachers. The constant flow of support and positive feedback between all levels of our school ecosystem created a deep emotional connection, a sense of trust within our community and a critical safety net during a moment of free-fall.
Lesson 3: Lead with your values.
Every child learns differently and every child deserves an education tailored to their needs in order to create the optimal conditions for learning and growing. By maintaining this philosophy throughout the period of distance learning, we were able to adapt our virtual curriculum to each student, resulting in near-perfect attendance and students genuinely excited to show up for Zoom class every day. From adjusting the size of breakout groups to offer more individual attention to scheduling virtual playdates to sending home notebooks so students could still enjoy art and journaling time, we were able to create an online learning environment that worked for everyone.
Tailoring education to students’ needs, however, also means understanding the impact of this unique moment in history on all of us. As COVID-19 continues to erupt in communities across our country, as people take to the streets to demand racial justice and equity, and as we all face a steep and difficult process of recovering and rebuilding, we find ourselves in a moment that is frightening and isolating for both children and adults. While we continue to work to push our children to meet academic benchmarks, especially as we make up for existing and projected learning loss, we must also create a space to process and resolve trauma, meeting our kids where they are, rather than where we wish they would be.
Centering children in their own experience, listening and being attuned to their needs and adjusting and reiterating when there is a lack of engagement or interest create the context for everyone in the community to grow and thrive. We won’t always know exactly what to do and we’ll need a lot of help along the way, but these three lessons form an essential framework for approaching distance learning this fall throughout this crisis and beyond.
Jessica Leary is a kindergarten teacher at Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston.