Finding ways to help children feel seen and heard during times of trauma is one of the most daunting aspects of any teacher’s job description. Educators are not only charged with sculpting young minds — we’re also obliged to protect them. Making sure children feel comforted and encouraged is our first priority, but helping others when we’re also feeling overwhelmed and scared is hard to do.
Here are five simple strategies that can help you “keep calm and teach on” during the outbreak.
#1. Put on your own oxygen mask.
Though it feels counterproductive, taking care of yourself is actually the most important thing you can do for your students. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Giving kids something you haven’t got is impossible. If you want to help your students find peace of mind, you must first find our own. Whether you brew an early cup of coffee or hang to the feathers a little longer, you must do whatever you can to recharge. You cannot be “good” for someone else until you clear all those voices in your head telling you, “I can’t do this. I won’t get through this. This will not be the same.” The truth is, you can do this. You will get through this. And no, life will not be the same, but it’s not over. So, take a pause and think about how you want to speak, think, and act with your students before you connect with them.
#2. Help them find a new normal.
One of the hardest parts of living through any tragedy is wanting things to “go back to normal.” What do people do when they can’t go back to the way things were before? They feel sad and ruminate on all the ways the present doesn’t measure up to the past. You need to let students know that it’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to miss going to school and seeing their friends, playing sports, and participating in extracurricular activities. Living without their peers around will surely be different, but it doesn’t have to be an alternate universe. Help them establish a sense of routine. Work with them to create a schedule for their day. Consider all of the best elements of your interaction in school (finding time to talk, sharing a snack, complimenting each other) and make sure you keep having those same interactions. Send regular emails. Schedule video conferences. Touch base any way you can so that your students can see school is still in session.
#3. Keep things simple.
Remember that life has come to a screeching halt. Whether students are suffering, know someone who is suffering, or being informed of others suffering, they are living through a traumatic event. When people experience trauma it alters their brain function. Changes occur in three different areas: the prefrontal cortex (PFC), known as the “Thinking Center,” the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), or the “Emotion Regulation Center,” and the amygdala, known as the “Fear Center.” In layman’s terms, during trauma our ability to think, feel, and process our thoughts and feelings is drastically impaired. Whatever you teach, you must break it down into simple steps. Help students access the material in ways that allow them to focus on the task at hand. This may mean slowing the pace, breaking work into more manageable chunks, scrapping your plans, and/or simply being more empathetic when a student says, “I can’t do this right now.” When you respond with, “Okay, let’s do this together,” life, and learning, gets easier.
#4 Be available.
Another drawback to distance learning is, of course, the distance. For most students, learning from home isn’t as easy as raising one’s hand and being called on. Teachers can’t pop up to the board to write down a definition or work out a difficult theorem for the class. Giving students a variety of ways to reach out is absolutely essential. Keeping lifelines open helps them feel like they can and will receive help. This doesn’t mean you need to be virtually available around the clock. Remember Rule #1! Burning the candle at both ends helps no one. But, you can try to keep to the same hours as your normal school day (if at all possible) and man the control center. Keep checking email. Schedule office hours online when the majority of your students are likely to be doing their work and keep these hours the same. This allows students to know exactly when they can get instant, uninterrupted access to you. Also, do your best to respond as quickly as you can. The hardest part of remote learning, whatever side of the desk you’re on, is waiting to hear back. Don’t keep them waiting.
#5) Talk with their parents.
Being an effective remote educator isn’t simply about communicating with your students in ways that make them feel seen and heard. It’s also about communicating with parents in ways that make them feel understood and supported. Current education research shows that the number one determining factor in a child’s academic success is parent involvement. This is true now more than ever. If you want your students to have a positive experience with distance learning, you must make contact with their parents. Yes, we’re living in both a digital age and a time of contagion, so direct, face-to-face contact is understandably out of the question. Still, there are a plethora of ways teachers can let parents know what they’re doing, when they’re doing it, and how to reach them. If you send an email, mail a letter, or leave a message and hear nothing back, keep trying. This isn’t Hogwarts and owls are probably out of work as well, but do whatever you need to do to let parents know you want to keep the magic alive for their kids.
At the end of the virtual school day, there is no feeling more rewarding than the feeling of connection. You will experience technical problems. Some of your messages may get lost in cyberspace or translation. Your work attire may have taken a serious step back, but you will be well on your way to moving forward with your students. And, really, moving on together is all that matters right now.