As spring break comes to a close across much of the land, we all will be returning to schools and systems that are lifting the restrictions on COVID. While there is no question that the pandemic is still surrounding us in many ways, we begin to turn our minds to how do we rebuild as we move into the next phase and how do we begin to re-establish life and learning in the era to come. As I think about this, three things come to mind to help us along the way.
Focus on compassion
Brene’ Brown’s strong work on empathy often brings to mind her quote of “you’re not alone.” Empathy is about creating space, being present, showing that you care and making a connection. Compassion is often tied to empathy and compassion really is about empathy in action. What do you do after you connect with someone, how do you demonstrate your support and understanding? Connecting and caring are at the heart, but then come the hands. What are you going to do with the messages you have received?
Whether you are in education or not, as restrictions are lifted it is critical to live with the awareness that COVID has descended upon people in very different ways. For some, it was a massive disruptive inconvenience, blocking travel, nights out, and the ability to socialize as you once knew. For others, it created fear and uncertainty that put them into deep isolation from friends and family. That fear may have been rooted in immunocompromised loved ones, or in that innate desire to protect your children and family from an unknown and invisible threat. For others, it cost them the lives of family and/or friends. There has been a very high societal cost indeed.
As we enter the next phase, leading with compassion should be at the heart of all that we do. Act with care, courage and commitment as you wrap our figurative arms around children in schools and nurture them to connecting and learning in ways we once knew.
Rebuild Social Connections Slowly
If leading with compassion is a starting place, then the actions we take must include careful consideration of how we rebuild the social bonds between the adults with whom we work. When you consider how the pandemic has descended upon society in inequitable ways, lines have been drawn between people. These lines in the sand put on display people’s differing values and levels of comfort on everything from masks and vaccines to social distancing, handshaking, hugging and simply gathering. These values in many cases will be very strongly held and people will have deep and lasting beliefs between what they see as right and wrong.
Schools and workplaces are organisms not mechanisms. They thrive on not only the common purposes and values but on the social connections and interactions that make up a health workplace culture. Those social connections, unless they are purely virtual, rely on meeting people and engaging in
dialogue. Small talk matters. The things that unfold in the small quite seams and edges of meetings are important. Saying “hi” taking time to ask about someone with small talk is part of building who we are.
As we begin to bring people together, these meetings and social opportunities need to unfold with care and compassion for where people are in their individual and family comfort. Shaking someone’s hand is no longer about social etiquette, it’s now about considering if someone wishes to shake your hand, and that may depend upon something as important as their commitment to their immunocompromised parent or child that they are caring for at home. We now need to be more aware of the consequences of and reaction to what once were seen as simple social graces. More than ever, we need to meet people where they are and we have no way to know the COVID journey they have or will continue to travel. Slowly and steadily, we will get there, but throwing the usual staff function certainly won’t unfold as it did in 2019.
Focus on Equity
In education, we often talk about raising the bar and closing the gap. The “gap” referred to is the difference between the “average” learner and those in specific demographics who are not achieving at the same level. As a core educational value, this means that we need to focus on those who need the most support and structure learning considering their needs. What we know from long standing research is that when we meet the needs of those who require additional supports, the learning improves for all children. What’s good for those in highest need, is good for all children. The gap narrows, and the bar for all goes up. This philosophy is at the heart of our eternal work. Then along came COVID.
Schools are so much more than academic. They are social structures that are the fabric of society. We want our schools to be places of safety, care, compassion, where we wrap around children and support them in so many ways. We are counsellors, guides, a kind, listening ear, someone to point the way. This is not “just” teachers, this is anyone who works in schools. From the clerical person who gets a Band-Aid for a wounded knee to the caretaker/custodian who talks to kids in the halls, to the teacher-librarian who finds a book just for you. Most of our schools employ well over 50 adults and some close to 200. They are all there for the children. When schools moved to remote learning for all children, those wrap around supports were, in many ways, completely dismantled.
Some students went to home learning with ample technology, strong WiFi, adequate tech skills, adults available to be in the home and to support, resources for food, online registrations for courses from elsewhere as a supplement, additional learning software and more. Their learning included an adult at their side, food on the table, and access to the learning as provided in addition to regular and ongoing contact with teachers for clarity and additional support. For others, this was not the case.
School districts loaned out hardware, delivered food, gave out WiFi connections and created virtual teaching opportunities, all in attempts to level the playing field. Regardless, we know that supports were very uneven. For many families, particularly those in poverty where both parents are already working sometimes multiple jobs (if the pandemic allowed) to make ends meet, the same levels of support were not there. Hardware was limited, technology skills were diverse, WiFi may have been minimal, and in some cases, technology and bandwidth was needed for parents to do their job which was now remote. In many homes as well, parents either do not speak, or have limited English which would enable them to videoconference with the teacher about this week’s lessons and to advocate for their child’s needs. To the fault of no one, when you remove the incredible array of supports and access that a brick and mortar school provides, there is a massive impact on learning.
The gap has widened and now it’s our moral obligation to get back to the key work at hand, focusing on those most in need. All students took a hit when we moved online, but those who needed it most, have taken the biggest hit. If there ever was a need to focus on equity for all learners, that need is now.
Compassion, Connection, and Equity
When the spring break curtain lifts on the pandemic and we enter into the next phase, our schools will see fewer restrictions and many of the activities that we deeply missed will be largely back in full swing. As we do this, we’ll see celebrations, gatherings, reconnections, and the close and intense support structures that we once knew put back into place. Schools will begin to look as they once did.
Behind that curtain are deep needs. Needs that existed pre-pandemic but have grown more intense as a result of the pandemic. These needs require an intense focus as we begin to rebuild. People will need compassion to understand their story, to heal and to move forward with not only their own comfort, but with their comfort in the regular social routines in schools. Most importantly, our eternal moral purpose, to enhance the life chances for every child has never been more important. Those who have been most profoundly impacted by the pandemic need us more than ever and we will be there.
As we re-gather, and reconnect, let’s hope that our renewed focus on equity can take us not only back to where we were, but to a brighter future in the years ahead where we can look back at what we accomplished through one of the most disruptive eras of our lives.