While timelines and transition plans vary, most schools are looking ahead to reopening buildings with the hope of returning to business as usual. Even though returning from breaks has long been part of the typical cycle of school, this return will be vastly different for teachers, students, and families.
Anticipation runs the gamut. Some predict it will be a relatively easy transition, with plans to jump right back into the school routine as if nothing ever happened. Others are bracing for a challenging adjustment, believing that nothing will ever be the same again.
We envision that it will likely include experiences from both ends of the spectrum, and we are choosing to embrace the upcoming transition with an air of optimism. As we prepare to welcome students back to brick and mortar classrooms, we can pool our most creative thinking, learn together, and move forward with a celebratory and strong spirit.
Take Time to Listen, Learn, and Lead
It would be incredibly naïve to think that the time spent in quarantine and the disruption to school as we once knew it has impacted every teacher and student in the same way. For some, this experience offered a rejuvenating sense of independence, yet for others it may have been a significantly painful and difficult time. While we understand the pressure to get education back on track, we think it is vitally important to create time for students and teachers to reflect on their experiences during remote learning and listen to the various lessons learned by individuals.
Reflective questions for students and staff to guide conversations:
What have I learned about myself and how I best learn/teach?
What have been my favorite remote learning/teaching experiences?
What has surprised me the most about myself as a student/teacher?
How have I used my voice when learning/teaching from home?
What did I take for granted in school that was no longer available while learning/teaching from home?
What am I going to do differently as a student/teacher when I return to school?
There is no doubt that remote learning has brought out the best in some individuals and was incredibly challenging for others. Students who crave independence, set goals for themselves, are responsible learners, and have no fear of technology may have flourished during this experience.
These students could find it challenging to return to the daily routine of the typical school setting with rigid structures and scheduled bells that signal the time to change classes, eat, and even use the bathroom! On the other hand, students who lack self-motivation and need consistent guidance are perhaps eager to return to the routines of school. While these students may be enthusiastic about returning, they could bring with them a decreased sense of self-worth as a result of their struggles with online learning.
Another factor to consider is the social impact of this extended time of remote learning. Students who experience social anxiety in the classroom setting may be thriving with the opportunity to isolate and hide behind the computer. For others, engaging with their peers at school is critical to their overall mental health and they deeply miss socialising in person with their friends.
It is important to recognise that students of all learning styles and personalities may struggle, at various times and with various aspects, as they transition back to in-person classrooms. Teachers need to be prepared to practice additional patience and flexibility as they re-establish - with students’ input - expectations as a classroom of learners. They need to be ready to guide students through understanding the social and educational implications of this transition.
Using the questions above as a starting point, discuss with students how to best lead the way forward in partnership with one another. What aspects of pre-COVID learning do you want to maintain? What experiences during COVID-19 will influence decisions about the best way to proceed from here? Teachers and students need to take time to understand each other and support one another with kindness as they approach this time of new beginnings, both in school and beyond.
As we reflect on the lessons learned and look to the future, we offer the following considerations for students, teachers and administrators preparing to celebrate and support their students in getting back to school.
Move Forward Together
While some opportunities were certainly lost with the onset of the pandemic, there are many positive elements to recognise from the past few months. Families have been connected in creative ways (board games have been dusted off and family dinner time has been revived). Heroes have stepped up in extraordinary ways to serve those in need.
The world has come together to fight this pandemic, and we have grown in our collective compassion and appreciation for life - which perhaps, at times, was previously taken for granted. Even during a time when it is best for us to be physically apart, we have learned that it is imperative to stay closely connected. Even as classrooms closed and education at home became the norm, we discovered that we all must take care of each other, in learning and in life.
This time in history will have a lasting impact on today’s students. It is important that they know how impactful their ideas and actions are now, and can be in the future.
Consider the following as you move forward with your students:
• Listen and Validate. Encourage students to share their disappointments, sadness, and fears over lost celebrations and uncertain transitions. For some, this may be easier to express in writing. However and whenever students choose to share, be an empathetic listener and validate their feelings. Really listen to, and learn from what students say.
• Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude. After validating disappointments and fears (an important step for students and adults alike), shift to a positive mindset. Work with students to make a list of what they are grateful for within their school community, what they are looking forward to for the remainder of the year, and what they will be most excited about when they return to their school campus.
• Hold a Community Impact Summit. Discuss with students how they have contributed to healing their communities in the midst of the current pandemic. Identify specific acts of kindness already taken and develop action plans for pursuing further practices of compassion. Together, commit to continuing efforts moving forward to positively impact our homes, schools, and local communities.
• Celebrate Accomplishments and Each Other. Throw a party (virtual if you are still quarantined) - a celebration that will remain a highlight in the memories of students from this unprecedented time in their lives. Celebrate all that was accomplished during remote learning, including progress made by students in your classes, the actions of local heroes in your community, and the beauty observed as people in countries across the world worked together to help one another heal. The most important part of the party is letting students know how truly proud you are of the role they played in navigating this historic time. Invite students to plan the celebration with you and challenge them to create unique ways to highlight successes they deem worthy of accolades.
It is imperative that we find ways to let students know how much we value them as individuals and as learners, and to let them know that we are there for them as they take the next steps forward. Consider the following as you celebrate and look ahead to the next stage of this shared learning journey:
• Create Classroom Hoopla. Turn the music up and fully engage in commemorating this time in the lives of students! Recognize specific areas in which students have grown, the challenges they have triumphed over, and the academic successes they have achieved. Make awards, create posters, or write a poem to meaningfully recognise successes.
• Encourage Students to Celebrate Others. Have students create end-of-quarter awards for their peers, teachers, and family members to show appreciation for their support during online learning. Support students in planning at-home parties for their parents as they complete the last leg of guiding (ok, surviving!) at-home learning.
Get Excited About the Future
After enduring weeks of at-home learning, many are focused on making it back to school and washing their hands (pun intended!) of being isolated at home. There is no doubt that students and adults will return to school with a newfound appreciation for one another.
Remember to leverage the positive aspects of the time spent apart as students and staff transition back into the school building. Our greatest partners in this process are the students themselves. Embrace the amazing voices of students and invite them to lead with you as everyone enters a new chapter of learning together. Students’ voices matter, and together we will not only survive, but thrive.
Listen to your students, learn from their experiences in recent months, and lead together for a more promising future. Let go of the idea that you will return to how things used to be. Instead, imagine a new vision of what things can look like as you reunite in your schools and classrooms. Your passion, commitment, and willingness to listen and learn from students will be contagious (in a good way!) for your students and colleagues.
If students and teachers intentionally share what they have learned during this time, about themselves as people and learners, and remain open to new practices moving forward, we can seize the opportunity to create a new normal that very well might be the best version of education yet.