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Challenge: Back to School 2020

A step-by-step guide to make distance learning better next week

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The First Week

There’s no harder week for a teacher than the first week of school. It requires the work and force akin to a birthing process. During a regular school year it’s exhausting, but this year is far from normal, and exhausting doesn’t even scratch the surface this time around. There’s no doubt parents are feeling this exhaustion too in their new roles at home.

This year I am teaching both in-person and remote students from my school. Due to this global pandemic, every step of the school day is different than it’s been over the last 15 years I’ve been a teacher. New protocols, new safety measures, new parent expectations, new masks, new temperature checks, new Zoom calls, and new anxiety. And the anxiety is not just my own, it’s collective. It’s my fellow teachers, the parents, the kids, the community, and the world.

On the morning of the first day of school, smoke from the devastating West Coast wildfires rolled into our city. On top of all the anxiety-provoking newness, kids, teachers and parents couldn’t go outside to take a breath of fresh air all week. And if there was ever a week to take a deep breath, it was this one. It’s an understatement to say the circumstances were overwhelming. The pressure was immense, and mounted with each new challenge.

That’s when the yelling started. Adults started yelling. Nice adults, people who are not by nature mean or loud, were yelling at each other.

Yelling happens when we’re pushed beyond our limits. It’s a twig snapping when it can’t possibly take one more ounce of pressure. Many of us - teachers, parents, and parents trying to be teachers - have reached the snapping point. Demands are superseding our ability to execute, and pretty much everything is out of our control. And that’s when we yell.

To be truthful, I yelled too, mostly at my sons for not having their lunches made on time before school. I was yelled at, too. I was made to feel like my best was not good enough.

I know that this happens to the best of us. So far, the remote learning experience has been a rapid-fire of firsts, and this newness is leading to questions that seem unanswerable:

  • Do the kids ACTUALLY have to sit on a Zoom call for three full hours in a row?
  • What if my kindergartener won’t sit down for the whole lesson, will he be marked absent like they said?
  • How do I get my child with ADHD to sit and work independently?
  • What is more important, my child’s education or the 15 work emails that are waiting to be answered?

Each question leads to another set of question marks. The burden of the task at hand is overpowering and, honestly, kind of devastating. Teachers want to educate kids in their classrooms, not from Zoom; parents want teachers to do their jobs well; and kids just want their regular lives back.

In this messy and complicated new reality, how can we do better?

The Second Week

One of the greatest blessings of the teaching profession is that when it goes off the rails, we always have the next day or the next week to course correct and do better. Though that metaphor isn’t quite right for this first week of school; it was more like we were still laying down the rails as the train was barreling toward us.

Hopefully, last week you were able to lay enough track to continue the journey, but if not, if you’re looking down the line overwhelmed and frozen in place, below are actionable steps you can take to make next week a new and better experience.

1. Acceptance

Demands are higher than our ability to execute. It’s that simple. We are overloaded by being our child’s primary caregiver, full-time teacher, and financial provider. These demands, for the most part, are out of our control. Fully accepting that puts the scope of the project into perspective. Accepting and acknowledging that you are being called to seemingly impossible measures gives you permission to see the circumstances for what they are, rather than being beaten down by the onslaught of demands.

2. Seek Balance for Your Child

Continue to see your child as a whole person, with social, emotional, academic, and physical needs. If their day calls for three hours of Zoom, build in three hours to counter that mentally- and physically-restraining burden. Being at school is very different from Zoom-school. Zoom depletes kids and can lead to melt downs (read more about Zoom fatigue here). Whenever possible, bring learning outdoors and provide hands-on projects for kids to engage away from their screens.

3. See Teachers as Human Beings

Teachers are laying down their own track right along with you, most likely spending their weekends trying to figure it out. No matter what their level of experience, they have not gone down this line yet, and they are forging the way for your kids. Be kind and give them a friendly wave and smile as they shoulder this enormous task for all of our children. Work as their partner rather than a critic.

4. Review the Trouble Spots

What went wrong last week? Where did the day become difficult? Troubleshoot different ways of approaching last week’s challenges.

Was transitioning into the school day harrowing? Consider creating a morning routine to help kids mentally prepare for a day of learning at home (Morning Routines).

Was it hard for your child to stay focused on Zoom calls? Consider giving them a doodle pad and scheduling in regular breaks (preferably outdoors).

If last week felt like one big overwhelming fail, pay attention to the details this week and see if you can pinpoint the challenges and generate solutions as you go. Don’t feel bad if you don’t have all the answers yet, you will figure out what works as you go.

5. Look for the Good

Gratitude shifts the mindset. Write down five things you are grateful for in this situation. You can start with knowing millions of parents are working on these same problems right along with you. Teachers that care, kids that wear cool jammies to the Zoom calls, the hilarious observations children make when they hold space together, they can all warm your heart as you listen from the next room.

This year will give you access to the hearts and minds of kids learning right alongside your own. You will see that the growth is astounding, and you’ll catch a glimpse of what we get to see as teachers. We are not dealing with ideal circumstances, but there is a lot of good here. Let yourself be filled by the wonder of children and the magic of learning.

6. Stop Yelling

This one is hard. We are maxed out. But yelling only leads to more yelling; it doesn’t fix the problem, it just lets the pressure out. Find better ways to communicate. Find better ways to let out your steam. Be gentle and kind - gentler and kinder than you have ever been. If you are frustrated, take a moment to breathe. Then, write down what is frustrating you and look for positive ways to troubleshoot. Our collective anxiety is not helping our children, and neither is our yelling. Put love and kindness out into the world and you will receive it back.

The Takeaway

  • The first week of school is hard, even in a normal year.
  • For parents, the remote learning experience has been a rapid-fire of firsts that lead to many unanswerable questions. Laying down new tracks of learning for your child is hard but important work that comes at the beginning of every school year.
  • In order to make next week better, practice acceptance, seek balance for your child, discover and troubleshoot challenge points in the day, and look for the good in distance learning.
  • Yelling is a by-product of too much stress. Try to break the cycle of yelling by shifting to a mindset of gratitude. Be kind and gentle in your communications with kids and teachers.
“Raise your words, not voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder." - Rumi


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