Although the Covid-19 pandemic has not yet completely disappeared from the American landscape, its grip on the population is beginning to wane dramatically. Many areas of life are starting to reopen under enhanced guidelines. One such area is the reintroduction of in-person instruction at public schools across the United States. As we all venture into the “new normal” of life at the tail end of Covid-19, it will continue to be vital that we remain vigilant for signs of re-emerging infection and/or the anxiety that naturally arises at this point with any live person-to-person contact. One profession which is being placed at the spearhead of this strategy is that of public school teachers and administrative personnel.
Given the fact that so many children have been affected either physically, emotionally or mentally by the pandemic, teachers and the administration will face the gargantuan task of being educators, role models and therapists for their students more than any other time in our history. And all of this will be occurring while they deal with their own anxieties, uncertainties and fears. In order to at least lower the internal strife felt by the brave educators of this Country, I have compiled a list of 5 tips to make the transition back into in-person instruction easier on the school staff and students alike.
1. Communication is key
As with most relationships, the bond formed between a student and a teacher is one built on trust. Children seem to have an inherent ability to see when adults are attempting to feed them bull crap. So don’t. Open and honest communication is the key to everyone in the classroom feeling comfortable, confident and equipped. Teachers should be encouraging rather than reassuring. Leave the “Everything will be fine” and the “There is no reason to be freaked out” talk at home. Be honest with your students, listen to their concerns, express empathy and understanding, and encourage a judgment-free dialog. By listening and honestly communicating, a team approach to education and safety will be much easier to establish.
2. Encourage acceptance and planning
Instead of teaching the children to avoid their feelings of anxiety, it is important that educators employ a gradual approach. No one has ever gotten stronger mentally or emotionally by running from their problems. As such, lead by example in accepting the risks posed as real, but explain that there are guidelines in place to protect everyone at the school. No amount of preparation may actually curb all of their anxieties, but at least the caring that you show will go a long way in fostering bravery among your students and fellow staff members alike.
3. Courage should be rewarded
Being brave or courageous is not about avoiding risk, nor is it about recklessly charging head first into a bad situation. Bravery can be defined as “knowing the inherent risks of an action, but doing it anyway because it is the right thing to do”. Whenever you see a student or another staff member performing an action that exemplifies courage or bravery, encourage them by rewarding them. It doesn’t matter if the prize is anything of intrinsic value, just being recognized for overcoming their fear is usually enough to keep an individual engaged in the process.
4. Be calm, honest and caring
This is where leading by example and being a role model can come into play. A gentle and calming presence lends to an atmosphere of gentle calmness. Children will garner their emotional cues largely from your ability to maintain an air of calm throughout the day. The time spent learning virtually has been difficult for students and teachers alike, but students have had the added pressure of being with parents or grandparents who were completely unprepared and ill-equipped to become their teacher by proxy. As such, they will undoubtedly be looking for a calm, familiar in-school experience. The better you are able to handle your own stress and anxiety, the better and more calm the students will be in your presence.
5. Maintain a self-care routine
An often overlooked aspect of being a good role model is the ability to maintain a strong self-care routine. It is impossible to be the caring, ever-present influence your students desire if you are not physically and emotionally healthy. Therefore, do not lower your self-care standards. Adjust the time you go to bed to ensure the proper amount of sleep; eat healthy meals; take an extra break if need be to gather and ground yourself during the day; and remind yourself that everyone is just doing the best that they can under the circumstances presented. Nobody is demanding you be perfect, so do not place that pressure on yourself.
We have all been students before. Try to remember what it was like being a 6, 9, 12 or 14 year old during the initial days of a new school year. For the returning students, coming back to in-person instruction will be quite similar to starting the grade over again…but with the additional stresses of everything appearing unfamiliar. Masks, socially distanced desks, sanitization stations – these are all completely new wrinkles added into their day. As different as it makes our day as educators, we are at least adults with life experiences from which to draw. The students are fully leaning on us to guide them through this new way of experiencing their daily lives.
Within these troublesome times, we will all undoubtedly come up against the very reason we entered the teaching profession: to make a real-world difference in the life of a child. This pandemic can be viewed as an amazing opportunity to fulfill our life’s mission. As educators and school administrators, we have been handed the keys to shape and mold the minds of the future. It should be our pleasure to do so with compassion, understanding, determination and hope.