For the past two weeks I’ve been preparing for tomorrow, the day that we officially “see” our students again. I came across the recent report by chalkbeat as New York students reflected on their first week of digital learning: “Siblings, cats, and other disruptions”. As these students settled into their new normal, they all remarked how they wanted to be in school and that nothing about the digital learning made up for the in-person connection. In an attempt to recreate that connection, I’ve noticed many using zoom, loom, microsoft teams, and any and all other platforms to connect, teach, and lead lives in as normal of a way as possible. This is not intended to start a pedagogical bout or to cast shame, but really a moment to consider the why, how, and “to what end” in this stream of digital platforms for the classroom. While wanting to maintain some sense of normalcy is indeed a noble cause, this is not the time to pretend that things have not changed. Our new normal isn’t normal, and here is why: we’re in crisis control mode.
The Crisis & Potential Relief
There’s something incredibly sinister about the intellectualization and commodification of pain, trauma, and grief, but yet business are at the helm, waiting to pounce. The consumer culture tells us that we must use this time– a “break”– to be productive, as pandemic is a lucrative business. Then, if we don’t, we’re inundated with the misconstrued belief that our worth is determined by our output (see the changing definition and value of “key worker”). We’re stuck in an endless cycle of resources, opportunists leading virtual workshops about how to use their digital tools to meet special education needs (though they’ve never mentioned them before), and the altruistic CEOs offering their services of “free trials” which is really just a way to take advantage of the panicked frenzy into which educators were just thrown. We don’t fully know the scope of what is coming, and for many, that fear, the fear of the uncontrollable nature of the virus, is palpable. In addition to the scientists, economists, and epidemiologists, however, we should turn to another trusted source to come to terms with the crisis before us: literature.
Albert Camus, author of The Plague, wrote the following: “There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise”. People have been here before. One of the most beautiful things about literature is its ability to transform that isolated and abstract fear and center it in that previous human experience. Maryanne Wolf describes this process as a literal “cortical hop” in which you, according to narrative theologian John S. Dunne, pass over into the feelings, imaginings, and thoughts of others through a particular kind of empathy. Reading can be this outlet for our students. While it is tempting to want to teach the current headlines in the name of relevance, or plow forward and pile on more knowledge, we should consider that students are constantly being bombarded by the 24 hours news cycle. We are already living in the crisis every second of every moment of every day; we do not need to be reminded in our classes as well.
Additionally, among this added pressure of fear, it is reasonable to say that this new experience has brought with it some trauma. While a trauma-informed approach might signal that “educators should let relationships be the focus”, we should not confuse this to necessarily mean a relationship outside of the content, better known as “I Teach Kids Not Content”. I would reframe this to say : I teach my students content. This is my job, and is what my students have come to trust me to do over the last year.
Doug Lemov writes that, “relationship building starts in the classroom with attentiveness to the craft of teaching and with attentiveness to the progress and experience of the learner. What happens inside the classroom is more profound than the outside the classroom efforts at connections that teachers may make”. I know about my students’ lives because they decide to tell me, not because I make them do an emotional check-in. I will provide them with routine by checking in and giving a brief overview of the day in a synchronous setting, I create an opportunity for hope by not overly dwelling on the woes and news of the present, and I continue to build relationships by capitalizing on the trust that I’ve earned over the last months as I do my best to teach and support them with their learning.
Perhaps, instead of trying to recreate school, we turn this make-shift classroom into a place where they can experience that cortical hop even if for only 20 focused minutes. This is a trauma-informed approach.
As teachers, we’re trained to be martyrs. We’re told to put ourselves in harm’s way, offer ourselves up as warriors that never falter, and bear the cross for our students. We shouldn’t sacrifice ourselves anyway, but we really can’t sacrifice ourselves now. The vast majority of us will not be at at our best, we will simply be ‘good enough’. If we continue to trying to create the more-ness of in-person classes, we will burn out. Our students need people that they trust to teach and support them.
In this time of the unknown, we have to rely on one another. On the strength and resiliency of the human spirit, on the belief that we are stronger together and have survived worse. And understand that even if we do go back to school buildings this year, there is no “going back” to before–we can only go forward. Let’s try to escape for a bit until we get there.
I’m on twitter.
- Read Part 1 of the Covid-19 Series here:
- A Trauma-Informed Approach to Teaching Through Coronavirus
- Doug Lemov’s Blog on Relationships
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So true. Research found, after Katrina, that offering (and encouraging) people to relive their trauma through extended grief counseling did not help and in fact led some people to obsess over their experiences in ways that paralyzed them.