By Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder
Teachers have never faced a year like this, so no one has the answers. Schools experiment with schedules and plans, all the while knowing that they really have no idea what will happen in the long run. The one thing that holds true is that relationships matter now more than ever.
In the middle of this uncertainty and with all eyes on them, teachers face the school year with trepidation. While the unknown is always scary, teachers can start by accepting and knowing that learning will take place, even though it will look different (probably in many different ways at different times throughout the year).
Teachers can also embrace the one area they can have the most immediate and long lasting impact. The relationships you build and how you interact with those around you are two of the most important things teachers do each year. This year, that is going to prove even more true; relationships matter now more than ever.
While many unknowns exist and there are no expert teachers who know how to navigate a pandemic, here is what we do know about why relationships matter:
- Students look to teachers for guidance.
- Parents look to teachers for reassurance.
- Colleagues look to each other for support.
- The public looks to teachers to solve it all.
Students look to teachers for guidance
Students look to teachers to see how they react to situations. No matter how uncertain you feel internally, your outer actions will speak volumes to your students and help them with their own unease. A calm, steady speaking voice and easy movements will help put students at ease and send them the signal that things will be alright. Students will take their cue from you.
Set routines for students
We know that students are ready to be back in school. One reason, besides seeing their friends, is because they are ready for some kind of routine, no matter what it looks like. Schools give them a purpose. As teachers, you can help provide that routine and continuity. When teachers create a routine, that helps provide a needed comfort in crazy times.
That routine can begin in the first weeks as you develop what your classroom is going to be like, whether that is online or in person. It can start with greeting your students each day. The order you do something, the place students sit, the daily activity or ritual you do just in your class can all help build a routine. All of those things bring some continuity into an unsettled world.
Show students their worth
The other thing that students seek is acceptance and love. No matter what the circumstance you find your teaching life to be in, the fact remains the number one thing you can teach your students is their value and worth.
Content is great, and it will come, but the one thing they will always remember is how you made them feel. You can do this regardless of the teaching situation you find yourself in. When you don’t know anything else about the year, you know you can positively affect the students you come in contact with each day.
Building those relationships is key to setting the tone for the entire school year and creating lasting memories for both your students and you.
Parents turn to teachers for reassurance
Parents have been placed in the uneasy position of deciding whether to send their children back to school or put them online. They want what is best for their children and are scared about their decision. There are also many parents who, because of their work situation, have no choice but to send them to school. Those parents are also scared.
They are trusting the school, and that means you as a teacher, in ways they have not had to do before. Yes, that’s added pressure on you, the teacher. But remember, these are parents who are handing over their most beloved treasure in the world.
Good, old fashioned, common sense will go a long way in dealing with parents. Treat parents as you would want to be treated as a parent.
Build allies through good communication
You want parents as allies not enemies, and that starts early by building a relationship. This year parent communication is going to be even more important and most likely take more of your time than usual. The more transparent you can be, the better. You don’t have the answers, but you will do your very best to love and care for their children. You will do your best to keep them distanced and safe. That is what you can and should tell them.
Elementary teachers do a fantastic job communicating with parents, but parent communication often dies out in middle school and high school. While I am always a proponent of proactive actions with parents, I think this year more than ever, it is extremely important. You want to become a name they are familiar with and gain their trust early on.
As a high school teacher I often sent emails to parents at the beginning of the year introducing myself and my class, letting them know what to expect and how to contact me if they had questions. It was a short, friendly note to say I was excited to have their student in my class, and it helped set up a line of communication for the year.
During the year, I also sent occasional postcards or emails letting them know something good their student did, inviting them to parent-teacher conferences, or sharing an academic success or improvement. Those small acts of communication made phone calls about discipline or academic concerns go much smoother.
If you can establish a relationship and build trust early on, you will provide reassurance to the parent that you care about their child. When parents see you as a concerned educational partner in their child’s life, you will experience more cooperation and understanding. The trust you build now will pay off throughout the year.
Colleagues look to each other for support
You and your colleagues need each other this year more than ever. This year is going to be hard. That’s a fact that pretty much everyone agrees upon.
However, hard doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It just won’t look like the past years. Teachers are going to have to be open to trying new methods, be flexible in ways they didn’t even know they could bend; and be prepared for change at the drop of a hat.
Those inevitable changes may cause increased stress and anxiety for many teachers, especially the long range planners. Some teachers are ready to jump back in and embrace change as exciting. Others will drag their feet and dread the very idea of change. Some teachers will be worried about their health or bringing the virus home to vulnerable family members. Others will think wearing a mask is a ridiculous idea.
With so many variables, this year will require showing grace and support for colleagues on a much higher level than usual. Emotions will be simmering at the surface which can result in tears, frustration, and bursts of anger. Those relationships you build with colleagues are going to matter now more than ever.
Ways to show support
- Accept that not everyone is coming from the same place.
- Give your colleague the benefit of the doubt.
- Understand when a colleague needs alone time.
- Offer an ear when a colleague needs someone to talk to.
- Be kind and gentle with each other.
- Be willing to forgive slights or anger.
- Maintain your own needed boundaries.
Find your support system within your school. All the family support in the world, while awesome to have, cannot compare to the support from people who are going through the exact same experiences you are. Together, you can get through this!
The public expects schools to solve it all
While you are on the frontlines, dealing with the day to day minutiae of teaching your students, the public is looking to schools to solve it all. Schools have become the place that is supposed to solve the educational, social, emotional, and physical needs of students and families. This expectation expands beyond the school walls and beyond the school day. We hear it from our politicians. We also saw this as schools continued to supply food, medical attention, and counseling throughout the months schools were closed.
Those expectations come with financial and emotional expenses on schools and teachers. At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, you have to set boundaries. Now would be a good time to remember that your job is not to solve the problems created in our society, nor are you responsible for the economy.
Relationships matter, but as with all relationships, you need to set boundaries.
- Gently remind parents what your job is and when you will be available to them.
- Keep a healthy distance from unnecessary demands and stressors.
- Determine when and how you will communicate with others.
- Decide what extras you choose to do or choose not to do at all.
- Learn to say NO to things that aren’t good for you.
- Set realistic expectations for yourself.
- Make time for your own mental health and self-care.
Tune in the positivity
It’s time, dear friends, to tune out the negativity that you will hear in the media, in the grocery store, and in thoughtless posts and comments on social media.
Instead, it’s time to embrace what you can control and how you respond.
I used to refer to my classroom as my happy bubble. When I was in that space with my students, I could create a nurturing, positive, productive environment. And when I could block out all of the other nonsense and distractions, all was right with my world.
I challenge each of you to create a happy bubble for you and your students. This can be the oasis that soothes souls, ignites learning, motivates minds, and inspires students.
You can’t control much about this school year, but you do have some control of your immediate surroundings and the interactions you have with others. Here’s to making it a great year, no matter what gets thrown your way. Learning will happen, but relationships matter now more than ever.