Matthew X. Joseph Ed. D.
Five key challenges that all districts are facing in keeping students safe, and how to work through these issues.
As school leaders, many people come to us to help solve problems and work through issues both large and small. Some of the problems we’re dealing with right now, however, we just can’t fix–districts have students who have lost family members to COVID-19; staff members whose own children have been put on ventilators; and several principals who have contracted COVID-19 since coming back to school.
These are challenges beyond anything we’ve ever dealt with before, and it doesn’t even include all of the typical issues that we manage on a daily basis (e.g., children living in poverty, in abusive households, or dealing with social and emotional issues). In other words, the pressures didn’t start with COVID-19 and they won’t end with it.
5 Roadblocks to Work Through Once schools got the official word that they were going to be closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 year, some pivoted from getting their staff used to teaching online to better understanding what their students were experiencing during this disruption. Fortunately, we have some modern tools to help us through this trying time.
As the former director of digital learning at my district, having a student safety platform in place allowed me to confidently say to parents,“My only two jobs are to make sure your kids are safe and make sure they have the best learning environment possible.” With remote learning coming to the forefront during the pandemic, we have to stick to this commitment and ensure that students are safe no matter where they’re learning.
Here are five roadblocks that our district is working through right now in order to reach that goal:
1. Digital inequity. Students want to be able to do their work, but not all have a means for doing that. Without devices, they can’t get online and work. And without internet access at home, they can’t connect to our systems. They also can’t interact on social media platforms, which has replaced much of their in-person socializing during the pandemic. Students who don’t have technology and connectivity feel left out and stranded, and need a way to connect. We have to take it upon ourselves to help even out some of this digital inequity.
2. Navigating uncertain environments. Students are used to seeing one another, interacting with teachers, and talking in person on a daily basis. In one fell swoop, COVID-19 took all of this away. To help fill that void, some districts are implementing a hybrid learning model in which students can meet their teachers in person (following proper mask and social distancing protocols, of course), participate in campus tours (particularly for freshmen who have never set foot in our high school before), and get acclimated to being on campus while also learning virtually. We’ve also learned about districts that created buttons with teachers’ faces so that younger students can see what their teachers’ faces look like and to help alleviate any anxiety.
3. Creating a flexible curriculum. Today’s educational curriculums have to be elastic enough to handle changes on the spot. We don’t want to get into another “crisis remote learning” situation in which everyone is scrambling to quickly take an existing curriculum and make it into one that’s suitable for remote learning. One of the best approaches is to help teachers understand that everything they’re doing should be geared for remote learning. That way, they’ll be prepared either way, whether students are sitting in the classroom or at home.
4. Monitoring hot topics of conversation. This past summer, many students wanted to discuss issues related to race. As educators address these issues, they’ve seen students proactively use tools such as G Suite to congregate and share information. They sometimes create small groups and develop their own activities that can get out of hand, and that’s when we turn to student safety platforms such as Gaggle to help us keep an eye on what’s happening. Regardless of these challenges, I’m just pleased to see the ways kids are connecting despite their lack of proximity to one another. It really hasn’t slowed them down much at all.
5. Prioritizing social-emotional learning. When the pandemic emerged, our schools looked at trauma-informed practices and some of the research around how to support students, knowing that 100% of our students (and their families) are going through some level of trauma. Recognizing this, educators have prioritized social-emotional learning practices, checked in regularly with students, allowed them to go at their own pace, and paid attention to our student safety platform. We want students to know that we’re there for them and that we’ll respond to any issues immediately.
As educational leaders, when we know these issues are occurring, we can do a much better job of intervening and protecting our kids, and keeping them safe.
By: MASCD President, Shaunna Harrington, Ph.D. @shaunna3830
President Trump announced last week at the first-ever White House Conference on American History that he would be signing an executive order to create the 1776 Commission to promote “patriotic education.” The move is part of his broader attack on curriculum that focuses on racism, and the 1619 project in particular, which centers slavery in the history of the United States. Trump has called antiracist curriculum “hateful lies” and “toxic propaganda.”
The federal government does not have the authority to establish curriculum, but the president has the power to frighten educators. As a teacher educator, I am particularly concerned about the chilling effect the president’s words could have on new teachers committed to antiracist curriculum. But even more experienced educators are vulnerable to being silenced because of the broadly held belief that schools and teachers should not be political.
The adage to “not be political” tends to mean that teachers should not share their beliefs with their students, and should avoid controversial subjects or be careful to present “both sides” of the issue. In order to create antiracist schools, we need to challenge old conventions about what is ‘political.’ We need to stand up and speak out for racial justice. And we need to reject the idea that racism is a ‘controversial’ issue.
If we are silent about racism, we cannot provide our students with the school cultures and the learning experiences they need and deserve. We cannot create supportive and validating environments for our students of color, and we cannot engage students of all backgrounds in learning about the ways race and racism shape our lives and our society. If we are silent about racism, we are not doing our jobs as educators.
The work of antiracist education cannot be carried by individual teachers. It needs to be foundational to the education profession. That is going to require that we rethink some of the ways we operate as a profession. We cannot be silenced by accusations of being ‘political,’ and we cannot be afraid of naming whose interests are served when certain issues are deemed ‘controversial.’ Racial justice is a moral imperative, and our profession needs to proclaim that without stipulations and without apology.
Educators Supporting Educators: You Can’t Pour from an Empty Cup Self-Care Webinar
By: Dr. Matthew X. Joseph (@MatthewXJoseph) and Christine Ravesi-Weinstein ME.d (@RavesiWeinstein)
If you’re anything like us, you’re experiencing a lot of complex emotions right now.l Educators, along with everyone else in the world, are marveling at how different everything looks now compared to eight weeks ago. Big events have been canceled: March Madness, professional sports, award shows. Schools have postponed/canceled: dances, celebrations, and now in-person graduations. Even in educational learning events such as Empower20 (where we were both speaking), Tech and Learning Live Chicago, and ISTE have been canceled or changed to a virtual format. Never in our lives did we think toilet paper and masks would become the nation’s hottest commodity.
Schools have gone online, educators are sheltering in place, and social distancing is the new norm. As educators, we are now tasked with developing brand new lesson plans suited for online learning while we juggle childcare, children’s homeschooling, and taking care of a family. However, taking care of ourselves cannot take a back seat. While we are educators, we are still learners.
One of the most important things you can do to cope with anxiety is to keep busy. When you are doing something tactile, it’s hard to overthink because your mind is distracted. Rather than dwelling on the fact that we both missed a few national speaking opportunities, we decided to get back out there and were inspired to support; keep busy.
In diving into the issue of self-care, we were driven to not just educate, but learn what others were doing. We had the idea to gather a few educators from different districts to open up a conversation about ourselves and how we are practicing self-care. Many groups were coming together to support the “educational” side of the profession, but equally important was a conversation about educators’ mental health during COVID-19.
On April 24th, five educators, us and three others, came together as a group to share our experiences and strategies for self-care. Presented as a webinar, the conversation was part of the Remote Learning Nugget Matt hosts every Friday at 1 pm EST. The series, originally designed as virtual professional development for the district of Leicester, has since been opened up nationally. Every week educators from all over the country gather to learn something practical that they can implement today.
In addition to us, the panel consisted of Tara Desiderio, an Elementary Principal from PA. She’s been serving in her role for 12 years and is also the co-moderator of the #CultureED chat. Basil Marin, who is an Assistant Principal from Atlanta, GA and former ASCD Emerging Leader 2018. Along with Abby French, a 6th grade US History I teacher from Woodstock, VA, Co-Founder of Student-Centered Learning Team and Instructional Coach.
Matt moderated the conversation and opened by explaining the spirit of where the webinar was born. It’s the “power of partnerships and the power of staying connected,” he explained. He aimed to reach out to others to share experiences with self-care in hopes of helping educators maneuver through these difficult times successfully. Here is what came from that conversation:
Refilling your own tank
Meeting the dynamic needs of all our students and staff during this time can be quite draining. Refilling your own tanks and staying motivated while working from home is essential if we’re going to make it to the finish line. But how do we do that? For the panelists, connection was a common thread. Whether with the outdoors, their own children, or their professional learning networks (PLNs), everyone was actively working to counteract the isolation they’re feeling with nation-wide school closures.
French talked about the importance of connecting with the outdoors. She spoke of a nature camp she attended as a kid and how impactful it was for her growing up. She found a love for not only nature, but herpetology. “Education can actually turn a perspective around,” she explained. “Nature has always been an equalizing force for me. When everything gets to be too big, or too much, or too loud, for me, stepping outside, finding some solitude in nature helps me reset.”
For Desiderio, the message was similar, “Working on balance is always on the forefront of my mind…” She’s been doing things to connect with her own children: doing puzzles, taking walks outside, and using chalk on the driveway. She also talked about how important exercise is for her new routine. Christine reiterated this: “I can’t achieve my lofty goals that I would normally, but everyday I try to have one small goal.” She gets outside every day whether it’s as simple as playing hockey with her son or taking a walk, or as intense as going for a long run.
Marin expressed the impact of Dr. Rita Pearson’s work on him and the power of connections. He elaborated on the hashtag iron sharpens iron and expressed how important it is for him to connect with his students, teachers and PLN now.
No matter who had the floor, everyone talked about how important it is to find a connection with someone or something else.
Reestablishing your educational drive
Distance and drive can often be inversely proportional; as one increases it’s usually the direct result of a decrease in the other. The further we have moved in physical proximity to our students and staff, the more difficult it can be to find that drive, the why, of what got us into education in the first place. Panelists were asked how they are staying passionate about their work and for each, not much has changed, in fact, the closures have simply reiterated their whys.
French explained her passion for student-centered learning and giving students more leadership and control. She wants students to be able to recognize their strengths and pursue those within their own interests. The choice boards she’s designing for her online instructional modules are allowing kids to explore more about who they are, what they want, their interests and their talents; a direct correlation to her why.
For Christine, she’s living in her why, “My passion is social/emotional learning, wellness, and mental health advocacy. In a selfish way there is no better time for me to be refueled with my why because we are living in it.” French reminded everyone that “The opportunity to strengthen bonds is there.”
Desiderio is driven by her kids and taking care of those around her. “In order to be the best we can be, we need to be surrounded by people who promote that in us.” She explained that her administration has never been closer. Usually, she elaborated, they are busy working in their silos, but now, they are working together everyday. She talked about how the team spent the first three weeks just reaching out to families and making strong connections; something that due to time constraints never would have happened at that level otherwise. “This period of time truly gave us the gift of time,” she stated.
A self-proclaimed extrovert, Marin has found it a little more challenging to reestablish his why, but has been able to do so nonetheless. A champion of equitable opportunities for all students to succeed, Marin explained that there were students struggling before COVID. “We’re spending a lot more hours than the contractual hours during the regular school day before COVID. So a lot of us are spending 16, 17, 18 hours a day trying to contact students and help them be successful, but again this is a part of our why. It’s a part of our why and we’re helping students to be successful.”
In order to prevent burnout, panelists talked about two key points, taking breaks and giving yourself grace. Balance is the key to combat how overwhelmed we are by the demands of creating digital lessons and engaging in remote meetings. Zoom fatigue is real and taking the time to rest your mind is essential.
“I am about as introverted as they get,” Christine said, “so you’d think this is a great scenario for me, but it’s really not. I don’t like just sitting at a computer. What I’ve discovered is that the kind of fast-paced nature of a workday where you just never know what’s going to happen and everyday is totally different, is what keeps me fueled and going. When I am at home, I have to take breaks.”
French reiterated the importance of getting outside and having perspective especially during a season of new life. “We really do have to be cognizant of how far we’re pushing ourselves right now…so much has changed and is out of my control that seeing spring come in as scheduled, has been uplifting to me.”
Giving yourself grace was the key to Desiderio’s message. “We are all doing the best we can, our kids are doing the best they can, and our families are doing the best they can. We need to give people grace and meet them where they’re at. I think of this as giving yourself permission to continue to be a work in progress.”
Marin talked about giving yourself grace and prioritizing the emails, phone calls and texts. He took the idea of grace one step further; bringing it back to the students. It’s an unprecedented time and no one has a manual. He encouraged us to balance rigor with social/emotional learning and follow what’s best for kids.
When life calls for us all to get through unscripted times together, having perspective is key. We must force ourselves to look at circumstances and situations from all angles rather than seeing just what’s right in front of us. Matt asked each panelist to leave participants with one last strategy/perspective to take with them.
As we live in this world of “ungrading,” French reminded us, don’t forget about the importance of feedback as a tool for improvement. This is a time where grading practices can be looked at. What kids need are fewer percentage grades and more feedback, i.e., being a partner in their learning.
Christine cautioned participants about making assumptions. Ask questions both of others and of ourselves too, she explained. And understand that everything is circumstantial, so don’t go pushing any panic buttons, “It’s okay to press reset,” she encouraged. “That doesn’t mean you failed at something, it doesn’t mean things aren’t going well, it means you just have to push reset.”
For Desidiero, it’s about positivity; negativity is a choice she said. “Don’t fear following your heart. Find people who are like you and surround yourself with them…Find people who truly motivate you.”
And for Marin, he challenged us to put ourselves in “our students shoes right now and how they are feeling.” He asked us to “find a way to reach all students.” He also reminded us, “Tap into your PLN. Find people who are going to refill your cup. We can’t do this by ourselves.”
Washing your hands and practicing social distancing are great practical strategies for taking care of your physical health during this time. But what about our emotional health? Educators are used to the hustle and bustle of schools, classrooms, face-to-face connections, and ongoing socialization. When that is removed, we try to overcompensate; take on the emotional loss for everyone. Yet we forget to address our own emotional loss and mental well-being.
It is natural to worry about the future, especially when it seems so uncertain. The key is not to get swept up in our own thoughts and the accompanying feelings of angst. We cannot get to the point of hopelessness or despair. We must continue to fight by concentrating on what IS within our control – our own self-care.
Teaching and leading from home may not be what we planned, but we can make the most of it. “As an educator we’re so stuck on the assessments and so stuck on the accountability part that we forget about kids being human,” Marin explains. “So something we are talking about a lot in our district right now is compassion over compliance.”
Have confidence in your capacity to adapt and find the sweet spot in your work-life balance. Pat yourself on the back for everything you and your students have accomplished, even if there have been some bumps along the way. “It’s all about building relationships in education, even when you’re in the building,” Christine says. “And right now, it’s all about building relationships. I understand that your lesson is important to you, but what’s more important is that every kid knows you care about them and that they’re well and that you’re well, and everything else is secondary.”
Cut yourself a break and give yourself grace. Marin said it perfectly, “It’s about heartwork. We have to lead with the heart and we have to do what’s best for kids.” The same is true of ourselves.
By: Dr. Matthew X. Joseph (@MatthewXJoseph) and Christine Ravesi-Weinstein ME.d (@RavesiWeinstein)
I, Matthew X. Joseph, have worked in public education since graduating from Springfield College in 1993. For the past 14 years, I've been fortunate enough to be a school and building leader. One thing all schools have in common (besides the need to stay away from the break room around the holidays if you are on a diet) is how compassionate and devoted educators are to making a positive difference in children's lives. Unfortunately, due to their compassion and drive, another common thread for all educators is burn out.
When I can be reflective, I learn best. That is why I write. And I am sharing these words to support other educators who may be experiencing the same, constant "What's next?" feeling. Trying to be more present can be hard. For me, to be present, I like to collaborate. Collaboration allows me to focus because someone else is relying on me to be the best I can be. One of the individuals I like to collaborate with is mental health advocate Christine Ravesi-Weinstein, author of the book Anxious. Together, we want to share strategies you can use to be more present and give others the best version of yourself possible.
Too many educators are not as equipped for the social/emotional learning (SEL) demands of today's classroom: high-stakes testing, mental illness, severe trauma, and a constant "Go! Go! Go!" mentality. With many high-stress days, educators can feel discouraged, burnt-out, and ready to quit. In the past few months, the Covid-19 pandemic has drastically changed educators' professional and home lives. During these uncertain times, it's essential to find ways to manage fear and anxiety to alleviate day-to-day stressors. We’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with many higher education institutions on teacher preparation throughout our careers in education. Most teacher training programs focus primarily on content and pedagogy; they overlook the social, emotional, and cognitive demands of teaching. We need to draw awareness to educators' social/emotional needs and promote calm, relaxed, and enlivened classroom environments.
Educators are always thinking about homework, assessments, projects, grades, lesson plans, conferences, etc. Now they’re also focused on Zoom, EdTech tools, and connecting and ensuring engagement from home. They're understandably focused on and driven by the day-to-day parts of the classroom and don't often take a step back and consider whether or not they're teaching effectively. Present is a word that serves as a constant reminder for us to slow down and enjoy the moment. But today, our “present” looks significantly different than it did three months ago. Worry and anxiety about all the possible "what ifs" right now aren't helping us stay focused on the moments happening right before us. Since life today is filled with changes that can be unsettling, here are some suggestions for educators to help you maintain a sense of focus in the present and whenever we go back to a school.
Celebrate small wins.
It's important to celebrate the small achievements. We often celebrate holidays, birthdays, or advancements in a career, but what about the regular accomplishments? Finally, grading a stack of papers that have been sitting in your bag for a week, submitting your evaluation evidence after a year's worth of collection, sending a parent email you've been dreading; all of these things are accomplishments and deserve to be celebrated too. Maybe you participated in virtual PD or created a Flipgrid for the first time. We are always working in overdrive and looking forward, we tend to ignore these small accomplishments. But when that happens, we miss out on a lot of happiness in our lives. Small wins are opportunities to reflect on how far we’ve come, which gives us the strength to stay inspired.
Identify the moment you are in.
Take a minute to reflect and identify the moment you're currently in. Focus on your surroundings and your current state. Most of us are never fully present in our lives because we continually get distracted. Our focus may be on one thing for a few moments, but suddenly another idea, question, or task comes up, and we're onto the next thing. Try thinking about what you physically see around you. Consider sounds you might not normally hear. Try focusing on something you can smell. What is it that you can physically feel? Identify the moment you are in, minimize distractions, and make a conscious effort to make the most of the PRESENT.
Listen without intending to respond.
When you're engaged in conversation, do you listen, or are you more focused on what to say next? Usually, we're only half-listening because we're already thinking about our own stories and what we can add to the dialogue. Instead of thinking about what to say, be more PRESENT in your conversations and think about what you hear. By merely listening with curiosity, rather than anticipation, you will be inherently more present.
Be okay with not knowing all of the answers.
Part of the reason we get so caught up in the unknown is that we want all of the answers to our questions immediately. We feel inept for not knowing how to handle certain situations, which only leads to self-criticism and self-doubt. The less you try to attain the answers, the more likely they are to come to you. Sit in the moment and be okay with unanswered questions.
Listen to your body.
It's easy to start thinking that you need to eat a certain way or exercise for a certain amount of time because you see other people doing it. One of the best ways that you can be PRESENT in your life is to listen to what your body is telling you. Are you craving a particular food? Eat it. Does a run sound fun? Go for one. Do you want nothing more than to sit on the couch and watch a movie? Do it. Your body will let you know when it wants to move and when it needs rest.
Get away from the digital world.
We have been fully engrossed online during remote learning. However, taking a break can be powerful. Spend time away from your phone and computer every day. Read, write, go for a walk, or eat your lunch without an electronic device nearby. Do something daily that doesn't require a connection to the internet. Consider getting a watch to check the time so that when you go to do so on your phone, you’re not compelled to check your messages. Furthermore, consider shutting off all but the critical notifications on your device. The fear of missing out keeps us tied to our phone. The truth is that being attached to email means we're missing out on something even more critical — ourselves and the moment right in front of us.
Declutter your desk/office
Messiness affects us because it reminds us of unfinished business. The stacks of folders, papers, books, random wires in the closet, and old mail affect us more than we think and prevent us from being PRESENT. Even when we shove the mess in a drawer, we know the stuff is there, waiting for us. It's hard to be PRESENT in a cluttered space.
The current situation is one of extreme uncertainty. We don't know what will happen, how long it will last, or what things will be like when it's over. One thing we do know, however, is that worrying about it won't change the outcome. Being present is a wonderful thing. It relieves stress caused by focusing on failures of the past and worries of the future. We are in an uncertain time, and for the first time in our professional careers, we don't know what September will look like. Yes, that thought is stressful, but don't let that take your June, July, and August. Maximize the moment you are in