By Guest Blogger Kelly Nichols, a local educator

I used to love looking at those huge maps in malls and parks that had the big red X on them. “You are here” was comforting to read. Not only did I find my exact location but I could see a path that led me where I needed to go. Clarity. Direction. Certainty.

I would welcome that red X. Never has that clarity, direction, and certainty been so elusive. The multitude of factors that led education to “this place” is too long and complicated to untangle. And frankly I think at this point, a waste of time to continue to sort through. What matters is that we are here. Students are struggling, educators are struggling, and school is not “normal”. The real questions are, “Where are we?”, “Where do we go from here?” and “How do we make up for what we lost?”

Where Are We?
A friend confided in me that instead of a can of seltzer water, she packed a can of wine in her child’s lunch box. Thankfully the teacher had a sense of humor and sent her a picture with the caption “______ wasn’t sure if this was the right drink.” While she was mortified at her mistake, I think that speaks volumes about our current state of mind.  Considering our world changed drastically in March of 2019, and we are just beginning to dig out, most of us are still getting our bearings. The pandemic is not completely over (remember this summer when we thought it was?). In schools, the rules and codes still change constantly. We are not done with Covid protocols. We still wear masks, we “social distance” as much as possible, and we are leery of every Covid symptom; but so many questions remain! Can students sit together? Where/how will we eat lunch? Can parents volunteer? What are the rules if a child stays home? When can he/she come back to school? How do the quarantined keep up with their work? We are all ready for some type of ‘normal’. This is not it. Let’s acknowledge that fact. One thing I know for sure is that children function best with predictable routines and structures. They thrive on feeling safe. Rules about what safety looks like have been constantly changing for the last 34 months. Ever-changing rules get in the way of the comfortable space of predictability.

Where Do We Go From Here?
Everyone has an opinion of what educators should do. Ask anyone who has spent time in school, there is an opinion. Our federal, state, and local decision makers are implementing new programs constantly. School systems have received unheard of funds to spend. One issue is that the funds have to be spent immediately. So teachers are required to spend hours in trainings outside of the workday and bring the latest fixes back to the classrooms. Most of these trainings are important but the timing is poor. More change. More loss of predictability for students. 

How Do We Make Up for What We Have Lost?
If it seems like I have painted a grim picture, it’s because it sometimes feels that way. However, I do believe we can and will recover. After all, the world recovered from the Flu of 1918, Polio, and World War II. We all must recognize our existing circumstances and tap into our resilience. I have three musts for full recovery.

  • Be realistic. There is no quick fix. In many ways, we shut down society for a while. The youngest of us, had the largest percentage of their lives change drastically on a dime. Remote learning was a struggle. We all tried our best. But for real learning to take place, we need interaction, discussion, debate, and activity. Curricula and lessons were stripped to their bases so concepts could be introduced. Uncovering gaps; whether not taught or not grasped, takes patience and time. Considering the last grade our current fifth graders completed in school was second grade, eighth graders completed fifth, and our current seniors haven’t had a complete year in school since their freshmen year, we are all moving forward. The academics will come when kids feel safe again, when days are routine, and when school provides serenity.
  • Consider what’s important and prioritize. We are trying to do it all at once. “It” is too much. Headlines are proof of that; TikTok challenges, emotional issues, fights, vandalism, and confusion all around. We have let the seemingly urgent get in the way of the important. As an educator, I always felt an urgency. I wanted to give the students entrusted to me every single thing I could in the few months they were in my class. This year is different. We must decide what is important for these children to carry forward and focus on that. Children need to feel safe, cared for, capable of making decisions, and resilient. With all that, each will be free to take risks in learning, try new things, and eventually soar!
  • Trust each other and ourselves. A wise friend pointed out that trust has been broken as a result of our experiences. I’ve often thought that my biggest lesson from the pandemic has been that I have no control. Even things I thought I could fix, I couldn’t. Trusting myself became difficult. I know parents who hated the idea that they couldn’t fix things for their families. Parents wanted schools to do different things and people in schools wanted decision makers to do different things. We all lost bits of trust. Some struggle trusting themselves, others have a hard time trusting authority, and a few have no idea who or how to trust. Our society has been more divided than I can ever recall. Trust has been broken. Above all else, parents, teachers, and anyone involved in making decisions about our children must learn to work together. If we all truly want the best for our children, then adults must stand united. Debates, seeing the other side, and having varying points of view can ensure we bring the best to our children. We just need to be willing to listen and learn from each other. Clarity. Direction. Certainty. These are ours to define, together.

One thing I learned early as a teacher: Success breeds success. Give a student a tiny taste of success, and he/she will believe more success is possible. We need tastes of success right now. We need a little confidence in our abilities, young and old. We all like that taste and the feeling that “I can do it”!

There are two second grade students who come to show me their work on a daily basis. Whatever they hand me, I make a big deal about. I jump up and down, whoop around a bit, and always hang it on my wall if they are willing to part with their masterpieces. To top it off, I draw a smiley face on their thumbs so that when they make a thumbs up sign, they flash a smile! Reality is a lot of what they hand me is incorrect. But if you knew these two, being proud of work is a relatively new thing. Their teacher builds them up constantly, I get to do a few special things and these second graders are growing. I went to their class the other day and one of them wanted to show me how to subtract a 3-digit number from a 3-digit number using a number line. Guess what? He was correct!! He feels good about himself, is taking risks like he never has, and is growing exponentially. 

All our children can. Most really want to already. We need to relax and stop the panic, make sure they know the important things, partner with each other, and celebrate every single success we can find. Soon, we’ll all whoop it up and walk around with smiles on our thumbs!

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