As almost all schools across the globe are back in session in some form or another, many have decided to begin the year remotely with the hopes that COVID-19 cases will subside in the coming months. Others have started the year with some sort of hybrid model. There is no easy decision when it comes to determining which pathway is the most appropriate at this time. Each, in its own right, presents particular challenges. Regardless of the route taken, all learners and adults’ health and safety should be the driving force that determines whether to stay the course or move in another direction.
There is a great deal of stress on students, parents, and administrators, and even more on teachers. The next few weeks, or even months, will be ridden with anxiety, fear, and at times confusion no matter how prepared a district or school is. What we have learned about COVID-19 is that it can spiral out of control at a moment’s notice if social distancing and health recommendations aren’t followed. However, this is not all doom and gloom. Throughout the pandemic, educators have embraced new opportunities that have materialized and taken advantage of a clean slate. Innovative practices and technology that might have been on the back-burner months ago are now front and center. Rest assured, when this is all over the resilience of teachers and administrators will help usher in a new normal that better meets the needs of all learners.
Now more than ever, empathy is needed to help everyone get through remote or hybrid learning. The reality is that successes are and have been, overshadowed by fear, stress, and anxiety at levels never experienced. Below I will address six specific areas that can help to create an empathetic teaching and learning culture.
As I work with more and more teachers across the country, this is the number one issue that consistently comes up. Teaching both face-to-face and remote learners at the time is not easy, but I recently developed a pedagogical framework using a station rotation model that can help. Many hybrid learning models have either an entire day (typically Wednesday or Friday) for teachers to plan, grade, provide interventions, and conference with students. Some set aside a half-day. Administrators can even cut any non-instructional duties to free up teachers. Remote teachers also need time, which is why having them follow a traditional school day schedule doesn’t make much sense, especially when asynchronous tasks can be employed, freeing up much needed minutes or even hours.
Teachers and administrators need professional learning that aligns with the challenges they currently face and the demands of education in a COVID-19 world. Targeted presentations can now be facilitated virtually, both live and on-demand, in time-sensitive ways. Job-embedded coaching, which most educators yearn for, can also be facilitated virtually or face-to-face. Asynchronous models that address the time issue above can also be used to mirror the same conditions that learners will experience either remotely or in a hybrid model. Support can also come in the form of budget allocations for needed technology, an administrator covering a teacher’s class, feedback, granting mental health days, listening to and then acting on general concerns, allocating time each day to check in with remote learners, and providing daily encouragement through inspirational messages. Another suggestion is moving around personnel so that there are dedicated teachers just for the remote learners in a hybrid model. Even though balancing both face-to-face and remote kids can be done successfully, it is still a challenge.
Depending on your position, leading and teaching with grace is the epitome of an empathetic culture. This can mean many different things to people, but overall it can be characterized by being welcoming, patient, warm, and kind. It’s about emphasizing relationships over discipline or correction. For a learner, it might be giving him or her multiple chances on an assessment or to complete a project. Or it might be a focus on restorative practices that emphasize forgiveness and the building of relationships. Leading with grace is all about service to others with a focus on humility and respect. From an administrator perspective, it means treating teachers with dignity and exhibiting generosity in addition to the characteristics listed earlier in this paragraph. When it is all said and done, continuously ask these questions when someone might be having a difficult day:
- Are you ok?
- Is there anything I can do for you or that you need?
- Is your current workload manageable?
Empathy is about putting yourself in the shoes of others. Modeling through exemplars is a great way to help ease potential concerns, fear, and anxiety on behalf of learners, teachers, and administrators. Showing examples of sound remote and hybrid pedagogy, as well as successful implementation plans, builds confidence in that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Recently I shared what some Corinth School District educators in Mississippi were doing and received some very positive feedback. In particular, teachers want to see what this looks like in alignment with their grade level and content focus.
For remote or hybrid to work, a flexible approach has to be prioritized. Having teachers and students follow a rigid schedule that replicates what traditional schooling has looked like for years could dramatically impact morale, attentiveness, and motivation. Video conference fatigue is a real issue, and it just doesn’t make sense to have remote learners log in from home when they could just watch the recorded highlights and then complete the same tasks that they could in class asynchronously. Teachers also get fatigued if they are on a screen too long. If the decision has been made for all students to be remote, then at the very least, each teacher should be given a choice as to whether or not they want to teach from their classroom or home. Other areas that can show flexibility include deadlines, attendance, and general with teachers and students.
Some might think grace and compassion are the same things. Even though they are similar, there is a difference. Compassionate teaching and leadership consider any type of suffering and move towards specific actions to relieve it. The pandemic has resulted in so many misfortunes that are difficult to wrap our heads around. This is why social-emotional learning (SEL) should be integrated into any learning model, but it also has to be adapted for adults as well. Henri Nouwen said it best, “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
There is hope as educators continue to embark into the great unknown. The virus will eventually be subdued. New learning models and innovative pedagogies will take hold. Parents and students will be more comfortable with and open to different ways to learn. Resilient educators who triumphed in the face of adversity will lead education in a better direction. Empathy will not only help us get through to better days but will also help to establish a thriving school culture grounded in relationships.