‘Can I Survive This First?’: Teaching and Learning During COVID-19

In a recent Zoom staff meeting, my principal asked five staff members to share the ways they’ve reached out to students. One teacher shared that he’d sent out a journal activity to his students, and one replied, “Can I survive this first?” That comment sparked a conversation about this historic moment and the kinds of stressors, pressures, fears, and anxieties students, families, and communities are presently feeling.

With more than 91,000 public and private schools canceling in-person classes due to COVID-19, there’s never been a time in history when we’ve experienced such a dramatic disruption to a segment of taken-for-granted daily life. With more than 50 million preK–12 students across the country affected by these building closures, it’s easy to see why governors, superintendents, and building leaders are struggling to define what teaching and learning looks and feels like during these unprecedented times. Yet while each state, district, and school are taking a slightly different approach, there is a common theme of relationship building, support, and engagement.

Community and Connection

One common feature that has emerged in recent weeks is a relentless focus on community and connection. As a person who is also in transition from my role as associate principal to principal, I’ve been thinking about what it means to lead a building and how to build a positive, cohesive students-first culture. One thing that I keep coming back to is the importance of building community—of ensuring that even when we disagree, we still see each other’s humanity and assume the other’s good intent, and that we always strive to meet the other person halfway.

Likewise, during this crisis, teachers primarily want to connect with their students, know that students are okay, and let students know that their teachers and school stand beside them. Yet, under “normal” circumstances, particularly at the high school level, this is not always our primary message, even though we feel this way. Why not? Pandemic or otherwise, our students come to us dealing with myriad issues. What do we lose by centering our focus on building community and mutual respect first, then focusing on content later?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I think that all high school teachers fail to do this, but so much of our time is spent discussing learning targets, standards, and formative and summative assessments. There is the relentless pressure to get it all done, to make sure students are learning. We often forget that students won’t learn from people they don’t trust and can’t learn when their basic needs aren’t met first. Why now are we asking if the student and their family needs food, school supplies, or “extra” contributions in order to have their needs met? In terms of what we know about learning, aren’t these concerns always a foundation of meeting students’ needs? How do we get them to engage unless those basic needs are met?

That’s especially important to keep in mind in the months to come. In another Zoom staff meeting, a local mental health provider reminded us that for our most vulnerable families, the current crisis will have a long-term impact, even when schools are back in session and businesses have reopened. Educators and those affiliated with schools are beginning to use phrases like “collective community trauma.” These are real concepts that we must consider as we move forward.

This moment has certainly given teachers and leaders alike time to contemplate their philosophy and approach. Perhaps in ways that we have not experienced before, COVID-19 has given us the ability to lead and teach alongside of instead of in front of our teachers, students, and families. This, I think, is a valuable way to lead, and at the heart of all good teaching and learning experiences. We will need to remind ourselves of this as we attempt to return to “normal.”

During NASSP’s April 2 Leading Through Crisis Town Hall Series, I believe Brian McCann said that we have the ability to ensure that the public comes away from this historic moment feeling like our schools have done a good job and can serve as much-needed resources in their communities. This is a time for our schools and communities to come together to form a cohesive focus on putting people first, ensuring that our students and their families have access to the resources and supports they need. Like so much of the country, we must take to heart the most valuable lesson from this tragedy—that people come first, our communities need us, and we need them.

Valerie Nyberg has been assistant principal at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, IA, since 2013. On July 1, Dr. Nyberg will step into her first principalship at Ames High School in Ames, IA. She is the 2019 Iowa Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter (@vnnyberg).

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