(Illustration courtesy of Mental Health America)
Since schools have adapted to virtual education over the last several months, many teachers have noticed their students becoming more easily discouraged and frustrated with themselves, seeming more melancholy or irritable than usual, and being more distracted or forgetful. Right now teachers have an opportunity and obligation to show up for our students not only in academia, but emotionally and mentally, as much as possible. Here are some methods and skills that can help us be prepared for the difficult emotions children are experiencing, and how to keep our morale and education on track, on or offline.
Patience is a major quality that teachers exercise every day, but right now we must increase our threshold and be more understanding than usual during these circumstances. Expecting forgetfulness and mistakes and working around these errors is emphasized in Mental Health America's 'Tips for Teachers: Ways to Help Students Who Struggle With Emotions or Behavior'. Sending additional reminders about assignments, handing out written instructions or recaps of the lesson (not just verbal), and maintaining communication with parents about homework are helpful ways to reiterate information and support students who tend to be forgetful. Especially right now, giving extra time for deadlines and not deducting points for errors like messy handwriting or perfect spelling, can go a long way.
(Illustration courtesy of Mental Health America)
The word patience is defined as "the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset", which is broad considering how many contexts this applies to when teaching one student or a classroom full of several. Throughout my personal experience as a music instructor, patience means holding space for a student as they absorb new information or attempt a new idea, remaining present but supportive as they work through their mistakes, and allowing them time to figure out a problem on their own while being available in case assistance or further clarification is needed. Patience is a practice; it's how you show up for your student in that moment and maintaining consistency as much as possible. Our verbal response to students' mistakes and accomplishments is vitally effective, as exemplified in 'Tips for Teachers':
1) Focusing on achievements (no matter how small) and offering praise before moving to what needs improvement. Highlighting what the student is doing well promotes confidence and signals that their hard work is rewarded and being noticed.
2) Addressing behavioral concerns privately with the student outside of class and not shaming them in front of others. Discussing the behavior itself as the central issue, and laying ground for expectations encourages healthy communication and trust, while avoiding making the student feel like they are a problem.
3) Demonstrating compassion by remaining kind, flexible, not raising your voice, and not labeling difficult students as 'slackers', 'attention seekers', 'lazy', or other unhelpful blanket terms for disruptive or aloof behavior.
Adapting some motivating and uplifting phrases can help push through even the most difficult moments, and offer support for even the smallest improvements (which always should be acknowledged!) such as: "You can do it!", "You're doing great", "You'll get there, I know it", "Excellent job with (list something specific)!" can be extremely useful for boosting morale and positive reinforcement.
Patience can also be observed through body language, which is a huge tool in how people communicate to each other. We can communicate to our students that we are being attentive to them by the way we sit, the way we speak and write, by making eye contact, and by giving our full attention in every sense that we can. For me, keeping a smile on my face and maintaining a friendly yet firm tone helps communicate to my students that they don't need to feel afraid to make errors, ask questions, or have fun, but that I am also in control of the course of the lesson and expect them to take the material seriously. I also avoid looking at personal electronic devices or discussing details about myself during lessons, demonstrating that they have my full attention, and that I expect theirs in return. We are role models in the classroom, and our behavior and demeanor sets an example for what is expected and acceptable.
(Diagram courtesy of The Military Wife and Mom)
In the wake of current events, teachers have adapted by coming up with new ways to support and create communities and safe spaces for students, virtually. Mays Imad of Inside Higher Ed compiles some ideas in 'Hope Matters', emphasizing a shift towards emotional focus over academia. Imad points out, "As instructors, we often must balance rigor and support, and this situation might be one where students will need more support than rigor. Establishing continuity doesn’t mean you increase the amount of work required of them. I say this because I worry that some of us might be fixated on the rigor of the materials presented. Let’s face it -- the rigor may suffer, and that’s OK considering the situation".
Imad notes that since many children are missing out on communal activities such as sports, clubs, school events and other extracurriculars, it's crucial to come up with ways for students to socialize outside of school. Creating a class contact list, setting up a student group chat, devoting time for open discussion regarding students' feelings towards current events, and personally reaching out to students to remind them that you are there for them, can all help remind students that they are not alone and encourages them feel supported and to help each other. Another way to encourage feelings of hopefulness, Imad suggests, is using phrases like "When we come back in the fall" to give students something to look forward to and remind them that this situation is temporary, and help keep them on track by reminding them of their goals. The slower pace of virtual teaching is an opportunity to catch up and go further in depth with topics covered over the course of the school year. Revisiting themes and lessons from earlier in the year also allows students to reminisce and connect with their memories from when class was still open and their lives were relatively normal.
(Courtesy of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning)
Teachers need and deserve to prioritize self care and expand their capacity to build relationships; for the sake of their own emotional and mental health, and ultimately that of their students. Imad writes, "in times of uncertainty and unknowing, we can create a space where our students’ voice and insights can illuminate the path we are carving out for them -- and us". In other words, learning how to navigate these times together and addressing our feelings can strengthen communication skills and create open discussions, turning an unfortunate situation into an educational tool and even a positive experience in some regards. The Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, conducts research and collects resources for how include more Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in the classroom... or really anywhere. Becoming the best people we can be, and best teachers we can be, can help our students do the same for themselves.
What are some challenges you've faced since making the switch to online teaching? What are some things that have been helpful? Please share with us in the comments.