Most of our nation’s educators have experienced some type of distance learning over the course of the last four months, or more. For our school, online learning looked and felt a little different than our neighboring schools.
Whaley School is a separate day school for students exhibiting profound behaviors. Relationship building and a caring culture within our school is key to the success of students academic success. So, when we heard that we were going to be switching from in class learning to online learning beginning after spring break, our staff had to think outside the box, considerably, in order to find ways to engage students, not only online, but offline, as well.
All staff were very worried when COVID-19 led to shut-down because our school is a safe haven for our students. We feed our students twice a day, and sometimes those are the only times they eat. They rallied together and reached out to families about what basic needs they had in their homes. Staff came up with lists of our most struggling families and the front office staff, integral leadership team members, and myself set out to deliver goods to those families in need. Our first thoughts were not, ‘how are they going to learn’, but ‘are they going to be ok’?
Next teachers and support staff stepped up to the plate and jumped out of their comfort zone when it came to learning new technology, taking data points in a new format, and creating innovative ways to engage our students during this historical time in education. Short videos were created welcoming students to class along with asking pertinent questions in their subject area; students could view these ‘offline’ and bring the answers to their ZOOM sessions. Teachers who otherwise were not technology savvy were creating breakout rooms in ZOOM, offering opportunities for all students to participate in ways that were not the “natural” way they had done things in the traditional classroom! Support staff offered ZOOM sessions for students to hang out and talk to one another, watch a movie, or play a game. At the beginning, most of our students were participating, and as the site principal, I was able to jump into the ZOOM meetings to see the students, say hi, dance with our students in life skills or simply play a game or two with them.
We waded through the many guidelines put out by the district and worked through multiple decisions that were laid out and continued to see changes occur on a regular basis. What was said yesterday could and was changed the next day. Things were moving quickly, and while I wanted to get information out to the staff as soon as I received it, I realized that I needed to back off the impulse I had to share immediately, (thinking that it was helping the staff), to giving some wait time so that the information did not change and what I was offering was what district expected from them and me.
For our staff, it was HARD (as I am sure it was for all staff around the nation, as well). We were entering new territory, especially in our school with 100% Special Education. Where we once built relationships within our buildings, hallways and classrooms, we needed to find ways to keep those relationships strong over ZOOM, or on a landing page where students accessed their work!
Not only were we dealing with the possibility that our relationships could break down during our time apart, we had to dig in deep to meet the students needs: academically-meeting their goals and objectives along with offering them credit to graduate, emotionally-students were on their own to access the curriculum, at times, but were also offered face to face meetings to discuss questions, and socially-students were not able to meet up with friends, go to movies, or just be kids as Anchorage ‘hunkered’ down for many weeks, in fact, well over a month.
It wasn’t enough. Our students needed that connection, they needed to be heard and listened to in their classroom setting, not on the couch with their families close by on a computer. Our students have been used to processing their feelings with our staff regularly and with ZOOM, it was just not a viable option and some students felt they had no one else to turn to for advice or even just to vent.
As time wore on, students started to attend ZOOM meetings less and less. Their asynchronous time attended matched in the same way. We were hearing from parents and agencies that our students were getting into trouble, no longer at their home or in one of the treatment centers within our city, or worse, in our juvenile detention center. The term idle hands make for fretful minds is absolutely the case for our students. Not having the ability to reach out to staff members to process things that are happening at home or just vent about what’s happening creates a place for our students to seek out others for help.
I, myself, realized that I was grieving. I was grieving the loss of connection with my staff and our students. I longed to be back in the school on a regular basis, so that’s what I did-I went back to school to telework from my office so that those that saw me on ZOOM would recognize where I was and feel some sort of ‘home’.
Unfortunately, this has affected our students learning and grades for the semester and if we go on like this into the fall, it will only get worse!
GETTING BACK TO SCHOOL
For our students, and I am sure many students across the nation, it’s imperative that we get back to school. Educators are an integral part in a students’ life and with those strong relationships we build each year, we help students to learn and grow into amazing people.
I’ve been attending a ‘Smart-Start’ ZOOM meeting for our state about what next year could look like. We talk about taking temperatures, getting tested and wearing masks. While I understand that COVID-19 is nothing to mess around with or take lightly, and I want all families, students and staff to be safe and healthy, I can only imagine the damage it will have if we begin our year as we ended it. We spend the first two weeks at school focusing on building the bonds that will last the rest of the year and beyond at Whaley School. Rita Pierson’s point can’t be stated enough: “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like,” and if we have school in the fall the way we left in the spring, I can say we will see isolation and failure for our students grow at astronomical rates because, “Kids don’t learn from whom they don’t have a good relationship!”
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Looking for a new book to read? Many stories from educators, two student chapters, and a student-designed cover for In Other Words.
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