By Janice L. Taylor, EdD, and Kathryn Washington, EdD
The COVID-19 pandemic and civil and social unrest in our nation have impacted schools in ways no one could have possibly imagined. Inevitably, teachers have been challenged to strategically and carefully navigate their role to address the civil and social unrest in the U.S., as witnessed by the world, including our nation’s children. Serving as facilitators to students who actively pursue questions and assist them in constructing their own knowledge (McLeod, 2019), teachers have been at the forefront of leading unprecedented, crucial, and oftentimes, uncomfortable conversations when students have asked tough, yet provocative and relevant questions, that merit discussion. Poignant and teachable moments have arisen for teachers to address issues related to racial discrimination, police brutality, social injustices, inequities and disparities related to health care, education, employment, and food security, immigration—and an attack on the U.S. Capitol—all occurring in a polarized and divided nation. While unavoidable and most importantly, when students feel courageous enough to ask the tough questions, discussions on these topics require historical context and considerable forethought prior to providing an appropriate and accurate response, which can be challenging for teachers.
We all know teaching is a demanding profession; however, recent events and circumstances have increased the demands placed on teachers. Teachers must be able to quickly pivot lessons and instructional strategies to meet the needs of their community of learners. Now more than ever, it is critical school leaders not forget about their teachers’ needs during the myriad of crises facing our nation.
Meeting All Students’ Needs
Included in each teacher’s diverse community of learners are children who learn at different rates, some may also have a preferred style of learning, and still others may have learning disabilities. Teachers intentionally prepare and plan to successfully engage all learners by considering the whole child when they establish a kind and caring culture to meet students’ social-emotional needs. “Given that children spend a majority of their waking hours in school and classroom settings, their experiences in these contexts may greatly impact functioning in both social-emotional and academic domains” (Rucinski & Brown, 2018, p. 992). COVID-19, combined with the recent civil and social unrest, has added to teachers’ anxiety on how to meet the needs of all students. According to Blad (2021), teachers will need to incorporate well-thought out strategies such as investigating “students’ emotions, without assumptions; providing students space to share; recognizing how adult behavior impacts children; and seizing teachable moments in the wake of difficult events.”
Starting the day with a warm greeting and providing students with opportunities to work in groups builds a learning community where ideas are shared, leadership skills are cultivated, and learners accept responsibility for their own contributions and progress. These actions ensure students have both an emotional and social connection with their peers. Ask any committed teacher and she may say that ensuring all of what needs to happen for each student inside the classroom on a daily basis is challenging enough; however, when students are learning from a distance without face-to-face interactions, guidance, encouragement, and reinforcement from their teacher, it becomes an even greater challenge. Feeling anxious, helpless or overwhelmed cannot be minimized in those who are dedicated professionals. Teachers enjoy seeing their passions realized when they see the eyes of their young students light up after learning objectives are mastered. As nurturers, and in the era of COVID-19, teachers also enjoy being in a socially distant proximity to their students when words of comfort or a virtual hug can help ease a student’s anxiety during chaotic and uncertain times.
Trying to Do It All
In addition to learning new technology, in many cases, teachers are providing guidance to parents who have assumed greater responsibility for assisting their children with schoolwork during this time. Teachers are tutoring parents on how to use technology and various other resources so they can teach their children subjects in which they do not have the knowledge, skills or confidence. Teachers are also required to attend meetings with campus administrators and to collaborate with other colleagues via teleconferences, Skype or Zoom. They are putting in countless hours to do all that is required, and more, so their students can at least maintain and not lose too much of what they learned pre-pandemic.
Many teachers are also parents. While they are accustomed to wearing many hats, and managing their time accordingly, working at home to grade a few papers is very different from being required to work at home because schools are closed, nonetheless teaching and learning must continue. The kitchen table has now become the teacher’s desk, the student’s desk for their own children, and the faculty office for the Zoom meetings being held with colleagues and campus administrators. In their role as parents, teachers have a responsibility to provide instruction to their own children to ensure they will not lose ground in their learning, while they simultaneously attend to their family’s safety, wellness, and social-emotional needs.
As teachers juggle a myriad of responsibilities, these recent and oftentimes adverse events, cannot be ignored. The stress borne by teachers when surrounded by difficult, life-altering, and traumatic events, cannot always be shielded from the minds and hearts of children, and must be confronted. The weight of these discussions can become taxing for some teachers to address with their students, as they continue to try and strike a delicate balance with managing and ensuring their students’ well-being and that of their own children.
Teachers Have Needs, Too
As schools reopened, and many students returned to public, private or charter schools, teachers attempted to pick up where they left off pre-COVID-19 for in-person learners and also for those who remained in virtual environments. Classroom routines have been transformed to a “new normal.” Teachers have made valiant efforts to go about their business of getting students back on track in their learning. Just as they have always been committed to do, teachers attend to the academic and social-emotional needs of each student, and school leaders must, perhaps now more than ever, attend to the social-emotional needs of their teachers.
Teachers are the backbone of our schools; the academic advancement of our children will not happen without them. Without teachers, learning will not occur. Without teachers, who will train and mentor our children for their career of choice? Without teachers, who will prepare our children for whatever their future holds? Without teachers, whose social-emotional needs are unmet, what will become of the health of our schools? How will their self-efficacy be affected or that of their students?
According to Snowman et al. (2009), self-efficacy beliefs influence individuals to think optimistically, act in ways that are beneficial to achieving goals, engage in tasks with a high level of motivation, and persevere during difficult times. Students believe they will be successful with positive supports from their teachers (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010). The well-being of teachers, including their sense of efficacy, undergirds everything that is needed to facilitate both the academic and social-emotional learning of our children as we continue to transform to a “new normal” post COVID-19 in an ever-evolving nation faced with dynamic and diverse societal challenges.
What School Leaders Can Do
As schools continue to face challenges, school leaders must be intentional and strategic about providing teachers with the social-emotional support they merit. To validate the significant and valuable role that teachers, always essential, but now also referred to as frontline workers, play in the lives of our children, and while demonstrating care and concern for their well-being, school leaders should consider the following actions and recommendations from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) in the Reunite, Renew, and Thrive: Social and Emotional Learning Roadmap for Reopening Schools (July, 2020).
Design opportunities where adults can connect, heal, and build their capacity to support students. Strengthen adult connections, self-care, competencies, and capacity.
- Ensure regular time and space for adults to reflect, heal, connect with each other, and take care of their needs. Continue to partner with community organizations to provide culturally responsive trauma and mental health support.
- Collect ongoing data on staff needs, wellness, professional learning outcomes, and their capacity for supporting students. Track coaching and feedback via walk-through tools or coaching logs for purposes of schoolwide data reflection and continuous improvement.
- Include staff self-care plans in any supervision process and establish schoolwide expectations that promote self-care such as avoiding emails or phone/video calls on evenings and weekends.
- Continue to strengthen collaboration and professional learning in partnership with all adults in your building to continuously improve and align practices that promote social-emotional learning (SEL). Create professional learning communities on the intersection of SEL, trauma-informed practices, equity, and healing-centered culturally responsive practices.
Some examples that support the recommendations from CASEL of what school leaders can do for teachers include the following strategies:
- To help teachers feel secure and safe in their workplace environment, greet teachers at the door each morning with a warm smile and a physical gesture using an elbow.
- Conduct more frequent walk-through classroom visits just to check in and check on them, while practicing social distancing.
- Give a note of acknowledgement, gratitude, or appreciation to help maintain self-esteem and a sense of achievement.
- Assign each teacher a buddy.
- Create a positive culture and build community by planning informal faculty/staff get-togethers.
- Empower teachers and provide them autonomy through conversation; you provide an ear to listen, if and when needed.
Whatever best practices school leaders follow in their schools to transform to a “new normal” post COVID-19, and to address issues during times of crisis, it is vital to ensure that the social-emotional needs of teachers are met.
Dr. Janice L. Taylor is an adjunct professor at Prairie View A & M University and the University of St. Thomas, Houston, where she teaches courses in educational leadership and research. Having successfully served as a campus principal and district-level administrator for many years, Dr. Taylor enjoys teaching, coaching and mentoring prospective school leaders. Her research interests include teacher retention, teacher resilience, and teacher efficacy. Dr. Taylor is a member of both the State and Region 4 chapters of the Texas Council of Women School Executives (TCWSE).
Dr. Kathryn Washington is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at Lamar University. She also serves as the TEPSA Region 6 President. With more than 29 years in education, she served as a mathematics teacher, assistant principal and for 12 of those years as an elementary principal where she built strong campus culture and climate based on relationships and trust.
Blad, E., (2021, January 6). Caring for students in the wake of a traumatic news event. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/teaching-in-the-wake-of-a-traumatic-news-event-like-the-storming-of-the-u-s-capitol/2021/01?
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2020, July). Reunite, renew, and thrive: Social and emotional learning roadmap for reopening schools. https://casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/SEL-ROADMAP.pdf.
Mastropieri, M. & Scruggs, T. (2010). The inclusive classroom strategies for effective differentiated instruction (4th ed.). Pearson Education, Inc.
McLeod, S. A. (2019, July 17). Constructivism as a theory for teaching and learning. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/constructivism.html.
Rucinski, C.L. & Brown, J. L. (2018) Teacher-child relationships, classroom climate, and children’s social-emotional and academic development. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110 (7). 992 – 1004. https:11dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000240.
Snowman, J., McCown, R., & Biehler, R. (2009). Psychology applied to teaching. (12th ed.). Houghton Mifflin Company.
TEPSA Leader, Spring 2021, Vol 34, No 2
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