The thing about crises of the public health variety is that they strike at the very core of the things we value most as members of society. We think explicitly about safety, our health (whether physical, mental, or emotional), and the safety and health of our family and closest friends. We wonder how pandemic policies and restrictions will affect us and those we care about. Some will experience financial and economic hardship. Some will find themselves in periods of darkness that weigh heavily on the mind and soul. Then there's the fatigue, the exhaustion.
The last 14 months have been an eye-opener for myself as an educator. The pandemic has brought to the fore some of the values and concerns I've long held, but have seen less time in focus. The last few years have seen me spend considerable time and effort concerned with curriculum and textbook writing, consultation with various groups around new social studies courses, and the development of new materials to support these efforts - this website is a part of that ongoing project. Being involved in such things has helped me become a better teacher who is more confident and effective in what I do. While there are definite related positive influences that will result in the classroom, what these preoccupations have in common is a focus on elements of education that place students on the periphery of direct concern. Sure, the curriculum, the resources, and the materials are created for students to use, but the connection between student and teacher is tenuous as far as these go.
This shift in focus was new and shiny, adding a freshness that helped me reorient myself and redefine my practice as a teacher. I still taught actively and did my best to help students and maintain high standards for them and myself. I would also, however, frequently be away for meetings or participation in curriculum committees, or even leading professional development sessions for other educators. What was lacking, however, was a greater emphasis on relationship-building and understanding of the social-emotional needs of my students.
The pandemic would help redefine my approach to education once again. Like many of the social issues, tensions, and inequities that have become prominent across society, I found similar concerns within my classroom and the school as a whole taking centre stage in my mind. As decisions were being made at higher levels around public health policies and protocols and how these would be effectively implemented, other discussions about instruction and assessment occurred. I found myself more often than not trying to consider various student perspectives around what was happening around them and to them. What were they feeling and thinking about the changes that were occurring rapidly? How much say did they have in what they were experiencing and the choices around this? What challenging conditions existed for them at home that might complicate or make their experience of my class awkward at best and unbearable at worst? How did our decisions as adults affect their understandings of privacy, personal security, and well-being?
It comes down to thinking about the other and being kind.
While all good educators are concerned for and about their students on a level that goes beyond merely the academic realm, the pandemic has helped refocus my concern for the student in my classroom. I have a more clear idea in my mind of certain aspects of my work and make a conscious effort to consider these things when interacting with students. I directly ask for student thoughts and perspectives around the strengths and limitations of online, in-class, and hybrid forms of learning (they've experienced all to date). I invite them to suggest what works best for them and what doesn't when it comes to instruction in these new forms. I let them see that I'm human, I'm not infallible, and sometimes trip along the way as I learn how to use a new app, or piece of tech. I listen with a concerned ear when a student has literally anything to say. I've come to realize that for every student that expresses concern for an issue or problem they experience, there are many others who suffer in silence for any number of reasons. I don't want to be an extra source of stress or anxiety for my students and would rather be a source of comfort and be understanding whenever and wherever I can.
While I won't always get it right, I want to be an educator who makes an honest attempt to make the lives of my students be easier, not more difficult during an already widely difficult pandemic. Even school switching between online, in-class, and hybrid models every couple of weeks adds considerably to student challenges. To help mitigate these issues, the following sorts of changes have materialized in my classes:
While what we say has important influences on children, I believe our actions are equally, if not more important. Concern for the other in the class, school, or community is often best shown through the things we do and the tangible effects of these actions. The quote below has almost become a cliché, but there is a truth of value behind it that I have come to appreciate:
"They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel."
Stephen Rowe is an educator and teacher of high school social studies at Gander Collegiate, in Newfoundland and Labrador. His areas of greatest interest in the social studies are ancient/medieval history, politics, and demography.