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How to come back: three things every school can do to successfully return

Tim Klein /
28 May 2020

The time we have anxiously been waiting for is somehow here. Schools are opening up. Teachers and students are coming back. Finally, it feels that we can begin to move on from these frightening times.

The return of in-person education is unequivocally a good thing; teachers and students alike have experienced the limits of remote learning. We have learned through its absence how powerful, important and essential strong meaningful human relationships are for both our students and us. As a community we have had to endure isolation, economic disruption and a sense of loss for the world we once knew. There’s hope that returning to school is a signal that these challenges are behind us.

Perhaps we finally can get back to normal.

However, we shouldn’t view the return to the classroom as a victorious conclusion to a harrowing tale. We are not at the end of this story, rather we are starting a new beginning. If the world breaking at the seams was Act 1, then we are entering Act 2; rebuilding.

Because, yes, we are returning to the buildings that COVID-19 sadly stole from us. We are coming back to the communities that lift us all up.

But we shouldn’t assume that the students arriving in our classrooms will be the same ones we last saw. Nor should we expect the physical building to feel the same. Nor are we the same.

That is the nature of trauma.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we are all in the midst of trauma. Humans, by our nature, are story telling machines. We are constantly creating rich narratives to make sense of the world in which we live and our place in it.

A trauma is any event that makes the stories we tell ourselves and the world no longer true. If I tell myself I live in a safe neighborhood and my car gets broken into, that’s a story I can no longer tell myself. If I have always envisioned myself as a doctor, but then get denied from medical school, that is a story about myself that is no longer true. If I view myself as a runner that is physically active and independent but then I break my leg, that story no longer holds true.

COVID-19 is the first ever global trauma with similar shared experiences. It has simultaneously upended the stories we tell about the world and ourselves.

This is why we can’t assume that the people entering our school buildings are the ones who left. COVID-19 has changed everything, us included, forever.

But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We have a complex road ahead of us, but we also have an opportunity to build a more cohesive, more resilient and more meaningful world. The best place to start building is with our students, in our schools.

Here are three ways that school communities can begin to do that.

1. Provide a variety of ways for students to process (or not)

As much as we would want them to, it is unrealistic to expect students and teachers to dive right into their schoolwork as they did before COVID-19. For young people to successfully come back, they will need the opportunity to process their online experience and their transition forward to school.

It will be important to provide students opportunities to meaningfully reflect on their experiences. The more we can get students to open up through talking, writing, or art, the faster they will begin to make sense of what has been a very chaotic 2020. Students will need space to open up, just for the sake of opening up.

Essays, art assignments, structured group conversations and multimedia projects are great opportunities for students to make sense of their complex emotions while also engaging in rigorous academic activities.

This doesn’t mean we should force students to do so. When it comes to trauma and grief, there is no set way or timetable for how people should process it. Some students won’t need to process at all and will be eager to dive back into their studies. Others will seem lethargic, unmotivated or distracted. Both of these are valid responses to a recent trauma, and one is not better than the other.

We need to be patient with students and allow them to process their experience however they see fit and on their own timeline. Students know when they are ready to open up and how they want to do it. As much as possible we must design learning experiences that provide flexibility to allow for diverse arrays of processing.

Finally, we should give students the choice not to open up. If students are talking about COVID-19 with every teacher in every class, they will quickly become emotionally exhausted. Schools would be better off to create a designated time and space, such as home group or pastoral care meetings, for students to open up. School leaders should coordinate with teachers to understand whose curriculum will involve COVID-19 and whose will not.

Balance will be essential. To achieve this balance, building a coordinated and cohesive learning community will be essential.

2. Manage expectations

Everyone (myself included) has incredibly high hopes for the comfort that returning to our school communities will bring. How amazing would it be to walk through the front doors of the school for the first time and return to the world as it was?

It’s a pleasing fantasy, but we must not confuse returning to school as a return to normalcy. Doing so will only set teachers, students and families up for disappointment. Instead, we must manage expectations. Of course, we should be optimistic and instil a sense of hope in our students that they will be ok, and that the world will be ok, but this will take time. If students and teachers come back to school with unrealistic expectations of how their lives will improve, or how quick and seamless school re-entry will be, it can leave them worse off than before.

First, school leaders and teachers must temper what they expect to achieve as students return. All students, and especially our most vulnerable, have endured unprecedented amounts of learning loss while in quarantine. This will create a sense of urgency from well-intentioned educators to “make up” for lost time, and to push for more intense academic rigour.

We must readjust our focus. The best way to do so is to come together as a learning community to define the intentions and goals of the school re-entry. Holding on to academic goals and objectives from a pre-COVID world makes no sense; those goals were not created with a global pandemic in mind.

So, what will be your goal for the rest of the academic school year? I suggest setting worthy, but realistic goals that put students first. A first priority should be to ensure that every student feels safe, supported and connected to at least two adults in the school. As a community, if we could achieve that, the school year would be an unmitigated success.

3. Co-create a new, stronger community

We all have lost so much from COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to gain. We now have a golden opportunity to create a stronger, more cohesive community that is bonded by the collective adversity we have all faced.

The Japanese have a way of making pottery called ‘Kintsugi’. Potters take broken pottery and repair them with precious metals such as gold, silver or platinum. Kintsugi is popular in Japan because it embodies a powerful philosophy; by embracing the damage, by acknowledging the scars, they in turn create a stronger and more beautiful piece of art.

We must rebuild our school communities in a way that acknowledges what has been lost. Schools should spend time being intentional about the norms and rituals they want to keep, and which ones to let go. We must also get creative in thinking of new community norms that must be created to respond to the new world in which we live. We must consider; what is important to hold on to? What do we need to let go of that no longer works in a post-COVID world? What must be created to best serve our students as we navigate an uncertain future?

This must be done with, not to students. Community is only created when everyone is involved. Schools would be wise to empower each student to view themselves a vital community builder. Because there is no specific blueprint to build a community; they arise organically from people coming together. That doesn’t mean we can’t be intentional about the type of community of which we want to be a part. This intention can start by bringing students together and asking for their input:

  • What do we stand for as a collective community?
  • What do students need right now? How can our community provide that?
  • How can we make you feel like you belong here?

Starting these conversations are an essential first step in rebuilding our school communities. When done with thought, care and intention, our schools can start to resemble Kintsugi; broken yet mended, stronger and more cohesive than before.

Tim Klein is an award-winning educator, clinical therapist and school counsellor. He currently works at Boston College as the Project Lead for The True North Program.

Independent Schools Victoria partners with Project Wayfinder to create lives of meaning and purpose for both students and educators.

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