Usually, the close of a long summer brings teachers sleepless nights, planning binges, renewed excitement, re-structured lesson plans, and anxiety filled dreams about showing up to school to a class full of students who have gone full anarchy on you and your plans. This year, however, it’s a bit different, isn’t it? Now, those anxiety-filled dreams include Zoom bombing, complete student disengagement, and waking up to disparaging posts on social media bashing the profession you’ve chosen with your whole heart. Whether you’re a first-year teacher or a career veteran, this year will present a unique set of challenges.
So how do you get through the first (and hardest) few weeks?
To start, lean on your fellow teachers and support staff in ways you have never felt comfortable doing. You are the experts; you have great ideas, and so do your colleagues. Share them, steal them, and team up to share the workload. Become best friends with your school librarian, curriculum specialist, and technology coach. Talk to each other about things that worked and things that failed miserably so that you can all start building a repository of best practices for this new reality. Share hacks, tips, helpful websites, and ideas. Some failure is inevitable, but reflect, move on, and remember to share your successes and cheer each other on.
Next, think outside the box, but never forget who’s inside the boxes. Your students should be at the foremost of whatever you decide is important. Keep it simple. The first few weeks should be about building routines, getting familiar with the technology kids will be using, and learning who they are. Building a classroom community early on is essential. No one knows how long we will be in flux with different learning plans, so if and when your kids return in person, return to virtual, or return to a hybrid model, it’s imperative that you have built up trust and relationships. And please, please, please do NOT use your virtual meetings to lecture. This is your time to connect with students, give them agency, and hear their voices. Make it interesting.
Save yourself some headaches by having a backup plan (and a second backup plan), and communicate them to your students and their parents. Convey the message to your students that when things don’t go as planned, you come up with a different plan. Tell your kids the technology will fail (it will), and tell yourself it’s okay (it is). But make sure your students know what they should do if Plan A fails.
Along with a backup plan, give students grace in assignments. Will some kids take advantage? Yes, but don’t be hard-hearted. Maybe your stringent rules were never good for kids anyway – meaningful learning is the goal, and many students are saddled with responsibilities you know nothing about. So focus less on deadlines and more on process. Give kids second chances or third ones to demonstrate their knowledge, and take a moment to appreciate how many skills kids are learning along the way. They are learning to troubleshoot technology issues, solve problems, advocate for themselves, communicate verbally and in writing, collaborate with peers, and so much more. Theses are skills that will last a lifetime, and in many cases, students will be stronger learners when they do return to in-person schooling.
When possible, assign tasks that get kids away from the screen. Makerspace activities, scavenger hunts, and fun photography excursions around the house are all ways you can promote learning and get students moving. Assume other teachers are keeping kids tied to the screen, and find every opportunity you can to do otherwise. Also, independent work hasn’t gone away. You can be available in a synchronous meeting without talking. The virtual version of “walking around the room” is to turn off your camera, mute yourself, and play some soft music (bonus: kids who don’t concentrate well with music can turn the volume down). If a student needs assistance, he or she can unmute and ask for help.
And more often than not, give kids choices and chances to be creative. It has never been so easy to do this as it is now. Let kids design end products that demonstrate understanding. Choice boards, blogs, podcasts, student-created videos, infographics, and movie trailers are just a handful of options that let students create content, develop design-thinking competencies, and show what they know. We are living through what is arguably one of the most historically significant periods of our lifetime, and creative expression is paramount to help students process all they are learning. Teach them that learning comes in many forms, and its expression can and should be diverse and reflective of their personalities and experiences.
Finally, take a nap. This year, at least at the start, is going to feel like being a new teacher. Pay attention to your body, and give it a rest when it needs one. We all need to remember that stress depresses our immune system, and it’s vital to take care of yourself and protect your health. Sacrifice a perfect lesson for a good one, and take some time to recharge. All my respect to every one of you committed to educating our students, working tirelessly to meet their needs, regardless of the circumstances. You are a rock star, and don’t you forget it.