Right before my son started college, the dean, Kathryn
Lively, shared a story with the first-year students. A
few years earlier, she had attended a silent meditation
retreat where one of the other participants was
continuously disruptive. Lively was angry and told
the retreat host that the woman was ruining her
experience. The host “nodded the way wise people do
and walked me back to my mat, then said, Kathryn,
she is your experience,” she recalled. At the time, she
had no idea what he meant. In retrospect, she realized
that the lesson was exactly what he had said. She
wasn’t getting the experience she wanted, which was
to sit in silence. The experience she got, however, was
“learning to make peace with unmet expectations and
to take the lesson that it’s always up to me.”
This is not the year educators, middle schoolers,
or their parents and caregivers imagined. But it’s
the experience we’ve got, and we can either use this
time to grieve what we’ve lost, or to learn to sit with
discomfort and adapt. Students will do as well as the
adults who raise and educate them. Here are three
ways we can work together to create a more resilient
Reframe the pandemic as a hero’s journey.
Most of us will experience three to five lifequakes,
or massive transitions with aftershocks that last
for years, says Bruce Feiler, author of “Life is in the
Transitions.” In order to manage those traumas, he
told me, it helps to understand that no one’s narrative
is linear, and the main character in a story isn’t the
hero. “It’s the wolf, the tornado, the pandemic,” he
explained. The hero emerges because of the villain.
He was referencing the hero’s journey, something I
do when I'm counseling a child who has been bullied.
I draw from stories such as the Harry Potter series
and Wonder to demonstrate that all heroes go on an
adventure, face conflict and adversity, and emerge
changed. What's unusual right now is that we’re all
getting pummeled at the exact same time.
To build your own resilience, reflect on family
members’ oscillating narratives—the grandmother
who survived the Holocaust or the parent who was the
first in your family to go to college. In the classroom,
share biographies and examples from history that
underscore that people can be strengthened by
adversity, and encourage your students to journal
about their own ups and downs.
Boost everyone's sense of competency.
When people are stretched thin and forced to leave
their comfort zone, they’re more likely to unravel.
We know that plenty of parents feel ill-equipped
to supervise their children’s remote learning, and
that teachers feel tremendous pressure to rapidly
transform their practice. Administrators feel the
burden of weighing competing mediocre options while
buoying their staff. Students are trying to learn new
technologies and ways of interacting with peers at an
age when they're painfully aware of how they stack
up to others. No one signed up for this, and many
people are having a crisis of confidence. During a
Zoom town hall meeting just before school started,
one parent asked my head of school, “How will you be
assessing us parents as teachers?” The administrator
looked startled. “If you’re asking what I think you’re
asking,” she told them, “we won’t be assessing you as
teachers at all. We don’t expect you to have the same
skill set as our teachers!”
When people feel competent, they're less on
edge, more forgiving and more self-compassionate.
To that end, schools can expand parent education
programming, offering sessions on topics such as
coping strategies, social media wellness, technology
and logistics, and the developmental phase. They can provide teachers with relevant and timely training,
too, and make them aware of all the ways they can
access emotional support. Educators can set students
up for success as well. That doesn't mean lowering
expectations, which would have the opposite effect.
Rather, we can play to kids' strengths, offer flexibility
in how we let them demonstrate learning, hold them
accountable without being punitive, and work with
them to establish reasonable and attainable goals.
We also can double down on spreading positive
feedback throughout the community. Teachers can
alert parents when children take academic risks
or do something kind for a classmate. Parents and
administrators can make an extra effort to notice
when teachers inspire students or forge strong
connections. Teachers can reassure parents that
they're doing just fine and let them know that they
appreciate their collaboration. This also is a time to
encourage leaders within the community—whether
it’s the principal, the head of the PTSA, a department
chair, a counselor, a teacher, or a staff development
specialist—to help kick off a positive cycle and
discourage a culture of complaining. As researchers
reported in American Behavioral Scientist (Losada &
Heaphy, 2004), everyone is more motivated if the ratio
of positive to negative feedback approaches six to one.
Focus on connection and common goals.
No matter what schools do, some people will be
dissatisfied with decisions related to everything
from reopening plans to scheduling logistics. Add in
uncertainty, anguish about the state of the world, and
individual concerns about health, safety, and financial
security, and it’s unlikely that everyone will be on
their best behavior. Fear breeds anxiety, which in turn
can breed impatience, judgment, and anger. But if
members of a community turn on one another instead
of focusing on connection, they’ll only erode trust.
Many teachers already are reeling from the hostility
that’s been unleashed on them in recent months,
and no one benefits when teachers experience a drop
It’s harder to get different stakeholders on the
same page when they can’t meet or resolve disputes
in person, but ironically, that means people are likely
to damage relationships right when they need them
the most. To boost everyone’s empathy during social
distancing, schools need to devise creative ways to
bring their community together. School counselors and
other mental health professionals can facilitate dropin
virtual support groups for parents and educators.
Administrators can provide frequent opportunities for Zoom meet-and-greets. Schools can host parenteducator
book clubs. Students can spearhead events,
such as food drives or fundraisers, that unite people
around a common cause.
In times of crisis, everyone’s wellness is inextricably
entwined. Research shows that emotions spread
across a social network, and we need to take care of
one another if we want children to feel centered. Some
educators might find themselves temporarily loosening
boundaries and helping parents in more targeted or
consistent ways. After all, we're Zooming into students’
kitchens and living rooms and are literally guests
in their homes. To balance out the extra demands,
teachers may need to tighten other boundaries, such as
the time they start or end their workday.
Recently, I addressed a group of parents at my own
school. I shared Lively’s retreat anecdote, explaining
that it's a story of radical acceptance—of deciding to
stop resisting what you can’t change. We can’t alter our
current reality, but we can recognize that it’s temporary
and situational, and choose to preserve our optimism
and relationships and emerge stronger together.
Losada, M., & Heaphy, E. (2004) The role of
positivity and connectivity in the performance
of business teams: A nonlinear dynamics model.
American Behavioral Scientist, 47(6), 740-765.
Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0002764203260208
Check out this free webinar featuring Phyllis Fagell sharing ideas for promoting student wellness during the pandemic.
Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and the author of Middle School Matters (Hachette Book Group, 2019). Phyllis also writes The Kappan's weekly Career Confidential column and tweets.