Author of The Flexible SEL Classroom comes to terms with how she’s changed during the pandemic, and how to use that to her students’ advantage in the classroom. You can now preorder the second edition of The Flexible SEL Classroom, shipping in March, 2022.
My mother-in-law, Chris Chandler, was a bit of . . . well, a “collector.” She kept everything. Some of it was practical, but much of it seemed to be compulsion. I admit that I shook my head often, as I’d watch her fold up extra napkins, or add to her condiments drawer (yes, drawer!) the tiny packets leftover from takeout, or her little box of “treasures” that she’d stored up over the years. Chris was a daughter of the Depression and lived an extremely humble life without most of the comforts I take for granted.
Now, a year and a half later, I am a changed woman, as I am now a woman of the Pandemic. It has changed me, and I now regret that I was not able to see that her actions were one part coping mechanism, one part practicality, and one part magic. The Pandemic hasn’t made me a “collector,” but I have learned from her experience and implemented a few “Pandemic Principles” in my own life.
Lesson 1: Create Coping Mechanisms
As teachers, we’ve been asked to do more with less, to pivot (I know…a dreaded word), and to somehow adjust to impossible situations with a big smile, a large coffee, and a graphic t-shirt proclaiming that we are superheroes. We are coping. The key here is that we need to also help students adopt coping mechanisms to get them through the day. Kiddos need to be overtly taught how to cope with difficult situations. And let’s be honest, school on the day to day can be difficult right now. Some suggestions that have worked well for some of my students this year:
- Break the day into quarters. Only focus on that small part. Identify ONE person you will encounter who will make you happy. This could be a friend or a teacher. (Teachers, this is yet another reason we must be THE PERSON who looks out for those sad kiddos)
- Hydrate! Make sure that you are drinking plenty of water. Also, don’t skip meals. If you are hungry, let me know. (I keep cereal and some basic snacks in my room)
- Focus on someone else. Look for another student who is alone, sad, or tired. Try to be the good in their day. It helps to help!
Lesson 2: Practice Practicality
My mother-in-law, because of her “collecting,” was the go-to for tweezers, buttons, thread, baggies, nail files, matches, shells, stamps, candy, and a long list of other items that are both valuable because of their practicality and somehow unimportant at the same time. As teachers, we’ve made certain changes to how we do things out of practicality. I, for one, am not changing seating arrangements every other week just to keep things interesting, as I have in the past. With contact tracing, etc., it just isn’t practical. As it turns out, my musical chairs take on student grouping isn’t as important as I thought.
We need to offer students practical tips to make their lives easier. With all of their activities back up and running, many are very overwhelmed. My own children have had to make some hard, but practical decisions. My son did not try out for the fall musical. The adjustment back to school (he was fully virtual last year) has been a roller coaster and, practically speaking, he needed an adult to suggest that maybe he wait until the spring to add length to his day and stress to his plate. My daughter didn’t make All-State Chorus. Instead of panicking, we signed her up for a few voice lessons, and she will look forward to the spring festival season. It’s not practical to expect that life is the same as it was before the Pandemic. We can only adjust. Students are going to need our level-headed and practical advice to help them understand that things can have relative meaning. Sometimes the outlook we must adopt is practical more than anything else, and that is ok.
Lesson 3: Make Magic
Of all the things that teachers do, I am most proud of myself for making magic. We must view ourselves as the orchestrators of great moments. Students are struggling to be together again, so I’ve been gathering intel and creating opportunities for them to shine for who they are as humans and to ease the process of creating connections with other kids. For example, I had my students created posters to start the year with fun facts about themselves so they can see who might have similar interests – basically an self-advertisement to create new connections. We must try to show middle school students that they are magical simply because they are uniquely themselves.
This week I am introducing sketch noting because I observed that I have a lot of doodlers this year. Many came into my class unshy about their dislike for ELA, but by giving them an opportunity to shine because of who they are and the skills/interests they bring to the table I am confident we will make magic moments. The thing about magic is that it is unexpected – otherwise it would be science. The magic is in the surprise, and students need not know that you are orchestrating these moments; rather, our satisfaction can be in watching students discover new friends and talents.
Just as my mother-in-law was a daughter of the Depression, I am ok seeing myself as a woman of the Pandemic. It has changed me. It has made me double down on principles that have meant a lot to me all along – and to let other things go. For me, those “Pandemic Principles” are going to be about taking care of each other, and about helping students socially and emotionally on my way to teaching them academically. I wish I’d had the chance to say to Chris, “I get it now. You were coping. You were being practical. You were making magic.” If there’s a silver lining somewhere, it is that I’m going to live out the ideals that had once been abstract to me. I hope you’ll join me in upholding the Pandemic Principles you’ve learned too.
Amber Chandler is the coordinator of alternative education and interventions for Frontier Central School District in Hamburg, New York. She is a National Board Certified ELA teacher, the 2018 AMLE Educator of the Year, and a member of the AMLE Board of Trustees. Amber is author of The Flexible SEL Classroom: Practical Ways to Build Social Emotional Learning in Grades 4-8.