Teaching during a pandemic

By Megan McQueen

Oh, teachers, I wish I could wrap you up in a big hug. This is hard. We chose a career in education because we cherish our connection with others. We want to help people find success. With very little or no warning, we left our classes to help flatten the curve. Now we are home, missing our students – our children and families, and trying to figure out how best to support them from a distance. As I chatted with a teacher friend, she cried and said, “What am I supposed to do? This is who I am and I can’t do it anymore!”

Many educators around the world are being asked or encouraged to teach from a distance. We are quickly learning how to navigate the platforms available, juggling the ever-changing expectations from our school districts, organizations, programs, or bosses, and feeling overwhelmed by the needs of our students. As we transition to working from home, a great many of us also have our own families at home that need attention. It bears repeating: This is hard. But we can do this. Educators are nothing, if not flexible. We are used to shocking news, changing our plans to respond to a need, and more joy, compassion, and heart-opening love than we knew was possible as a professional. I hope you can find solace in these suggestions that have been helpful to me the last few weeks. Although some of these strategies are specific to public school settings, most are intended to support educators working in many different settings supporting children and families, including through parenting education.

This is emergency learning. Maine’s Department of Education Commissioner, Pender Makin, was quoted as saying, “This is not remote or distance learning. This is emergency learning, during a global emergency. We need to give ourselves grace and remember, this is not what we would do if we planned distance/remote learning. We have not planned this emergency.” We need to be patient with ourselves. We are scrambling to find a quiet workspace in our homes. We are trying to quickly train ourselves to use many different digital platforms and apps to communicate and teach from. We are digging through the endless links for ideas to support children and families. We are asking our own families to please be quiet while we’re recording (just me?). Through all of the chaos, take a break. Go take a short walk, clear your head and remember your why. I’m guessing that your why was similar to mine and about building relationships. Let that be your focus. You are supporting your students, no matter their age, background, level of need, through an emergency. You are providing them with some routine and connection. Take some pressure off yourself. Show your students that you are excited to “see” them and share some humor with them.

Terrible First Time. A teacher friend was walking me through some new technology that we would be using. When I thanked her for answering so many questions, she asked me if I had listened to Brené Brown’s new podcast. My already-limited podcast time was one of the first things to disappear during my sheltering time. My friend told me to make time to listen to the first episode. I immediately turned it on. Brené talks about FFT’s (which she translates to the kid-friendly Terrible First Time). She describes the vulnerable, scared, and awkward feelings we all have when starting something new. Everyday, all day long, we are having terrible first times! We are learning how to join an online meeting, how to invite someone to a meeting, our online etiquette, how to add others to our platform, mute them all while also finding ways for them to share their voices, and trouble-shoot technology issues. I’m going to stop, because this list is stressing me out. Suffice to say, we’ve probably never spent this much time with our families either. We have no alone time and no outside support. We are all trying to figure it all out at the same time. Literally, everyone in the whole world is going through a terrible first time (but some have more resources to do so than others). I relish stories from those with more experience and remember that we will get through this and things will get better.

Care for yourself. I know there are a million directions you can be going, but take a minute to plan some moments for yourself. Usually our lives are planned out to-the-second and we are lucky to have breaks when we need them. I am finding that being outside is restorative. I’m discovering that taking small walking breaks outdoors is helpful for my mind and body to counteract all this new sitting still that is new to me. I am beginning my days with some meditation and intention-setting, which most often center around responding with love to my family. Compared to my old schedule, this all feels indulgent, which is necessary right now. I have a variety of feelings moment-to-moment and day-to-day. Just as I would talk to my students, I acknowledge that my thoughts are real and acceptable, and that they are temporary. Sometimes during meditation, I repeat to myself, “Not permanent, not perfect, not personal.” This helps me gain perspective on my situation. Find what works for you to help you navigate the flexibility required for this new normal.

Connect. First, connect with yourself. Ask yourself what you need in this moment. Is it more water? A bike ride? A second of quiet? A good cry? Give yourself what you need. Then, think about your students whether they are children, youth, or families. Think about how you can build your connection in a new way. Send them funny videos of how you’re spending your time. If your students are older, share a meme that is making you laugh or smile. Find a small way to give them a virtual connection or hug. Are there students you haven’t been able to connect with? Be creative. Leave something at their door so they know you’re thinking of them. If your students are adults, maybe you can send them snail mail or ask another student if they know a better way to be in touch. How can you help your students connect with each other?  Your first priority is not content; it is connection. If you are struggling to make a connection with a student or for them to attend online, reach out to your district or organization. Many school districts and programs are reaching out to families that are in need and may have other ways to meet needs. You cannot do everything. I know that lost connections are one of the most painful parts of this. You worry about your families. Do your best, send them love, let them know you are available to talk with when they are available.

Care for your family. If you have children of your own at home, they may be seeking more of a connection from you as well. Get clear on how you can take care of your basic needs so that you can better care for your children. I find that if I wake early and meditate for a few minutes, sneak in a few short solo walks, I am a much better parent. Maybe you need to sleep in and drink your coffee in silence or hide some good snacks for yourself. Do what you need to so that you can help your children navigate this experience. When my husband and I are both in video meetings, we let our kids know that they will need to be independent and set them up before we start our meetings. Or, I tell my kids that I will be in a meeting, but can be interrupted if needed, but that their dad cannot because he is in an important meeting (or the opposite). There is no shame in plugging your kid into a device or the TV for a bit so you can get some work done. There are many high-quality options for screen time. We all just have to get through this. I try to notice the positive aspects of this time as well. I am enjoying having family lunches and dinners. Our family is watching movies and playing games together more often. I remember that this event is shaping our lives and I want my children to remember kindness, flexibility, grit, and feeling loved when they reflect on it. Parenting during a pandemic is new to me also, but I want to be stable and gentle when my children are calling out for more connection. We always have a choice to respond with empathy. We won’t always be able to pull that off, but we will have opportunities to try again.

Laugh at the small stuff. I was busily recording my voice to digital sight word flashcards that I could share with students. I had to re-do my recordings several times because my microphone picked up my husband in another room on his video meeting, my dog started barking at the mailman, and my phone rang. I realized that I was getting frustrated and stepped away. This wasn’t going to work at that moment. I switched to another project. What could I do? Getting mad at my family or the small quarters we were sharing would not help anything. I put on some good music and danced while checking my email. This is no different than the unplanned interruptions that happen during live classes anyway. Laugh and move on. 

There are no tricks to this. We have to feel all of our feelings, learn many new things at once, and love our people. That’s it, really. Sip a cup of tea, take a deep breath, and tackle one new thing. Laugh at your mistakes. Call your colleagues for help and a good cry. Hug your family and celebrate small moments of joy. Procrastibake. Try again tomorrow. Be patient with yourself. Think how incredible it will feel to leave your house and give your students a big hug someday.

Megan McQueen is a warmhearted teacher, coach, consultant, and writer. She grounds her work in empathetic education, importing a strong sense of community and social skills to those with which she works. Megan prioritizes emotional learning and problem solving skills. When not at work, she is most likely playing with her husband, two children, and pup.

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