all i really need to know i learned in the covid classroom.

(with apologies to Robert Fulghum)

In 1986, Robert Fulghum’s bestseller All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten reminded us to return to the basics. Fulghum’s premise was, if we just recalled the principles from kindergarten (e.g., share, play nice, clean up our own messes)–instead of over-complicating everything, we’d have a pretty great life. And world.

We educators could learn a thing or two–especially after the year we just weathered.

The year where—overnight—we were forced to become Zen Zoom Masters.

And teach ourselves a bajillion new tech tools.

And synchronously teach a cohort of students in front of us while asynchronously teaching a separate cohort at home. That was working on an entirely different lesson we created.

And, you know, keep students mentally, emotionally, and physically safe all year long.

And engaged.

It. Was. A. Lot.

So, we’re all happy to put The Year That Must Not Be Named behind us.

Teaching was absolutely disrupted, but some of these shifts were good ones. As Eric Ofgang asserts, I think going right back to our 2019 teaching ways would be a huge mistake. There was a lot of Good that came from COVID teaching.

I hope we don’t simply tuck our masks into our desk drawers and return to whatever we did before.

A lot of what we did pre-COVID was pretty great; however, we did some great work that I hope we stick with, too. Here’s a list of five COVID disruptions I’ll be taking with me into the coming year.

1) prioritize connections over corrections.

By the end of October, I had only seen my students–in person–a handful of times. It was like Reverse Dog Years: We’d been together for two months, but it was really the equivalent of about 5 days during a traditional year. I was still struggling with names, and both the mask-factor and the return-to-teaching-in-rows interfered with that Community we teachers work so hard to establish.

The workload was like no other year, but I made the conscious decision to focus more on connecting with these students (which was surprisingly difficult with the limitations) than on correcting their work. Rest assured: I was still creating mountains of work and providing feedback all over the place. But community happens–at least for me–when students feel valued and respected and cared for and safe. No matter what level or subject we teach. I’ve witnessed firsthand that if students don’t feel connected to the mask-wearing stranger in front of them, they’ll never buy what she’s selling.

Releasing myself from the self-imposed pressure of grading everything that came across my desk (monitor?) created room for what the students really needed: relationship.

While I graded more this year than I ever have and helped my students meet the standards just like any other year, I also worked feverishly to make sure the students in front of me had a trusted adult, an ally in front of them as well.

I’m hoping to prioritize connections over corrections in the fall, too.

2) continue checking the vitals.

One of the quickest ways to connect with students was through routine check-ins. When we were fully remote this past year, I did weekly check-ins (including the three below). These moved to every 2-3 weeks once we were back full-time.

Whether the students were describing their current emotional state with a weather system or the previous weekend with emojis (that would have to be explained for Elderly Teacher-Lady), it was a private, one on one conversation between Student and Teacher. Despite where we were located or how many students were on our roster or what text we were exploring together.

This quick litmus test helped me Read the Room so I could better Teach the Room. These routine check-ins—which I took and shared with them, too—helped us connect and feel more normal, more human.

Victoria Hanson, writer at Truth for Teachers, captures the benefits of being human in front of our students:

At some point, I realized it wasn’t enough for me to gush about how important it is to show up bravely in the world and communicate how you’re feeling. I could provide endless examples in literature and have students practice belly breathing every day, but there was a crucial element missing. My students weren’t staring at the mindset trait of the week or interacting with the strong characters in those books all day — they were watching me. I was the missing piece, and I had to show up.

Moving forward, I’ll continue checking my students’ vitals–and, of course, I’ll continue to Show Up. (I’ve seen the benefits firsthand.)

3) keep it simple.

Overnight, teachers had to become tech experts–whether we wanted to or not. And for whatever reason, we thought we had to use 97 shiny, new tools all at once. Even the technology natives that sat in front of us were overwhelmed. Zoom was new to our students, too. As were video-conferencing norms. What we did in the spring of 2020 was on our terms; 2020-1 was not.

But if we thought we were overwhelmed, imagine being a student with 6 or 7 different teachers all using potentially 6 or 7 different–but shiny!–tech tools. It was a lot for them, too.

I learned early on that the simpler I can engage my students, the better. And the more my teaching remains about the content–as opposed to yet another username and password to remember–the better.

I love All Things Technology, but keeping it simple has always yielded the best results.

4) remember: less is more.

This takeaway is pretty straightforward, but it’s one I struggle with the most. Isn’t more always better?

But with limited Together Time last year, the focus was on doing less but to a greater degree. Because we couldn’t possibly get to every unit we’d taught the year before, a lot of good stuff ended up on the editing floor. Last year, I (hopefully!) focused on what was worthy of the Feature Film. I’m aiming to reevaluate all of my curricula with this same barometer.

The good stuff stays. Less is more.

5) continue offering virtual office hours.

Teachers have always met with students before and after school. But video-conferencing tools (e.g., Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams) will make office hours a permanent fixture in my classroom. If a student needs more time than I can give at school, maybe a 10-minute conference at 4:15 works better for both of us.

I know this is a slippery slope. Believe me. We already struggle with a work-home imbalance–and have the record screen times to prove it. So this goal in no way is meant to add on to my day or blur the boundary lines even more. Instead, it just means that I’ll be making myself available to my students from the comfort of my own home. I’m thinking about having Zoom office hours twice a week: one afternoon and one evening (to accommodate students’ extracurricular, work, and bus schedules). It will be when I’m already setting time aside to prep for school or grade a set of papers. If a student drops in, fabulous. If not, that’s good, too–as long as they know they can if they need to.

Virtual office hours are here to stay.

While I’m excited to implement these takeaways in the fall, I need a few more weeks before I can get entirely on board. I may or may not still be rocking in the fetal position after last year.

Thanks for taking the time to read my reflections, and Happy Summering!

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