Are They Ready?

I have been fortunate to teach a class at a local university for preservice teachers for the last few semesters. The course is designed to help secondary educators learn strategies to include students with special needs in regular education classes. As a leader who spent many years as a special educator and as the proud parent of two children with special needs, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to spend a semester with these amazing students helping them to understand areas of disability and how a disability can impact learning and self-esteem. We learned how to read Individualized Education Plans and the importance of using Universal Design for Learning in writing lesson plans for all learners. I also discovered pretty early in my first semester that the course needed to have a much broader focus.  

I tried to model how to build relationship-driven, learner-focused classrooms with every session and online discussion. We opened and closed our face-to-face meetings with a community-building circle. We moved from easy, getting to know you questions to much more challenging ones about ourselves and our purpose. We learned a lot about one another quickly and used it to push real conversations about how to create classrooms that are authentic communities where everyone feels a sense of belonging. We also talked about our obligation to close opportunity gaps, the need to recognize implicit bias and confront it, our commitment to understanding historical marginalization so that we can know more and do better, and how to hold all learners to the highest standards with the right scaffolds to empower them to drive their own learning.

We spent time each semester discussing the increase in mental health needs across our country and how to find ways to support learners who struggle with anxiety and depression in our schools. We also discussed how essential self-care is for all educators. This was especially important for the students as it was the first time for many of them that they had thought about having an intentional plan to take care of themselves. Teachers have challenging jobs that include many expectations and ask a lot of us as professionals and people. Having the right support network of people who build us up, making sure to celebrate the incredible successes our learners can have to hold on to in tough moments, and learning strategies to take time for ourselves physically and mentally needed to be a part of our class.  

The most important topic we discussed is why empathy and not sympathy should be the driving force in our interactions with others. Empathy is the understanding of or the ability to identify with another person’s feelings or experiences, which you cannot do unless you listen to learners and ensure everyone in the community has a voice that is heard. I am not sure who said it, but I love the quote, “Accessibility is being able to get in the building. Diversity is being invited to the table. Inclusion is having a voice at the table. Belonging is having your voice heard at the table.” One of our assignments was to do empathy interviews with students and report the results to our class. They asked their students to tell them a time they felt successful in school, tell about a time when school was hard and what the student did to resolve it, and what was one thing they wanted their teachers to know about them. One of my students came to class after we had done the interviews very upset. He shared his frustration that he had not done the empathy interviews with students earlier in the semester. In his final reflection, he wrote, “I was reading through my student responses. I felt that I had built great relationships with my students. I knew them. But their responses to those interviews helped me understand my students on a completely different level. That was when I realized how important that emotional side is. I also started the evolution of my relationship building with students with IEP during this time too.”  

Using our empathetic lens, we talked about engaging families and always assuming positive intent when working with parents who are frustrated and advocate for their child. We learned how challenging it can be to be the parent of a child who is a divergent thinker, who has experienced trauma, who is in foster care, or who is not challenged enough academically at school. We worked on communication strategies, alternative ideas to empower families, and ways to be sure they are genuinely included in the decisions regarding the development of a student’s Individualized Education Program. We want our families to know they also have a voice that will be heard at the table and belong to our community as well. 

For our final exam, the students were able to choose any topic that meant something during the semester and create a product that represented what they had learned. What they created was impressive. They made wood carvings, video tutorials, Jenga games, erasure poems, lego reenactments of scenes from school, a poetry book, a t-shirt line, cupcakes with all different centers, pottery displays, a series of movie memes, and many more. As much as I enjoyed the products, it was their reflections that meant the most to me. They were thoughtful, and each shared a shift of practice they made towards creating communities of learners who are inspired to create through projects and whose voice is heard and respected because they feel a real sense of belonging. In his final reflection, another student shared, “ It (the class) will, I hope, have made me a more empathetic, patient and considerate teacher; someone who has more of an understanding that it isn’t “my” classroom, it belongs just as much to my students and they need to have a say in it to feel that they belong there; and someone who strives to take these lessons and continue to add to them, and learn as much as I can from those around me.”  

It is imperative now, more than ever, to be empathetic, to celebrate the voices of our students who are ready to share theirs and to help others find that sense of belonging that gives them the confidence to find their voice. When I think about the university students I have encountered in the last several semesters, I believe they are ready to create empowering communities that ensure every learner will have a voice that is heard at the table, and I could not be more proud of them. 

Standing in the Gap

Standing in the gap is a biblical term that refers to someone standing in the gap of a wall that has been breached and needs to be filled to protect from enemies. For our learners, their usual wall of protection certainly has a gap now, and many of them will need us to stand in it for and with them. This time of COVID-19, schools closing their physical walls, and social distancing is scary for everyone. It creates uncertainty about our world that is unsettling and is filled with anxiety for many people, but especially for those with previous mental health concerns.  

I have seen many posts on social media and have heard from close friends and family that this last week was hard for them. The reality of our current situation, which once seemed novel, is starting to feel very real. People are beginning to know someone personally who is ill, which makes it all even more real and frightening. The level of fear and isolation can be really dangerous for people, especially for our learners who rely heavily on their support system at school. We did our first two suicide risk assessments last week based on comments learners made on an online platform or in a video conference. Finding ways to support our learners’ emotional well-being is always important, but it has taken on a whole new meaning now.  

We had the opportunity to have Hakeem Rahim for our opening day speaker for all staff a few years ago. He shared his story of realizing at seventeen that he has bipolar disorder while he was attending Harvard University after being named the first African-American male valedictorian at his high school. His message for us that day was about how important it is to remove the stigma of having a mental health issue and to be open to talking about it. He shared a message of hope to move beyond our lowest lows and find a way forward. In a speech he gave for the National Alliance for Mental Illness, he said, “If we can intentionally say I accept what I am going through. If we can say that because I’ve accepted what I am going through, there’s absolutely no shame, and there’s absolutely no more hiding. If we can understand that acceptance builds a space for possibility and if we understand that if we are diagnosed with a mental illness, there is hope, we have won, and we have been transformed…… You must believe that somebody out there believes in you even when you do not believe in yourself. ” 

I have been thinking about his message a lot this week as things started to feel more grim. It is so important to find connections to others and believe that there is somebody out there who believes in you. I have seen the amazing ways our educators are showing learners they believe in them and deepening their relationships over our last two weeks of distance learning. They are finding new and exciting ways to check-in and make sure our learners are okay. Teachers are hosting class meetings, online recess, dance parties, and spirit weeks as well as driving through neighborhoods to show signs and wave to our learners. Our elementary teachers are sharing stories of video lunches where suddenly the whole family was there having lunch with the teacher. They are sharing stories of the connections being made between learners and their own families as they are all at home and sometimes end up on the video chats as well. They are writing notes of support and encouragement and sharing messages of hope. Our goal when we went to distance learning was to continue to provide some of the consistency of school while trying new ways of learning and making sure our learners continued building strong relationships with staff. In many cases, this time has bonded our learners and teachers in new ways, which is encouraging.   

Our counselors, social workers, school psychologists, educational assistants, and secretaries are also connecting with either learners or staff every day. Our teachers need us to support them as much as our learners do. This transition has been a challenge for everyone, and we have teachers working harder than ever to be sure learners have what they need. This week, our lead school psychologist is running a mindfulness class for our teachers that have expressed they are struggling. Our building substitutes are still working to be sure teachers have support if they need to take time due to physical illness or just need time to regroup. It has become a shared experience for staff, learners, and families wherein we are all learning to appreciate one another a little more. In an opening circle for a class, one learner wrote, “I give a shout-out to all our teachers for teaching us the best they could and staying calm during an unexpected problem.” That learner just stood in the gap for a teacher who may have needed it.  

We also have our Hope Squads starting to learn how to do their outreach online to create space for learners to support other learners. Most people share their stories of how and why they are struggling if you happen to catch them in a moment in time when it seems right for them. We have to be sure we are intentionally creating many, many chances for connections between us all in order to be sure that when someone is ready to share their story, someone else is there to listen and support them with the right help.  

Our families are feeling it too and are doing the best they can under the circumstances. Many of them are worried about the financial impact of all of this or have been laid off because of it and are learning to be a distance learning teacher at the same time. It has been a challenge to make the transition in my own house with my husband and I both working from home and trying to keep our children engaged in learning. I am thankful to the number of teachers who have offered us support but have been okay when we needed to say no thanks and just take a break from things for a short while. They have stood in our gap over the last two weeks in a powerful way that I truly appreciate.  

This time is challenging for all of us, and the longer it goes on, the harder it may be to hold on to hope and positivity. It is time for all of us to stand in the gap for others when we can and ask for others to stand in our gap when we can’t. I am grateful someone was listening when two learners reached out with suicidal thoughts so we could get them the help they needed, but it was also a reminder of how much our outreach to check on one another matters right now. There are so many beautiful ways in which our communities have come together during this crisis. We have people volunteering to deliver meals, doing blood drives, donating medical supplies, sewing masks, creating engaging lessons both on and off-line to keep learners engaged, finding ways to support local businesses, and honoring the recommendations to stay home whenever possible. The physical distance between us can unify us in a new way, but we need to be open to talking about our challenges and relying on others to stand in our gap until we are ready to stand in our own again.