By Nanci Caplan
[This article is the first in a four-part series featuring graduates of the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI). MTEI is a two-year journey of discovery, helping educational leaders transform their educational communities into places where teachers learn together, exploring both Jewish content and how to enrich learning for students. This series focuses on how some MTEI graduates are grappling with challenges of teaching and leading at this time.]
During my first day of orientation as a school counselor in a NYC public high school, my principal opened by sharing a story about the greeting used by the Maasai: “And how are the children?” This greeting is used instead of “hello” because if the children are ok, then the community is ok. If the children are not ok, then there is work to be done. While I do not know enough about the Maasai, I am incredibly grateful to have heard this story as this greeting ignited something within me. It has guided me in my work during my time in NYC and Chicago public schools and continues to remain at the forefront of my mind at Solomon Schechter Day School in Northbrook, IL. During this time of global pandemic, of national uncertainty, of confusion and disagreement about whether or not schools should physically open their doors to their students this fall, the question that we must ask ourselves is: “And how are the children?” Because it is the children that we, as a community, are responsible for and to, and much like the Masai, if our children are ok, then our community is ok, and if our children are not ok, well, then we have work to do.
Closing the physical doors of schools due to COVID-19 brought a range of emotions in communities across the nation: sadness, anger, confusion, fear, relief, and many others. And while I embodied that entire range of emotions, I also felt awe at what our school’s leaders, teachers, and community members created. We forged a path where it was clear that our children were our top priority. And we worked diligently to open spaces for our students where it was valued to be vulnerable, honest, and to express the enormous range of emotions that each person in our community, really, our entire world, was experiencing.
Living, learning, and teaching behind a screen brought many challenges, but the one I thought about most was how we will know if our children are ok. Every teacher knows the tell-tale signs of happiness and unhappiness in their students without them ever speaking to us. We know which student had a hard morning based on the hoodie over their face and their slumped shoulders as they walk in the door. We know based on a student’s greeting to us how their day is starting out. We know who had an argument at lunch based on the whispers in the hall walking back to class and the furtive looks exchanged as the students enter the classroom. We know which student to make eye contact with before teaching to see if we have their attention. We know, without using words, because we are constantly observing the behavior of our kids.
But with the closure in March, we lost some of our observation skills and we were at a loss as to how to know if our children were ok. Without being able to watch our students enter our classrooms, play basketball during recess, to see who they chose to sit by in t’fillah, or who they walked up the stairs with, we had to come up with new ways to assess our students’ social and emotional health and we tried many different ways to continue to ask ourselves how our children were. The following list includes some ideas that we employed and that may be helpful to others given that many schools will be engaging in remote learning again.
- Continue running homerooms and morning meetings!
As a school that prides itself on implementing Responsive Classroom and Second Step, we made the decision that it remained important to us while closed to continue to hold homerooms that started each student’s day with a grounding place that focused on “seeing” each other first as people, then as students, that challenged us to find creative ways to greet each other, and that emphasized social and emotional learning as the basis for all other learning.
- Make time for your mental health practitioners to see students and parents.
Our day schools have awesome internal capacity, both within our doors and in our larger communities. We need to maximize this capacity and find ways to schedule zoom meetings with our counselors, social workers, and school psychologists so that our students can get their emotional needs met remotely. If your schools do not have these positions, think about reaching out to community agencies to see if they are available to offer mental health services to your families. We need to remember that we are all in this together, and that we need to support each student where they are and differentiate the services they receive according to their need.
- Continue to hold staff meetings.
Reserve time during these meetings for teachers to talk about students they are concerned about…whether that be concern over lack of work completion, lack of attendance, lack of buy-in, or if their intuition is just telling them something doesn’t feel right. And then decide, before the meeting is over, who is going to reach out to the student or the parent to check-in and see how everything is going. And don’t forget to use staff meeting time to check in on each other; the adults in our schools also need to know that we are there for them.
- Use t’fillah as time for your students to engage in thoughtful reflection about their world.
As Jewish educators, we are always thinking about how to make t’fillah meaningful and relevant to our students. As they grapple with the confusing world they are living in, using prayer is an avenue to help them make meaning in their lives and to think about their future. This is also a good time for schools to think about implementing meditation and mindfulness practices.
- Partner with your families!
Our families are our greatest asset and the best source of information while school is physically closed. It is important to strengthen your bonds with your students’ families so that you are working together to support the children.
- Have 1:1 meetings with students.
We saw in virtual learning that some of our most outgoing students became withdrawn on zoom, and that some of our quietest students found their voices while learning virtually. Our students may be comfortable telling us how they are, but they also may not be comfortable. We need to create an environment where the students, and their families, know that they have our undivided attention and support.
- Have 1:1 meetings with parents.
It is important that the parents receive feedback from us while school is closed. Andit is important that the parents know that we are watching their children even while afar and that we, as their partners, will share with them the information that will be helpful. This also gives parents the opportunity to share with us how their children are doing away from their classrooms, their teachers, and their friends. As an added bonus, it is always helpful for our students to see that the grown-ups in their lives are on the same team!
We do not know how our children will feel as they begin school in the fall. We may never know everything that they experienced while they were away from us. But if we can begin each day by asking ourselves, and those around us, “And how are the children?” then I am confident that we will continue to teach, and to lead, knowing what is most important in our communities.
Nanci Caplan is the Principal of 7th and 8th grades at Sager Solomon Schechter Day School in Northbrook, IL. Nanci is a graduate of MTEI cohort 8 and is currently enrolled in the Executive Doctoral Program at JTS. You can reach her at [email protected].