We are all familiar with the flight attendant’s announcement when we get on a plane, “When traveling with someone who needs assistance, make sure to put on your own oxygen mask first.” When the coronavirus pandemic struck, educators pivoted quickly, translating their curriculum overnight into remote platforms even though many lacked sufficient training. They were remarkable, but it took a toll on them.

Anticipating another disruptive semester — and seeing a need to help educators attend to their own needs and recharge, collaborate and plan for another challenging year—Hidden Sparks launched a Summer Learning Summit for nearly 100 teachers from 30 Jewish day schools.

The goal for gathering together for a Zoom learning summit was to help teachers cultivate community and student engagement despite the challenges of distance learning and social distancing; to think about what contributes to impactful and engaging in-class and remote learning; and to provide an opportunity for teachers from across the country to learn with top learning experts and work together in planning for the upcoming year.

As most students will look to their teachers to be the stabilizing force in an increasingly unstable world outside of the classroom, our conversations focused on what teachers can do to embed social and emotional learning (SEL) into their classrooms this fall and help students succeed.

Perhaps even more important than ever in the recent past, we need to help students feel connected and cared for. Forming connections with students and families should ideally begin before school begins. Reaching out to students or meeting them in small groups before school starts can help students feel valued members of their class and help ease the return back to school.

For younger students returning to physical classrooms, teachers can meet them virtually, one on one—so that the teachers faces are recognized and seen before the start of school both with and without a mask, perhaps even through a game—to foster the connection to students and help prepare the children for the classroom. A conversation with a parent can help the teacher learn about the student’s interests, strengths or fears, and form a connection with home to ease a potential transition to remote learning.

Once school starts, consistent routines that strengthen the feeling of community and belonging, such as morning meetings or closing circles, can be adapted and continued if need be for virtual classrooms. Consistent routines help children feel a sense of continuity and connection and also ease a transition to virtual learning. Students can also be provided with parallel sets of materials, class songs and mini-posters of what hangs on their classroom walls for them to keep at home and to set up their own mini-classroom if school shifts to remote options.

Jewish day schools face the extra pressure of additional subjects because of a dual curriculum, and traditionally, there has always been a very high emphasis placed on academic achievement. Faced with the impacts of the pandemic, lost time last year and fears of a second wave of the virus, teachers will likely feel increased pressure to cover more ground before the winter.

On the other hand, children have experienced loss, anxiety, disorientation and isolation. They are returning to schools and classrooms with complex emotions that will surface. Teachers will need to be attuned to this, to validate what their students are feeling and support them. Educators have a critical role to play in creating classrooms that feel safe and comfortable, and that help students address their emotions so that they will be more prepared to learn.

Whereas some teachers came into the program thinking about how to cover maximal ground, they left understanding the importance of focusing the first few weeks of the year on the social and emotional learning needs of the students, especially after the disruptions caused to the students’ lives during the spring and summer. In younger grades, teachers can select picture books that depict characters who are experiencing emotions as a way to encourage students to talk about their own emotions.

Teachers can help to focus their students on the “glass half-full” perspective through exercises like writing poems together, such as “Even though I can’t do that, I can do this.” This can serve as a tool for teachers to be able to better understand their student’s emotional needs, while also serving as a classroom community-building exercise. Activities like these can be easily replicated for a physical or virtual classroom.

One of the most powerful lessons we can model for our students is how we approach challenges. Enabling students to discuss what they cannot do legitimizes those feelings, but thinking about what they still can do helps them reframe the challenge and focus on what they can control, fostering resiliency.

Educators, in many ways, have been on the front line of the pandemic since its start. They have rapidly pivoted from in-class to virtual teaching, and, in many cases, have seized opportunities to run special “feel good” programs, all while often managing their own busy households.

We are living in unprecedented times that call on us to wear multiple hats as teachers, guidance counselors, healers and hopeful leaders. Our students will learn from us by example as we model life lessons in compassion, resilience, hope and dedication to community. Let us seize this moment to exercise that leadership for the next generation. JN

Debbie Niderberg is a co-founder and executive director of Hidden Sparks, a coaching and teacher-training program helping diverse learners and all students in Jewish day schools succeed. As a result of the success of the Summer Learning Summit, Hidden Sparks will be offering additional back-to-school workshops for teachers and schools this summer and fall.

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