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January 10, 2022

I Went Back to School In-Person . . . It’s Not “Normal” and Neither Are We

An educator’s guide for navigating the “inter-pandemic.”
Leadership
School Culture
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Credit: engin akyurt from Unsplash
I will always be a classroom practitioner at heart—the one who makes to-do lists from research studies and action plans from conceptual frameworks. When I left my school more than five years ago to become a full-time consultant, I promised to always have one foot in the classroom and principal's office and the other in board rooms and presentation venues.
But as we all experienced a global pandemic and I clicked from Zoom to Microsoft Teams to Google Meet, I knew in my gut that I was losing touch with schools’ current reality and the sheer weight of what educators faced. I was joining virtual spaces with educators, but I wasn't living the minute-by-minute challenges of remote instruction. I understood the work schools were doing from a policy and logistics level, but I didn't feel it in my soul the same way that actively working teachers and leaders did.
So, when the opportunity arose for me to support my former school in the return to in-person learning this year, I went “back.” I spent this past fall supporting community wellness, doing everything from COVID testing and contact tracing to providing a safe space, a listening ear, and the capacity to respond to parent questions and hybrid learning needs when others could not. The 1,600 K-12 students and 180 staff members had “showed up” in so many ways, but they had not been together in the same collective physical space for 18 months.
If there is anything the past two years have demonstrated, these places we call “schools” are much more than daycare and daily instruction. COVID highlighted the economic role schools play by enabling parents and guardians to work. Families experienced firsthand the weight of educators’ work—not only academically but also socially and emotionally—as they zoomed into live classroom streams. Now, we hold our collective breath, still defining the depth of actual deficit (and hesitant to affirm potential gains). We fear referring to this time as learning “loss” because we simultaneously recognize the value of pause, reflection, and play that students (and adults) experienced. Instead, we focus on the need for learning acceleration and ponder a “new normal” while day-to-day operations feel anything but status quo.
We're currently orchestrating the “great return” but have not yet fully come to face the social-emotional implications this time will have for years to come. I offer my own guide to school communities for navigating what will come to be known as this inter-pandemic space—a time between what our traditional notions of schooling once were and what they have the potential to become.

1. Breathe.

This time of teaching and leading continues to feel new—even if you've been doing it for 20 years. Developing new skills and adjusting how you approach your work (i.e., new norms and mechanisms for communication, connection, and collaboration) can be exhausting. Take time to step back and breathe. Paper bags may be recommended in some instances. Buy in bulk as necessary. Schedule pauses and reflection points in equal measure in team meetings and co-planning sessions. Some teams may find it helpful to schedule time for both “thinking” and “doing” work as a part of their regular meetings—or what author L. David Marquet refers to as “blue work” (thinking, exploring, learning, improving) versus “red work” (doing, executing, producing).

2. Show Up – For Students and Yourself.

You may wake up with a minor sore throat from talking too loudly and begin questioning the other 12 symptoms on the COVID watch list. In most cases, your educator body was built for this over years of runny noses and snotty shirt sleeves. Our students need your physical presence to greet and grow them. Education is a contact team sport, and we can’t be effective if we’re missing key players.
That said, taking occasional breaks can also strengthen long-term sustainability. If this balance sounds like a challenge to navigate, it is—but we need to trust ourselves to self-regulate. Trust your body. If something doesn’t feel right (physically or psychologically), call a timeout. Self-care includes more than a long run, massage, or Netflix binge. Showing up for yourself can also mean creating space for rest. We need you for the long game.

3. Focus on Names and Nuances.

With everyone masked and/or distanced, it can take longer to learn names and faces, so relationship-building strategies are especially crucial. Push yourself to learn something quirky or memorable about your students and colleagues and weave it regularly into your conversations. Ask about what others are reading, where they want to travel, an item on their bucket list, or their favorite restaurant for takeout after a long week. At a time when so many of us crave connection, details matter. Take care to know one another beyond bell schedules and team time. Make this a year of coffee chats, longer(ish) lunches, and student support.

4. Start with the Adults.

I know, we always focus on students first. It's written into our educator DNA. But that’s also one of the key mistakes identified by districts who have been consistently integrating strong social-emotional learning practices for over a decade. If they had a chance to start over, they would have focused on the adults first. Take time and administer needs assessments (download this free needs assessment tool from my book Personalized Professional Learning) to understand adult learning needs—not only from an andragogical perspective, but a social and emotional one as well.
I wish I could share that my opening staff workshop was a professional game changer. It wasn't. I am an adult learning specialist and pride myself on exceptional professional learning design and personalized facilitation, but even with planning, this was a next-level challenge. We sat masked in socially distanced desks and the fear felt palpable. Mixing and mingling only boosted anxiety. In the end, we focused on compassion over competency, and that felt right to my heart—even if my andragogical lenses and approaches were fogged. We dedicated time toward understanding one another’s perspectives and concerns, anticipating those of students and families, and developing strategies to build social-emotional capacity parallel to academic progress. If we expect educators to model these skills for students, we need to do more to build their capacity first.

5. Unplug.

At the end of the day, close the laptop and shut it down (not just sleep mode). I have been back in school for just a few months, and I forgot how easy it is to get sucked in—one more email, lesson plan, phone call, or log entry. The to-do list never ends. I had developed solid boundaries between work and home, and yet still, I'll admit, I often fell back down the rabbit hole. It took exceptional fortitude to reset these boundaries. I scheduled morning runs and dinners with family with the same commitment as high-priority meetings. I set communication norms around my availability. I reminded myself that my task list and inbox might rarely reach zero, but that’s not what defines effectiveness. Instead, I recentered myself on focused goal setting and reflected weekly on my progress and areas for continued growth. Setting boundaries to allow for recovery can be incredibly challenging, but to continue to show up, you must walk away.

6. Keep Them with Kindness.

We're all more than a little tired, and kind acts offer a serious brain boost. Keep one another going by buying an extra coffee, running someone's copies, or covering a class to provide 10 minutes of headspace. These moments matter more than you know. To everyone who has troubleshooted my tech issues, texted me to check in, bought me an iced tea, and said “thank you,” please know these small acts are seen and deeply appreciated.

7. Meet Basic Needs First.

Meet your basic needs before the other stuff. Pack a lunch that includes more than a granola bar or last night's unidentifiable leftovers (and make time to eat it). Take a walk beyond the jaunt from your car to the school. Set a consistent sleep schedule and keep it. Whether you count sheep or take melatonin to shift from chaos to calm, we need to stay well-rested.

8. Remember That Everything Feels New…to Everyone.

The beginning of the school year is typically a time to support new and struggling teachers. I know I can't be the only one who cried in their car during those first months of teaching. Well, this time, we're all like new teachers, and we’re all in this together. We may not need support running the copy machine or checking our voicemail, but everything feels new, and we should seek one another to vent, troubleshoot, and find calm amid the uncertainty and chaos. We need spaces to ask questions, be heard, decompress, feel safe, and yes, even cry. Because this work is physically and emotionally exhausting.
In the game of maintaining community safety while also keeping the doors open for as many learners as possible, there is no perfect way to create student groups, to contract trace, or to design seamless daily schedules and after-school activities. I've spent what feels like a lifetime in flowcharts, spreadsheets, student schedules, and data tables, and though we have created action steps, we don’t have perfect answers. The comprehensive supports that schools need to offer students right now can't be defined in a paragraph, let alone in a seating chart. Go easy on yourself if you don’t get something right the first (or fifth) time.

9. Savor Quiet Moments.

In our culture, there is a stigma to stillness. Yet, these distinct moments often bring us clarity. Working in schools as a consultant affords me certain opportunities that don't always present themselves naturally for those buried in the thick of it. One of those key levers is the ability to press pause and call a timeout to reset. I have called a lot of timeouts this past semester for the schools I’m working with–meaning, I have continuously reassessed needs and priorities and responded accordingly. These timeouts look different within each school community, but some ideas include integrating processing or think time within staff and team meetings and professional learning engagements, pausing initiatives or programs that aren’t demonstrating anticipated results, and creating safe space for teams to consider “why” and “why not” as much as “how.” Most importantly, I carve out time for quiet moments. These minutes matter.

10. Laugh.

Send the meme. Orchestrate a brilliant practical joke (and tag me so I can share it). Soak in the day-to-day reality we're currently defining as "school." Embrace the uncertainty, shifting guidelines, and muddiness of it all. This time provides an opportunity for us to reimagine our learning spaces. And in the uncertainty, it’s OK to laugh. Through all the wonderings, don’t stop smiling (even through masks) because that's what our students need most in this moment. They don’t need seamless bell schedules, Pinterest-worthy classrooms, or a flawless lunch pick-up routine. (As an adult, I still can't navigate the full Starbucks menu. It's no wonder our students struggle to order and pick up lunch after two years of simply walking to the home kitchen.)
What our students need right now is us—educators who continue to teach, but also learn together.

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