By Elizabeth Soslau
An educator asks: Where is the grace?
“Stop the insanity!” shrieks the voice inside my head. The sound is painful, constant and deafening.
I am a former public school teacher and current university professor, a field instructor for student teachers, and a parent of an elementary-aged child with learning differences. The cacophony caused by these layered identities has disoriented me to the point of seeking out Diane, my therapist, for a lifeline.
The question I needed to ask her was, “Do I have permission to not do my best?” My “best” is an alignment between my values and my actions. I value willful hard work, intellectual curiosity, deep reflection on mistake-making and joyful collaboration. COVID-19 has robbed me of the ability to live my values.
I do not believe in silver linings; it is OK for things to simply be awful. I do try to find opportunities in the face of challenge. COVID-19 is an opportunity to exercise grace, a skill that every educator and parent has, but some are forgetting to exercise. Below I detail why we should halt instruction and instead focus on grace. While empathy is important, grace is critical. Grace is love in action.
End school now
Many of our nation’s teachers are on contract until mid-June. Instead of the uneven, inequitable, unjust, harmful continuation of instruction, teachers should use the next six weeks to engage in planning and professional development for the upcoming academic year.
What will schools look like in the fall? If we open, what will we do if some parents refuse to send their children? What will online instruction look like? Which health precautions are available to all? How will technology be distributed? Will there be parent training for co-teaching? How will classrooms be configured? What about food? Can children carry book bags from home? Can we still have show and tell? Class trips? Proms?
The questions are endless. Teachers need to be at the planning table. Teachers know the children; they know the families. Teachers are key to identifying solutions. Release teachers from teaching now, so they can work to ensure better learning conditions later.
P12 schools should partner with universities, many of which have been teaching online for decades, and can collaborate to offer free professional development to P12 educators. For example, online learning expert Rachel Karchmer-Klein, author of “Improving Online Teacher Education: Digital Tools and Evidence Based-Best Practices,” has developed a series of free webinars for P12 educators. Free webinars and resources are popping up all over the place from well-established educational organizations like Teaching Tolerance and the Zinn Education Project.
Reopen some schools as free childcare centers for children of essential workers. Willing paraprofessionals can serve as child minders, bus drivers can continue limited routes, all while being able to practice safe social distancing in mostly empty school buildings. This is a sound plan now, and for the foreseeable future. England has already created a similar system for the country’s most vulnerable children.
Give up your need to be an expert
If you have never taught online before, now is not the time to become an expert. You cannot simultaneously learn new instructional technology, reassure your students and provide high-quality instruction. I teach in a 100% online master’s program. It takes 12-18 months to design a course and faculty are compensated for course development.
Focus on students’ well-being
Elevate emotional needs over academic needs. Early COVID-19 research indicates that previously traumatized students will experience increased trauma exposure and new students will join traumatized populations. Drop instruction and move towards well checks.
If you can’t reach a student, alert the school leadership. Student absenteeism is not truancy, but it might be a reason to ring the well-being alarm bell. You are not a social worker, but you are a mandatory reporter. Protect children and their families by alerting school support teams to any student welfare concerns.
Giving yourself (and others) grace
So, what did Diane (my therapist) give me during our Zoom therapy session? Permission.
Permission to sit in peace with a misalignment between my values and my actions. I have extended this sense of permission to all aspects of my teaching life. Permission to not sit with my child for up to five hours a day to help him with his work. Permissions to “fail” at all the things I thought were important and instead focus on sleeping, securing food and providing emotional comfort for myself and my loved ones (including my students and colleagues).
In essence, Diane gave me grace. Her gift not only released me from the screeching internal voices drowning out my sanity, it gave me the ability to see others through a grace-filled lens.
I have never, in my 41 years of life, as a student, public school teacher, school leader, faculty member, teacher educator, education researcher or parent ever met an educator who wanted to fail. I have too much lived experience to deny this truth.
This truth can center you. When you believe that every educator (including parents), at any level, in any context, is doing their best, then you can move through this pandemic with grace.
Elizabeth Soslau is an associate professor of education at the University of Delaware.