by Letty Rising
At the time of this writing, it is the Fall of 2021, and the hope has been that THIS is the year when we collectively bounce back from the worldwide Covid 19 pandemic. Children will be returning to school, reuniting with old friends, and will have the opportunity to make new ones. In addition, this is the year to recoup from months or years of learning loss.
Teachers will be able to meet children back in the class once again. Homeschooling parents and educators will be able to resume park days and enrichment classes. Parents can be confident in knowing that they can work without interruption as their children are at school.
But the problem is, it hasn’t quite turned out this way.
What We Are Noticing
Instead, there are reports that many children are unsure about how to navigate relationships in a social setting. In fact observation of regressive behaviors is common. The usual behavior you may expect from your elementary students is not evident. Generalized frustration and emotional outbursts are the norms rather than the exception.
Normalization, a process that might take 6-8 weeks, now can take 10-12 weeks (or longer!). Children who were previously independent and self-directed need some extra time to reset, and children who are new or have not yet developed the independence need even more time than in years past. Standardized measures indicate that students are performing below typical proficiency, causing educators to feel the pressure to make up for lost classroom time.
Teachers are anxious about the possibility of their classroom closing temporarily without warning. Due to a variety of uncontrollable factors, class sizes are often larger, and support personnel, such as assistant teachers, are often lacking. Administrators are checking Covid immunization cards, organizing Covid testing, performing health checks, and sending even the most mildly sick child home, causing a further scramble for working parents who were hoping for a predictable year. Pandemic protocol fatigue is real.
During times of crisis, it’s important that educators give themselves and their colleagues some room to breathe. Many teachers are still stuck in survival mode. It’s hard to make plans when there is talk of possible closures in the air. The following are a few tips and insights that would be good to keep in the foreground as teachers navigate yet another tricky year:
Give yourself permission to present fewer lessons per day (or more lessons per day!)
Your typical routine might not be fully functional right now. Offering fewer lessons doesn’t mean that the children are doing less, it means that they are being given more time to work independently and collaboratively. Longer stretches of time to go deeply into work might be just what your students need!
Alternatively, you might find your students are yearning for more frequent contact and connection with you and aren’t quite sure what to do during the independent work cycle. These children might need more lessons. Remember, many children were home for over a year with parents working from home who were unable to be fully present educators.
Give yourself permission to repeat lessons several times.
Even in typical times, many children benefit from receiving a lesson more than once. Therefore, expect that you may be giving the same lesson multiple times, but in a true elementary fashion, you will be varying the method of delivery. Repetition in elementary happens through variety!
Embed lots of community gatherings and grace and courtesy presentations into your lesson planning.
Offering presentations such as: how to invite a friend to play a game with you, how to collaborate with a friend on a project, how to set boundaries, and how to honor the boundaries set by others. In addition, you will be gathering your class to be creating agreements, then bringing them together again to reinforce/discuss/modify agreements. And there’s a good chance that you will be doing this often!
Pay extra attention to the emotions of individual children as well as the overall emotional climate of your classroom.
When children are in a state of fear or anxiety, they are less able to process or retain information. Create a safe space where mistakes are okay, where the adults are seen as the facilitators and supporters (rather than the regulators or rule-enforcers). Give students the emotional vocabulary they need in order to express their feelings effectively and get their needs met. Model talking about emotions, and give children time to practice identifying and expressing emotions.
Know that you start with the child where they are.
There might be pressure for students to perform, coming from an administrative level, district level, or beyond. However, this is likely to be a year when following a pacing guide isn’t possible, particularly if the student is missing some knowledge that it is expected they already should have. We can’t make a child learn something faster than they are able (or willing!)…we can only create the conditions for them to learn and succeed. Start from what they know, and build on that.
There should be laughter happening in your classroom, as well as sharing joyful moments and warm sentiments. While feeling tired from the additional demands of the profession and also feeling the pressure to accelerate your students to make up for lost time, there might be an unconscious air of stress, strain, or discomfort in the air. Be conscious of creating more opportunities for community gatherings where you can model enjoyment. Singing songs, playing games, and having class discussions on topics of interest to students will help them soften their hearts in order to use their minds.
Don’t forget the basics.
Follow-up activities that incorporate artistic expression are always a hit. Practical life such as food prep, carpentry, and sewing calm the body and organize the mind. And speaking of handwork…weaving, sewing, knitting, and embroidery are all wonderful activities to incorporate during the work cycle or during group gatherings such as read-aloud. Gross motor activities such as nature walks, gardening, and outdoor games will get the children moving and out into the fresh air give children a sense of satisfaction that helps them feel more calm, settled, and ready to learn when they return to the classroom.
Maria Montessori was a scientist and she observed, implemented, refined, and observed again. The Montessori environment is a true laboratory-like environment. It is dynamic and ever-changing. Despite this, there are generally rhythms and routines that develop that create a sense of safety and security for the teachers and the students. However, things are different now, and what might have worked in the past may no longer be working. This means instead of repeating the same thing and not getting the results you want or expect, this might be time to experiment and try new things that will contribute to a harmonious environment.
An Appeal to the Decision Makers
It’s not a secret that administrators and school leaders are struggling with being sandwiched in between wanting to support their teachers and being held accountable by authorities or policymakers. Is there a way you can ease the accountability measures in practice for the remainder of this school year? Can you lighten the load by requiring fewer assessments than usual? Can systems and procedures be rethought with an eye towards greater efficiency, minimize teachers interfacing with paperwork in order to maximize teachers connecting with their students?
There have been reports of schools building self-care opportunities into the school day. Some schools have hired additional mental health supports for students and staff, and/or have hired a life coach to work with teachers during this transitional time. However, there is a difference between helping teachers find ways to cope with the current reality, and changing foundational systems that will be in place long term which will add to student and educator happiness. Finding structural ways to not only embed self-care practices but also to alleviate teacher overwhelm, will go a long way to help tired and weary teachers.
When individuals are in a state of grief, there is often a yearning to skip over the messy parts. From death to divorce, or even something that can be both joyful and stressful such as a move or a new addition to the family, there is that “liminal” state, that “in-between time,” when we want to rush through to the other side where things are easier, better, more predictable. We are all eager to leave the pandemic behind us, and everyone is ready to return to normal life, but normal life isn’t here waiting for us. Not yet.
Major life occurrences are not singular events but are processes that take time. While we are in this delicate place of moving forward to where we want to be, it’s time for everyone to offer grace, modify expectations, and be present with what is. Maria Montessori wrote that the Montessori teacher has to “…visualize the child who is not yet there.” Right now, we are more than ever called to do this, and in addition, to expand this notion to visualizing our entire classrooms, schools, and communities that are not yet there.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several pubic and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. She currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.