The lessons worth learning: How our school is surviving COVID-19
Spring flowers bloom in our deserted playground. “Some of the teachers just couldn’t stop crying” – Alejandra, the principal of the elementary section of our school told me when I asked her how things were going. It was the first week of distance learning, just a few days after all schools in México closed amidst the COVID-19 crisis. We had seen it coming, but were, nevertheless, underprepared. Education authorities were still giving an uncertain picture of what kind of actions would be taken on a national level, and we decided we could not just wait and see.
With just four days-notice, we created and curated lessons, resources, and learning activities for our almost 200 students, ages 3 to 15. Being a small, private school with limited resources made it even harder. Fortunately, a good portion of our staff had just completed training on technology in the classroom and was eager to put all those skills into practice. They became our distance learning committee and were instrumental in putting the gears into action. They were the ones reassuring and mentoring the other, non-technological educators. Our team became more robust. In our regular teaching lives, the ones that seem so distant now, schedules are so hectic that we can grow isolated. Today, we are communicating all-the-time, sharing resources, and giving feedback even at one in the morning. “I have never in my teaching life worked so hard, and for so many hours,” – told me Nydia, our French teacher. “But surprisingly, in the time of social distancing, I have never felt as supported and connected to our team as I feel today. That makes me happy.”
“I have never in my teaching life worked so hard, and for so many hours,” – told me Nydia, our French teacher.
Since the very first day of distance learning, we began to receive all sorts of messages from parents. Most of them were grateful and positive; a few were frantic and anxious. Soon we identified the factors promoting parents’ stress: it grew in direct proportion to how many kids they had, how young those kids were, how much work they had at home, and how inexpert they were or not on using technology tools for learning. These were too many variables for us to possibly control. We realized that no matter how much effort we devoted to our online lessons, some children would inevitably still lag behind if we had strict expectations and deadlines.
At the same time, and as the crisis unfolded, we gradually opened our eyes to other lessons worth learning, lessons taught by life itself, lessons even more important than the ones we had spent so many hours lovingly crafting. Resilience. The ability to manage time. Healthy habits. Communication. Creativity.
We decided to change course. Yes, we are still creating and sharing lessons across all subject matters, but not in a frenzy obsession. You know you are a perfectionist when you are certain that you must finish your curriculum even if a creepy virus tries to stand in your way. If learning must not stop, then you won’t stop either.
You know you are a perfectionist when you are certain that you must finish your curriculum even if a creepy virus tries to stand in your way. If learning must not stop, then you won’t stop either.
One of the biggest personal lessons I have learned so far with the COVID19 situation is to let go. There is just no way to keep learning undisrupted, no matter how much I try and how hard I work. Workbooks might remain unfinished. Whole units from our syllabus might end up untouched. But maybe this is not as bad as I thought it was. My students will forever remember these weeks in their lives, but what will stick the most in their memories will be the conversations they had while on lockdown. The books they read. How their families coped with the challenge. How valuable our human connection is. How much of our former lives we took for granted. They will remember their teachers for how they were able -or not- to nurture them over the distance and not by how eagerly they made them drill their lessons.
This is not to say that I have given up on learning. We don’t know yet if these strange weeks will turn into months. The longer our schools remain closed, the more significant the consequences will be. It would be irresponsible to “abandon ship” and leave students’ education to their fates on a sinking boat. But we need to find balance. In happier times, teachers had been the first ones to point out that education is much more than merely covering a curriculum. Why then have we become, so determinant to reverse our thinking, or at least act as if we had?
Our teaching staff is now reorganizing. The school psychologist will host weekly online “group workshops” on mental health and crisis management for parents, students, and teachers alike. For the second week and on, we will still present lessons on all subjects, but there will be no pressure at all to deliver homework at a set deadline or even to finish the whole repertoire of activities. And, of course, this crisis is testing enough! No exams, no grades, period.
We still encourage students to try to complete as much of their schoolwork as they can, but for different reasons. We believe it is good for them to keep their minds occupied (and off the coronavirus frenzy for once), and also, at-home schoolwork can provide a good structure for daily work, one that can help survive cabin fever days. When we are finally able to return to school, it will be easier to pick up our usual pace. But instead of dumping to-do lists and rigid schedules on them, we are now asking families: What do you need to promote learning and well-being during these times? How can we help you achieve balance?
I am happy to report that, maybe for the first time in history, arts and physical movement are taking a well-deserved center stage. We are asking students to read as much as they can, and then we meet virtually as a group to discuss our readings. I have moved online the creative writing podcast recording sessions that my students and I were producing. We encourage kids to engage in creative arts and to send the pictures and videos of their creations to share at our very own online art gallery. We stress the importance of staying active, eat and sleep well for the sake of their physical and mental health. Learning will not stop. It will just be a different kind of knowledge.
Learning will not stop. It will just be a different kind of knowledge.
Early on, when we designed how our distance learning program would look like, we decided to make it open so other teachers and students could use it if they found it valuable. We are painfully aware that even if we have limited resources, we are still somewhat privileged that we can organize and provide support for our school community, and that most of our students have access to technology and devices. For the many unreachable others in México and around the world, urgent attention is needed on our part and that of international organizations, the private sector, and governments, so that every child can claim their birthright to be safe, happy and bright. For this purpose, UNESCO is railing a global education coalition. The task is gigantic, but not insurmountable if we all get involved.
I wish I could say that this first week of distance learning will prove to be the most trying one in this whole COVID-19 ordeal and that once we find our pace and balance, the worst will be already behind us. But the truth is, we still don’t know.
I wish I could say that this first week of distance learning will prove to be the most trying one in this whole COVID-19 ordeal and that once we find our pace and balance, the worst will be already behind us. But the truth is, we still don’t know. What I surely know is that in this short time, we have outgrown our personal and professional selves many times over. Lupita, one of our senior teachers, was reflecting on this just recently. “I had to learn how to craft a video, almost from scratch. While our younger staff were already producing top-notch pieces with special effects, I was still trying to find where to click to start. It has been a humbling experience. But I had other skill sets, and enough teaching experience to know that I was going to do just fine.” She smiled before delivering her final line: “Now, just wait until we open again – we will come back better than ever.”
I wholeheartedly believe her.