Earlier this month, I sat down to write my “welcome back” email to parents and families of Seattle Girls’ School students. Writing this annual message should be simple but I found myself with my eyes closed, inhaling and exhaling deeply in an effort to center myself.
This is not the back-to-school season any of us expected. Last spring, I was ready to move full speed ahead with a school year solely focused on kids and their enthusiasm, nervousness and joy — not a pandemic. But, with the delta variant surging, we are steeling ourselves for yet another year of uncertainty.
At this strange moment, deep breathing seems like the best thing we can do. Inhaling creates the space to pull in strength and patience and exhaling lets us release anxiety and doubt. As we prepare to cautiously reconnect for our third year of COVID-impacted learning, here are the mantras I’ll be repeating to myself:
We are all in different places and that’s OK: Seattle Girls’ School faculty and administrators recently spent our first week together prepping for the year. My first question was: “How do you feel as we start this new school year?” I heard a wide variety of answers: “hopeful” “anxious” “happy” “overwhelmed” and more. All of those feelings are valid. We need to acknowledge that wherever people are is OK.
Students and parents will have the same variety of feelings. While some students will thrive back in the classroom, others felt better supported in the virtual-learning environment. With the number of kids contracting COVID-19 on the rise and a vaccine still unavailable for children under 12, there is an obvious concern about how to keep students safe in school.
But there are also concerns — like racism and the threat of microaggressions — that cannot be solved with a vaccine. At the end of the last school year, white families in Seattle were nearly twice as likely to want to send their students back to school as Black families, who cited racism and feeling safer at home as the main reasons.
We cannot expect to create a fix overnight, but we must create safer spaces for our students of color. In the coming months, we will need to remember that each student, teacher and family member is dealing with different stressors, comfort levels and anxieties. Inhale, exhale.
Center people and connection first: Education is built on relationships and trust among students, educators and families. When the relationships are strong, anything is possible. When they’re not, things fall apart.
We witnessed many strained relationships during virtual learning. Teachers wondered: Are students engaged or tuned out? Does my work even matter right now? Parents asked: Why aren’t my kids in school yet? Are my kid’s needs being honored? Students worried: Am I being left out or left behind? Does anyone know what I’m going through?
As we return to in-person learning, the focus could quickly and easily move to managing safety protocols, reconnecting to the routine of going to school each day and helping students move forward academically. Yet, there is repair needed across the board that can only come from rebuilding relationships among students, teachers and parents. Inhale, exhale.
Bring joy to school every single day: Part of our mission is to help students learn joyfully. Too many people believe joy means happiness. We believe it means moving forward with purpose and excitement despite setbacks. That is the kind of joy we need as a daily practice in schools across our city and country.
Joy means taking on a worthy endeavor and putting everything we have into it. Joy is the space where we are at our best as learners and members of community, where we make connections and build each other up. This year will require the courageous practice of creating joy each day — continuing to breathe, even when life seems endlessly uncertain.