Whether or not you have an official return date, there are strategies you can use right now to help prepare for a successful transition to face-to-face learning. Addressing your own feelings and student anxiety are important. Empowering students and families with previews is an excellent strategy as well. We’ll also discuss updating your “first day of school” lessons and enlisting parent support. These will all be key to creating your amazing learning space.
Face-to-face instruction: Start with how you feel
First, start with where you are. Reopening schools has been controversial, and however you and your students feel about it is okay. Concern over reopening may be based on worries for your and your family’s safety. This does not reflect a lack of professional dedication. At the same time, a desire to return to face-to-face instruction doesn’t mean you’re dismissive of the pandemic’s dangers.
Wherever you are on the spectrum of emotions is valid. It’s important to be aware of what you are feeling. You should also think about how those feelings may be different from those of your colleagues, students, and families.
As teachers we are notorious for not taking our own advice. So be sure to engage with the mental health strategies you wish for your students. You can take time to be slow and present. You can create fun and free time in each day’s schedule. Or you can even try out some apps to help support your efforts, like HeadSpace or Calm.
Address student anxiety and levels of understanding
In Caroline Paul’s TED Talk, she says that pretending children are not aware of or worried about current issues is counterproductive to helping kids grow. “Here’s the big not-so-secret: Kids know what’s going on,” she says.
Our students have been listening to the news and adults’ commentaries about the pandemic. They’ve worn their masks, stayed away from their friends and sanitized their little hands like surgeons. However, if we haven’t directly talked about the pandemic and specifically about how and why to stay safe at school, they may be operating with confusion, misunderstanding or anxiety.
Create a plan to anticipate and address students’ anxieties and their range of understandings. If the community is split about the pandemic, it’s important to neutrally address that. Statements like “Some grown ups believe…” and “Our school policies ask you to…” keep your language factual. They’ll also help you address students’ mindsets without engaging in controversy.
Students of all ages will vary in their comfort levels in returning to school. Create a safe place to address concerns before students come back. You can create a FAQ section on your class webpage or lead an online Q&A session. You can also add a Google JamBoard in your Hāpara Workspace. Here students can list their questions and even help answer those of others.
For students with special needs, you can add a social story to their Workspace to describe in-school experiences. You can even schedule an in-person, individual preview classroom visit. This could help students with anxiety or with classroom needs related to their disabilities.
Empower students and families with previews
Our brains tend to need several exposures to new ideas or places before they stop fearing change. The good news is we can start those exposures even before our classrooms are officially reopened for face-to-face instruction! Research indicates that our brains cannot distinguish between what we are imagining or visualizing and what we actually experience.
A preview, orientation-style video or photos of the classroom setting can help. When you store the videos in your Hāpara Workspace, students can watch as many times as they need to in order to calm the inner dialogue of “what ifs” and worries.
Just like at the beginning of a “normal” school year, learning and practicing the expectations will take time. That doesn’t mean it can’t also be fun. Students can demonstrate their understanding of the expectations before returning to school by playing Kahoot games. They can create video examples and counterexamples to teach younger students.
Embed your Q&A, preview videos, and other documents in the Workspace. Then use the Group feature to personalize the content relevant to each learner’s needs. It’s a one-stop shop for kids and teachers to get ready for their transition.
Update your first-day-of-school lessons
You are about to teach under new circumstances, but most of what you can expect is the same. You will teach, your students will learn and all of you will grow together. Reminding yourself of the underlying sameness will help your brain. It will see the patterns and capitalize on a process you know well. That is your first day of school routines and lessons again on the first days of in-person learning.
In a typical year, you would have students get to know and maybe personalize the classroom. Time would be set aside for students to bond with each other and with you. You would also teach students the routines that support their success. When you return to your classroom for face-to-face instruction, you’ll do all of these things. You’ll do it within a new pandemic context, though. Maybe the classroom orientation will be focused on how to move within defined spaces. Or the team-building will take place with students spaced further apart.
You can make your opening of in-person learning run smoothly by relying on lessons you already know and love. Just modify them for new expectations and demands. The new routines will take more time to learn than the routines of a typical year. There will be sanitizing, distancing, using classroom materials and safely eating for example. Just remember that you already know how to teach and practice routines. You have the template for success, and the details of our new teaching context will fill in the rest.
Another component to consider for planning face-to-face instruction is to use the familiar. Continuity of programs, like Hāpara and Google Classroom, will help students anchor to systems they already understand. This built-in routine can support you too. You’ll save brain space and time for the lesson adjustments required for safe classroom experiences.
Enlist parental support
You are not alone in your concern for students’ wellbeing; their parents are right there with you. You can tap into that shared interest by involving families in the onboarding process for face-to-face instruction. Encourage families to view the preview videos and FAQs together. You can provide discussion questions or prompts for families to rehearse the safety routines at home. If possible, offer an evening parent Q&A opportunity or encourage your school to host one. Your team is larger than you realize, and parents are often very eager to lend a hand.
Parents may miss their children when they are out of the house, too. Continue and enhance the home-school connection by inviting parents to join class virtually, instead of volunteering in person. Doing a read aloud or student presentations? Send parents a join link! Need a guest speaker or a new perspective? Invite parents and families to jump in virtually.
These challenging times are going to require innovation, creativity and courage. Luckily, those are the exact ingredients that make you the teacher that you are. Be sure to reflect and take some photos along the way. You will have plenty to celebrate, and probably laugh about, when you look back at your triumphant return to your classroom.