Most of my teaching was done in the 1980s and 1990s and remote learning as it is being attempted today was not possible. Computers were pricy, internet access was through dial-up, and phones were not mobile. While that sounds like the dark ages, one axiom that has not changed is that we do not teach content; we teach students.
During my first year, a minority student was in my Advanced Physics class. Our chemistry teacher and I both saw the drop off in his in class attentiveness. At the same time, we knew of his desire to go out of state to the Rochester Institute of Technology. We became more than teachers to this young genius: we were role models and protectors. James (not his real name) was working in his family’s Chinese restaurant and upon his parent taking ill, had to work 8 hour days, 7 days a week, for months. He was able to academically excel by doing his homework while making egg rolls and serving fried rice. As teachers, we saw to it that he was able to sit in back of our classrooms and move at his desired pace as long as he did not fall behind. He visited us during our lunch and usually took a nap. James was accepted to R. I. T. and four years later he graduated with a degree. Today he is the Head of Operations for a tech firm in Maryland. I was 23 years old and was role model and protector for a genius – in fact dozens since I was a physics teacher!
You probably have many stories like this! You understand that we, as teachers, provide much more than content. We protect our students and usually feel a deeply-seeded desire to see no harm come to them. But now, they are remote. Some are unreachable while others are available through only text, voice, or two dimensional screen. How do we protect and serve as role models when so remote?
“How Are You?” – The Priceless Question
I now collaborate with and lead adult professionals but still feel that protective instinct. My first question during any interaction has become: “How are you?” Tell me! I want to know! If we spend the first 15 minutes of a 15 minute conversation on just this then it was a successful chat. Students sometimes will need to vent, laugh, and cry. Ask them how they are and they will perk up or droop. My adult son and daughter both are like this. I am like this. Your students are like this. Upon empathetically and intensely listening to them, the familiar universe of knowing them at more than a surface level reopens. You are a caring adult and “How are you?” might be the most important three words they hear all day!
The Value of Perspective
Our students rarely have the agency that the adults in their homes practice. Agency requires good information to act successfully. Never before has there been so much information and so little value to each bit. Social networks are the “Wild West” of information and the largest news outlets are posting stories with stock imagery written by quarantined reporters. How can you help students sift through the noise?
Perspective can be communicated through hopeful messaging that is positive and therapeutic.
- Telling students “We will get through this…” may be the most positive and valuable perspective.
- If you have a historical perspective, having a few “…did you know that…” statements in your back pocket are golden! Of course, whatever you have experienced is a greater sample size than what your students have experienced.
While I am not well-versed in history, shows like “The Crown” and documentaries like “America in Color” are invaluable sources of tidbits to provide perspective.
Accomplish Meaningful Academics
Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest athlete of the 1990s and the best to ever play basketball. His personal trainer acted in a capacity similar to the teacher-student dynamic. As his “teacher” Tim Grover, talks about a tactic he used when Michael was mentally tired at the 13:30 mark of the video below. In short, when he sensed Michael was worn down mentally, he would give Michael a puzzle to solve or a problem to work through and focus on. Having to focus on a task or problem, especially if it is a “light” task, is especially helpful to students today because it relieves them of the barrage of messaging and reminders about COVID. Yes, in some ways, a great short story or math problem set that you discuss with them may be the most compassionate and effective act of teaching you can provide to help protect your student. In this case let’s broaden “protection” to include protecting their mental and emotional stability.
As usual I am including a video with my post. Tim Grover taught some difficult students in ever-changing conditions and was exceptional.
Have you tried any of these already? How did they work for you? I am interested to hear ideas you have about protecting your students in these unprecedented circumstances. As a former teacher, I want to say “thank you” for what you are doing and let you know that your efforts are noticed. Stay safe, be well, and keep protecting our students!