“Everybody is Traumatized”: Opportunity Culture® Fellows on Keeping On

by | January 25, 2022

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett, January 25, 2022

With ongoing Covid-related stresses this year, many Opportunity Culture® educators have wondered how much their challenges match those of other Opportunity Culture® schools. Before the winter break, educators from multiple cohorts of Opportunity Culture® Fellows gathered online to share their experiences and support one another—and found their stresses mirrored much of what has been in the news for months.

As they sought to offer ideas for alleviating some of the stress, high on most Fellows’ minds were: deep concern for what students have suffered—both academically and emotionally; staff shortages and a lack of substitutes; exhaustion from unrelenting pressure in what was expected to be a “recovery” year; the pull on multi-classroom leaders to provide more—and more varied—support than ever before; and the need for a more focused, national response to support schools. Here’s a bit of what they shared.

Supporting Students

“Our kids are having a difficult time readjusting to coming back into school after being virtual for a year,” one multi-classroom leader (MCL), said, a comment many others echoed.

Social-emotional learning, especially focused on helping students recover from trauma, has become more key than ever, they said. And some praised their districts for using Covid-related funds to bring in outside providers of in-school counseling for individual students, small groups, and families.

“We find that a lot of the parents, especially the mothers, are very, very receptive because they, too, are in trauma,” a principal reported. “I think everybody is traumatized…it’s just caught me off guard for pre-K to share so much trauma in their lives at four years old.”

Teachers and principals feel an ongoing tension to address those emotional needs while responding to the pressure to accelerate student learning growth. They highlighted the value of tutoring and small-group instruction to increase growth, and adding more creative daily opportunities for students to engage in much-needed physical activity.

Many reported seeing significant growth from the determined efforts of their teaching teams, and as they see gains, “we’re definitely celebrating children.” 

Day of Fun Reinforces Social-Emotional Lessons

Finding ways to bring joy into the school day has helped a principal’s middle-schoolers. She instituted weekly “advisories” in which students focus on an aspect of social-emotional learning (SEL), such as self-control.

Then she took these a step further. To reduce the anxiety of returning to school after longer holiday breaks, on the first day back from Thanksgiving, the principal introduced a full day of advisories, outdoor time, and games, such as a life-size Connect Four game and tug-of-war.

 “It was just so magical to watch children be children. You would think the eighth-graders are too cool, [but] they picked up the tug-of-war rope, they’re doing Connect Four, they’re challenging each other, they’re challenging their teachers.”

SEL lessons were woven through the day, including talking about what self-control looked like and congratulating students when they showed it.

“It feels like we’re pushing academics on them, because we feel that urgency, like, ‘Oh my god, we are a year behind,'” the principal said, “but just stopping to breathe really helps.”

Rather than being a wasted instructional day, “it was definitely an investment in setting the stage for success.”  Some progress monitoring results put their student growth scores among the highest in the district, she noted.

And because the administration planned the day’s advisories lessons and created teachers’ packets for them, teachers could also return to school feeling more relaxed, anticipating a day of fun and bonding with students.

Given the overwhelmingly positive reactions, the principal plans to make these days a school tradition after long holiday breaks.

Staying Resilient, but Facing Unrelenting Exhaustion

Almost uniformly, these educators noted the pressure they felt from supporting exhausted colleagues, especially as they see other colleagues leave—at all levels, from teachers to principals to top administrators.

To wit:

After losing more staff than usual in the first months of school, “I anticipate losing maybe three after the holidays, so we are really literally just stretched thin.”

“I’ve already gotten three resignation letters within the past two weeks.” 

“When we met with the state last Friday, they shared with us that it’s a statewide shortage of teachers because people are just walking away from the profession.”

“Everyone is feeling the pressure…people are really conscious of their mental and physical state and needing a day to just really re-center yourself.  I think I need a day, but I’m so scared to take a day because so many people are out so often,” said a weary MCL (who left the call early to go cover another class for an absent teacher).

“My role changed from being more of an instructional coach to being kind of a life coach the last year,” an MCL said. “Just about every teacher had an immediate family member or a distant family member die of Covid, so for me to go into those meetings discussing instructional practices was fruitless. However, I was able to leverage those conversations into more meaningful conversations… I think they know that I’m there to support them as a human.”

To be able to keep providing such support, MCLs and principals said self-care is crucial. Taking full weekend days away from work was a must, they said, as well as accepting the need for occasional mental health days off.

To address staffing shortages, Fellows saw few quick fixes, but suggested several things that could help somewhat, such as having a multi-grade team; highlighting what makes a school great all the good things about on social media and through word of mouth, helping to attract potential applicants; and offering significant signing and retention bonuses from Covid funds.

However, while they appreciated whatever extra money their districts offered—from bonuses to pay for covering another class during planning time—all noted how inadequate this was.

“Bonuses are good in the moment, but it doesn’t address the underlying challenges that people feel” a Fellow said, noting that teachers who got bonuses left anyway. “You’re leaving to take a job where you possibly will get paid more with less demands being placed on you.”

Several saw a need for greater national-level responses, while acknowledging an ongoing need to advocate for change at all levels.

“It’s a crisis, and I’m not sure that we’re feeling the urgency as a nation…we’re trying to put a Band-Aid on different parts of the crack, but it’s really traumatic, and I’m not sure we’re even seeing the whole impact of Covid and what it did to our schools.”

Despite it all, they retained some optimism.

“I think teachers are happy to be back in the class doing what they do and not in front of a screen,” one veteran MCL said. “It will get better—it’s just going to be a little longer than we expected.”

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