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Opinion and Editorial

Pandemic has become a test of patience

Mary McNaughton-Cassill
Filed on August 13, 2020

If we learned anything from our rapid shift to online instruction in the spring, it is that teachers and parents are playing just as crucial a role in this pandemic as are medical professionals and first responders

Have you ever seen a kid fall on the playground, and then look to their parent to decide whether to keep playing or to start crying? We all know that kids take their cues from the adults around them so if a parent stays calm the child is likely to do so as well. As we enter a new school year, in the midst of a pandemic, the way teachers and parents cope will have profound effects on how children react to the current reality. Even students in high school and college, who typically are trying to separate from their parents in order to develop their own identities and sense of independence, may circle back to the people they know and trust for guidance. But, what if the adults in the room are just as stressed and confused as the children? Is it inevitable that we all give in to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, or can we be proactive and think back to previous generations and the challenges they faced? Would it be possible to learn from our history and emulate the ways that our grandparents and great grandparents have coped with adversity in the past? Can we allow older historical crises to give us perspective and even an anchor to inform our decisions now?
Think for a moment about stories of children attending the apocryphal one room school-houses common in rural areas in past centuries. The teachers, who were typically not much older than the students, were tasked with teaching the basics of reading, math, and history. They were charged with finding curriculum that met the needs of children who ranged dramatically in age and school preparation. Students had to share supplies, and work with each other when the teacher was busy with other pupils. This undoubtedly fostered a sense of responsibility for their own learning, and for that of others. It is probably safe to assume that most of the lessons weren't engaging by today's educational standards and yet, teachers and parents know that student success is just as anchored in the positive emotional variables of learning as it is with a fancy interactive experience. Confidence, comfort, imagination, and laughter are the life blood of all teaching and learning. But they don't occur in a vacuum. It is up to us to model and nurture these coping strategies in our children and students.
So, what if we made a conscious effort to stop dreading the upcoming school year and instead approached it with new attitudes and goals? We could reach back to our own first grade days when we were learning to read. We struggled through letters merging into words, painstakingly breaking the phonetic code. But this was just one part, as we read, we were also asked to comprehend all those words and sentences we had just deciphered. After each paragraph we stopped and thought and asked the simple question "What is the important thing?" Perhaps this should be our teaching motto. We need to keep it simple and focused. As we attack each lesson we should stop and ask to identify the important thing, the integral part of the lesson and then get to its comprehension in as direct a manner as possible with the tools we have on hand. Let's take a deep breath and stay calm.
In short, maybe we can stop thinking of ourselves as helpless victims of a pandemic, and instead view the current situation as a series of problems to be understood and addressed. That would allow us to use the pandemic to both teach students about history, and to think constructively about the many social issues it is exposing. We are part of an ongoing social study. Opportunities for students to study science and history have never been more relevant. Students could do research on what it was like to live on the home front during the two World Wars. While a small percentage of the population served in active overseas roles most Americans were at home dealing with shortages of food and fuel, waiting for news of when things might improve. Perhaps their older relatives can tell them what it was like to live through the polio epidemics in the 1940's and 1950's or what their parents told them about the Spanish Influenza in 1918. It turns out that debates about mask wearing raged then too, giving rise to the derogatory term "mask slackers." The conversations we are having about civil unrest and social inequities also create an opportunity to help students understand the history of these struggles and to encourage them to see this charged moment in history as an opportunity to promote civic participation and change.
Clearly, 2020 is going to warrant its own chapter in future history books. As one principal in a California elementary school suggested, students of all ages should be keeping journals about what they are experiencing, saving images and accounts of what is happening, and creating pandemic specific time capsules. We know that from an educational viewpoint people learn more easily when they see the relevance of what they are studying. Psychologically, it has been shown that the effort to write about stressful traumatic events can actually help us to process and deal with our emotions. Thinking about the future is a great antidote to being discouraged about the present, and is a key component of resilience, something we want all of our children to develop.
To accomplish these goals, teachers and parents are going to have to demonstrate extreme flexibility. School districts are going to have varied approaches to opening. Regional differences in the spread of the virus will likely trigger change in the middle of the semester. This flexibility in format, schedule and venue will require cooperation and dedication from parents as well as teachers. However, as traditional testing rhythms and accountability metrics are tabled by the pandemic this may well afford educators the chance to go back to the important thing, focusing on the specific learning needs of the children in their courses. If we learned anything from our rapid shift to online instruction in the spring, it is that teachers and parents are playing just as crucial a role in this pandemic as are medical professionals and first responders. Rewarding and applauding their efforts and flexibility and offering support rather than criticism will make their jobs both easier and more successful.

Mary McNaughton-Cassill is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

-Psychology Today

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