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COVID-19 causes a level of uncertainty in the natural rhythm of what it means to be in school for teachers and students. An experienced educator offers five strategies for teachers to come together to support the success of their students during this unpredictable time.

Schools are currently wrestling with the correct response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The debate about returning to brick and mortar classrooms has been fraught with passionate opinions and unclear answers. Teachers, administrators, and government leaders strive to offer students and families an optimal education while maintaining physical safety. There are few clear answers, often causing disharmony among staff members who have differing ideas on transitioning back to the physical classroom.

No matter how polarizing this situation may be, students greatly benefit when teachers come together. Finding a way to work well with colleagues, even those who don’t share similar thinking, has never been more critical. School culture must be more optimistic than ever, as students experience educational challenges unlike any in history. 

The threat of illness on a global level has generated numerous changes and diverse emotional responses across societies. As school is a microcosm of society, it stands to reason that staff members and students are carrying new concerns, fears, and a general sense of uncertainty with them as they walk in the door or log on to distance learning environments. We are all navigating uncharted waters, and this often involves rough seas.

Generally, as school staff members, we are adults with the functional skills and education sufficient to manage our educational establishments’ roles. We are struggling with many aspects of the educational environment in light of the pandemic. We must remember that our students are experiencing our current school context without fully developed functional skills and without prerequisite knowledge on how to function in a distance learning context. As they wrestle with the challenges and create new capacities to meet these demands, we do best when we present a stalwart determination to stay positive and offer genuine care. We can’t do this alone, and we need all hands on deck to get the job done.

While there are no clear answers on the perfect course of action, there are some practices we can prioritize in the way we interact with our colleagues during this time. As we live in the age of social media, many of us are entrenched in our own strong opinions, and it can be challenging to come together. While discourse on issues is essential and can be healthy, this can also become contentious. Our schools and students do best when we can come together. The following strategies can assist us in finding cohesion and offering each other a port in the storm.

Five Strategies for Teacher Unity

  • Prioritize Kindness: A hypothetical question that helps any conversation involving strong opinions maybe, “Would you rather be right or be kind?” Considering kindness in communication can help a potentially tricky conversation become a helpful one. Thinking about word selection before speaking can be difficult, mainly when individuals are passionate about their perspectives. However, students deserve teachers who can carry on conversations regarding difficult topics while maintaining professionalism and respect. Keeping an open mind to consider other perspectives is how educators grow.
  • Exercise Empathy: Just as teachers strive to put themselves in their students’ shoes, they can do the same for colleagues. Every teacher in a learning community has a unique personal history that has molded their values, priorities, goals, and interpretations of current events. Rather than immediately judging another professional for their opinion, educators do best when they try to see the situation from another perspective. One doesn’t have to let go of personal priorities, but it can help all stakeholders arrive at mutual understanding and healthy collegiality.
  • Limit Electronic Communication: As citizens of the modern world, conversations via text and email are ubiquitous. It is normal to consume and express information through social media platforms and email daily, if not hourly. While electronic communication may be convenient when emotionally charged or controversial perspectives are shared, it is best to use caution. Electronic communication removes the opportunity for nonverbal cues to help convey the message. The likelihood exists that the message is misconstrued or may invite a negative response. Face to face communication through online meetings offers the chance to convey the message best. Speaking on the phone is also a better option, as vocal tone and inflection can accurately reflect intent. 
  • Listen to Understand: A conversation is a two-way street, and it is vital that participants in the learning community engage in healthy discourse to solve current challenges. Rather than focusing on getting their message across, educators may do well to pause and truly listen. The act of setting aside passionate opinions can be challenging, but at this moment, there is no perfect solution, and there is widespread uncertainty. While this presents daunting challenges, it also offers the opportunity for growth across educational professions as stakeholders learn to be collaborative problem solvers. This growth begins with listening.
  • Focus on the goal: The teaching profession focuses on a common goal: cultivating individuals prepared with the knowledge and skills to succeed in life. Educators must remember that ‘We are all in this together,’ and there are many shared hopes and aspirations which can eclipse our fears. The specific ‘how’s’ and ‘what’s’ are nebulous at the moment, but a united focus on positive outcomes can help educators find much-needed harmony to benefit students. Students can sense tension and discord among teachers. The most successful learning environments during this pandemic will involve unified leaders modeling positivity and resilience in the face of adversity.

These strategies aim to create an overall school climate that is welcoming and inviting to students, whether they are attending in person, online, or hybrid. Students can sense the overall tone in a building, and positive morale among the faculty is crucial in creating a familial atmosphere. When we get along with each other, we are better collaborators, and we can tap into the rich resources our colleagues have to share. We owe it to our students to work on our mindset each day and frame things in the most favorable light possible.

Final Thoughts 

No one is going to practice perfect adherence to these suggestions every minute of every day. We are human beings, and we have been thrown into a context that brings out more questions than answers, stretches our technology skills, increases our workload, and involves our health. As we continue to take things one day at a time, we must bring our best to our students each day through whatever medium we can. One fact is inevitable: Students win when teachers come together as professionals and support each other despite difficulties.

Rachel Jorgensen

Rachel Jorgensen, M.A., is a special education teacher and coordinator of work-based learning at Anoka Hennepin Public Schools and professor at Bethel University who has an interest in empowering students through relationships. She is the author of the book Loving Your Job in Special Education: 50 Tips and Tools and current program director for the Teacher Coordinator of Work-Based Learning Program at Bethel University, which is an online program inviting educators to bolster their skills in supporting students as they transition from school to work. Rachel is working on her second book and parenting two teenagers. Much of her time is spent driving them to their activities!