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Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Balancing Content with Caring While Teaching During COVID

Photo by Mladen Borisov on Unsplash

by Catharine Hannay

"A week ago I viewed a professional development video that made me cringe. The presenters said that the chat box in our virtual classrooms should only allow students to communicate with the teacher, not one another. 'They might be silly if you let them chat,' they suggested."

Third-grade teacher Aeriale Johnson,  'All Because I Trusted Them to Use the Chat Box'

Aeriale Johnson teaches in California, which is being hit by yet another round of devastating wildfires. In addition to all of the other stressors in their lives, her students are frightened by the skies filled with smoke. 

Here are a few of the chat box comments from her eight-year-old students:

We have COVID-19 and now we have wildfires? Jeez!

This is super scary!

How much more?


What’s next in 2020 that’s gonna be bad?


*Forty crying emojis

I don't have to tell you these reactions are anything but silly. 

Teaching under quarantine is so unprecedented that there are no real standards of comparison. But we can draw some useful parallels with teaching in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks.


Lessons from September 11th

On the morning of 9/11, Christopher Emdin was just a few weeks into his his first year of teaching in the Bronx (about a dozen miles upriver from the World Trade Center).

I was walking the aisles of the classroom while my students were working quietly on math problems, when loud sirens began to penetrate the walls. [...] 

I was told to keep the students focused and not tell them that anything was happening. One student in my class, scared by the sirens and the confusion, asked if she could call her mother. I said no. [...] 

I ignored the chaos of the world beyond the classroom because I believed that it was my job to just keep on teaching. Looking back now, I realize I was not actually teaching at all.


(from ‘Teaching Isn’t About Managing Behavior,’ The Atlantic)



As for me, I was teaching English to international students at Georgetown University (about 3 or 4 miles upriver from the Pentagon). As each student came into the room, I had to explain again and again why they’d seen so much smoke while they were on the shuttle bus on their way to campus.


Like Christopher Emdin, my initial reaction was The Show Must Go On. I encouraged my students to keep focusing on whatever lesson we were doing in the computer lab that day. When a young man who wasn’t in my class wanted to use one of the computers to email his family, I told him to wait half an hour until the break between classes.


Fortunately, I came to my senses fairly quickly, and for the next couple of days we spent a lot of class time talking about what was happening. (I did have the advantage of being a language teacher, so as long as my students were speaking English, they were practicing necessary skills.) 

After two or three days, about half of the students were ready to get back to the curriculum. But the other half needed to keep processing their grief and confusion, especially after some of the Muslim students were harassed.

We discussed what to do, and the students came up with a good compromise. Starting the next day, we’d focus on the curriculum during class time. For those who wanted to keep processing their reactions and experiences, I set up a discussion thread on the university's online Blackboard system. 



Conclusion: Balancing Content with Caring


There’s a false dichotomy between teachers who are focused on content and teachers who are focused on meeting the kids’ emotional needs. The reality is that they’re interconnected. 

Kids can’t learn anything when they’re freaked out. They need a chance to express themselves, and they need a supportive community. 

I was impressed by my college students maturity in figuring out a way to support each other while continuing with their studies. And remember Aeriale Johnson's third gradersAfter letting the kids process their feelings for about 10 minutes, Aeriale transitioned into a writing activity. 

"These pieces are still working drafts, but let me tell you that I was blown away by the power of my third graders’ writing as they shared today."

Given the state of the world, and the isolation of quarantine, we all need support from our peers. Rather than coming up with more rules for suppressing kids, we should be coming up with more ways for them to interact with each other and help each other cope with their overwhelming feelings. There's nothing silly about that.

About the Author

Catharine Hannay is the founder of and the author of Being You: A Girl’s Guide to Mindfulness, a workbook for teen girls on mindfulness, compassion, and self-acceptance. (Sales of the book help me continue to run with no sponsorship or advertising.)

related posts: 

Coping During COVID: Mindfulness and Self-Care for Adults and Kids

Integrating Academics with Mindfulness and SEL

Songs About Hope, Resilience, and Compassion

Teaching Resources on Mindfulness and Social-Emotional Learning

Tips for Dealing with the Emotional Toll of Teaching from Home During Coronavirus Quarantine