We must bend rules (and make new ones) for emotional health

Photo: Thomas CourtneyCooking class is underway. Photo: Thomas CourtneyCooking class is underway. Thomas CourtneyJuly 7, 2020From the moment she arrived in the fall, my student teacher, Shadi Roueenfar, decided that she was going to focus her professional growth and instruction on social-and-emotional learning.
The students of Room 801 were no more: Instead, we became The Thunder Eagles of Fifth Grade and, with embedded and directed social-and-emotional learning strategies, Ms. Roueenfar created a community of compassionate learners noticed campus-wide by other staff and colleagues.
Now, in the wake of the pandemic, the environment has changed. In some cases, we are finding the need for social-and-emotional learning has never been greater. Just a few weeks ago before school closed for the year, we were in a Zoom meeting with our students and one of them wrote in the chatbox: “I’m really sad.”
Looking at her face in the little box on my screen, I could tell she was crying and then the screen went black. She muted her microphone and would not respond to our offers to listen. And as any educator might, I began to worry for her.
Today, data is indicating that addressing mental and emotional trauma could be a far greater need than ever at this pandemic moment. Governments are seeing domestic violence cases surging worldwide. Many states are seeing spikes in 911 calls and gun sales are soaring. Without the outlets kids have in school with friends, without motion and activity and in some cases without basic necessities because of financial hardship, they are hit particularly hard.
It was the moment when I saw my student’s screen go black that I realized there was more to distance learning than keeping the children’s study skills fresh. After some serious brainstorming, Ms. Roueenfar and I decided that for the sake of the kids’ health, we were going to have to bend the rules. And make some new ones, too.
New school rule #1: Pets and baby brothers are allowed in school.
Courtesy: Thomas CourtneyJhazlynn and her birdsOne morning, our student Jhazlynn Arroyo discovered that her bird, Popcorn, had laid an egg while we were teaching geometry. Things went a little nuts. After several minutes of trying to redirect the kids, I declared that from now on pets were allowed in school.
Why beat them when you can join them, right? To the delight of their peers, each child got their dog, their cat, their frog or even their favorite stuffed animal, and we went wild.
And suddenly something magical happened. As we all talked about our pets and in some cases baby brothers — my dog Oreo now makes regular appearances — I began to see that although talking about geometry was important, so was sharing.
Several weeks later, there’s more magic. I’ve gotten to know many of my students’ moms, dads, siblings, even grandmas, in a whole new way. This has led to a deeper connection than I ever thought possible over the computer.
New school rule #2: It’s OK to share — really.
It quickly became obvious to us that what we had been feeling, the kids had been feeling, too. And just like us, they needed to know they could share whatever they liked with someone, anyone. We found tools in our video conferencing software that helped us give them small breakout groups to share fun topics, and we allowed ourselves the daily space for them to connect on their terms because they need it.
Andrew Leal no longer was just a kid, he was someone who we knew lived and breathed soccer. Andrea De Santiago was a pastry chef, not just a fifth-grader. She even inspired us to do a cooking class.
Think about it. Sharing allows children to make meaningful connections with one another and with their teacher. I now see it as well worth the small amount of time it takes, thanks to distance learning.
Courtesy: Thomas CourtneyLuis Perez eats his pizza.New school rule #3: There are no more walls.
Kids miss not only other kids, but the adults on campus, too. We regularly invite others to stop by. Thursday, Mr. D. came by to do a couplet rap battle. Friday, our PE coach pops in to challenge the kids to a calisthenics competition. The librarian comes in to recommend books to read aloud. When a friend stops by, we remind students that there is a space in our online portal for the children to write and talk with any of these friends, or our school counselor — just like they normally can do on campus. I can’t wait to bring this idea back to class in the fall.
Courtesy: Thomas CourtneyStudents race Mr. D to get a parent’s shoe, which they used in a lesson about the metric system.New school rule #4: Teachers need time to be together, and not just for work.
This one was for us. For my own well-being and for those of my colleagues and friends, I made a “office hours” period for us to check in virtually with each other whenever we felt like it. Maybe it was seeing the kids, but I noticed that, like them, we needed time outside of business to share and talk.
To my surprise, most days, someone usually pops in to say hi, to vent, or to laugh. It reminds me a lot of those late afternoons, when your colleague down the hall comes in, closes the door and says, “Can I talk to you?”
Because we all, kids and adults alike, need someone to talk to right now. Don’t we?
As President Abraham Lincoln once said in a time of crisis, “nothing valuable is lost by taking time.”
In this time of crisis, bend the rules for your students a bit, and give yourself permission to make a few new ones with them. Maybe, like me, you’ll see the value of it now and when we’re back in the classroom.
Thomas Courtney teaches fifth grade at Chollas-Mead Elementary school in San Diego Unified and advocates for social emotional learning along with his cohort of Teach Plus California fellows. He wrote this piece in collaboration with Shadi Roueenfar, a recent graduate of San Diego State University’s credential program, who will begin her teaching career in the fall in Los Angeles with her own 5th-grade classroom. 
The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent diverse viewpoints about California’s public education systems. We welcome guest commentaries from teachers about how they are adapting to distance learning. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.
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