In the spring of 2020, the Pandemic halted in-class learning and significantly changed the face of education. It became a pivotal moment for teachers, who already had one of the most stressful professions in the country, to consider not only their own place in the classroom, but the way their students’ accessed education. How are teachers weathering the pandemic?
Teacher burnout was a buzzword long before we donned our masks. But it’s particularly present in a world where teachers are facing constantly shifting schedules and expectations. NEA found that 32% of teachers cited the pandemic as their reason for leaving teaching earlier than expected.
The disruption to the typical classroom structure has also impacted the social and emotional development of students. Students who are now in second grade missed half a year of critical development in kindergarten and an entire year of first grade. In a typical school year, there are already areas where gaps in academic and social development occur, but the gap has never been this large and on this scale.
Jessica Thomas, a school counselor at Volney Rogers Elementary School in Youngstown, Ohio, sums it up well, “As educators, we are aware of Maslow before Bloom, but I am seeing that it is a challenge to address those basic needs without continued learning loss…not to mention the pandemic is never-ending and constantly disrupting any sense of structure that we are trying to create in school.”
How do we address the uncertainty and exhaustion we are experiencing?
Shift Your Perspective: Positive Psychology and Character Strengths
Positive psychology gives us a framework for how to shift our perspective, from what’s wrong to what’s strong.
Here are a few examples:
- If your daily class schedule has been disrupted, how can you modify your outlook on the day to be more flexible?
- If your students are grappling with hope and their own sense of meaning in the world, how can we increase connection in the classroom?
- Can you think of more universal and attainable goals despite unpredictability?
Research and our own experience in school tells us it is possible to overcome negativity bias. Using evidence-based approaches, such as knowing, seeing, and applying our character strengths (identified by the VIA Institute), we can focus on our signature strengths that can empower us to make this shift.
Taft Elementary School in Youngstown, Ohio deeply felt the impact of the pandemic. From shifting schedules to unpredictable changes to routines, the staff and students are feeling physical and emotional fatigue every day. In their monthly culture and climate meeting, the administration and team of teachers spent time reflecting on how the building could collectively shift their perspectives and school culture to celebrate the positive despite the unknown.
Tapping into his high sense of meaning and hope, Principal Tod Morris created a challenge for his staff to shower the building with strength-spotting, where staff and students are recognized for positive character traits. Each day, he inspires teachers to fill out strength spotters and hand-delivers the colorful cards to each teacher.
This positivity has created a ripple effect where teachers feel more capable of overriding negativity bias by seeking out the positive throughout their day. Students feel seen as well, and the strengths are a visual reminder of the good that is happening. This consistent encouragement creates a buffering effect, allowing staff and students to bounce back more quickly in the face of the unknown.
Overcoming Challenges: Strengths-Based SEL
For the past four years, Bryan Whitmore, Harding Elementary School, Youngstown City Schools, has been leading the implementation of Thriving Learning Communities™(TLC), a strengths-based social and emotional learning (SEL) program. He has given a great deal of thought to the role character strengths and SEL plays in classroom management and the overall wellbeing of teachers and students. Whitmore sees academics as the top priority for schools but being able to reach academic goals depends on positive student behavior and strong student and teacher relationships. Underneath that, there must be a strong foundation of social and emotional competencies. This foundation mitigates effects outside of the school’s control. This has been critically important this year as students and staff continue to deal with the complexity and chaos the pandemic has caused.
Both Taft and Harding have also honed in on the importance of strengths-based approaches in the classroom using the Thriving Learning Communities™ SEL curriculum which finds its home in Mayerson Academy’s Hub24 learning platform. The curriculum highlights that students have all 24-character strengths as defined by the VIA Institute. As an example, the “Buds and Roses” lesson from TLC’s 3rd-4th grade curriculum focuses on teaching students the character strength of perseverance through the lens of a growth mindset.
At the start of the activity, students are asked to reflect on their successes and challenges in the first few weeks of the school year. Using their writing skills, they first identify areas where they might improve. This improvement is framed like the buds sprouting on a plant, in this case, a rose. The lesson also encourages creativity by having students color in and decorate their roses after they have written their answers. Through the “Buds and Roses” lesson, students can see that their new skills are budding and require care to grow.
The character strengths that students explore and develop while working through TLC’s SEL curriculum are essential to buffering the unpredictable events of the school day and set a foundation for students to continue to be able to overcome challenges more quickly as adults. They are the essential nutrients to help students grow.
Teaching students to be self-sufficient and healthy individuals who can overcome and cope with challenges has a far-reaching impact. As Thomas and Whitmore both have stated, the ability to improve the social and emotional wellbeing of students trickles up to overall behavior management and academic performance. This becomes a way to help teachers get back the space and time they need to develop sustainable relationships with students as well as care for their own mental health and wellbeing.
Contact Thriving Learning Communities™ to Become SELStrong
TLC uses research-based exercises through a strengths-based lens to meet the social and emotional needs of student. By proxy, these exercises allow adults to begin to explore their own strengths and shift their perspective more often from the negative to the positive. Start a conversation with us to ﬁnd out about Thriving Learning Communities’™ Hub24, our new just-in-time digital learning platform designed to meet today’s critical need for SEL. Connect here or call us at 513-263-2210 to receive a free demo of Hub24.