Opinion: Teachers should focus on caring for students

Jamie DeWitt

As we all grapple with the impacts of COVID-19, educators are retooling our entire curriculum and how it’s delivered in the blink of an eye, looking for experts to provide advice on how to deliver online instruction in a meaningful, effective way.

I’ve spent 15 years immersed in online and blended learning. And since 2018, I’ve been in Lansing leading a blended learning academy. My experience — fueled by a broad range of research and best practices — has helped me understand what it means to think in a nontraditional way in this highly unusual time.

It’s as if I’ve been preparing for what we’re experiencing today. 

There are countless research-based best practices in digital pedagogy and online learning. But this is not the time for those. This is not the time to put pressure on educators to magically become experts in a highly specialized field while also adapting their own curriculum, teaching students how to learn in this new way, oh, and also personally deal with fear, grief, anxiety and more during a global pandemic.

We are educators. Our purest calling isn’t test scores and lesson plans. We have bigger things to concern ourselves with, especially right now. 

We have people we need to take care of.

Jamie DeWitt

For me, the single most important line in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order regarding schools is embedded within the Continuity of Learning and COVID-19 Response Plans section: “Provide mental health supports to pupils affected by a state of emergency or state of disaster prompted by COVID-19.”

Right now, this applies to every single student. Now is when we need to focus on relationships with our students, which is one of the most critical lessons of online and blended learning. We need to ensure we’re caring for them — their whole selves — over academics and assignments.

We need to make sure we’re being kind, that we’re there for them. We must be authentic. Otherwise, students and families aren’t going to believe us. 

Lorig Bishop, language teacher, foreground, William Bishop, from left, Andrew Paniagua and Nuri Bye, all language teachers, prepare their online classes and lessons for their students at West Bloomfield High School.

What does this look like in practice?

►Use the tools you already know. It’s OK to keep it simple. It’s OK to use email and phones if that’s what allows you to focus on connecting with students instead of learning new software and delivery methods.

►Give students some grace, seeking first to understand. Do your best to operate with positive intent and avoid dangerous assumptions.

►Call every student, every week. This is a far more valuable use of your time than perfecting Google Classroom. Check in and see what they need. If they are ready, help them through any learning you’ve provided — but only if they are ready. How they are coping and managing their emotional needs right now is far more important than curriculum. 

►Here’s the one frustration I hear most: People aren’t responding in this digital environment. Don’t stop trying when you don’t get a response. Often the message gets through, but people can be too overwhelmed to respond, whether it’s a parent or a student. Keep trying and meet them where they are. You have no idea the power of a simple voicemail that says, “I miss you. I’m thinking about you. I’m here if you need me.”

Last week, a student I hadn’t heard from since March 13 liked an Instagram post of ours, and I immediately sent a direct message to see how the student was doing. That student is now re-engaged. The rules are different now, but even continuous outreach feels pointless. Have faith in your students. They need to know you care even if they don’t show it.

►If you’re going to tackle a new area of expertise, don’t make it online education, make it trauma-informed language. Our students are experiencing trauma at pivotal developmental stages. Google “trauma-informed.” Read, learn, talk to experts. And then use language that’s sensitive to what students are going through. Don’t say, “Hey! Whatcha been up to? You watching Netflix?” Home is not safe for many students. Many don’t have access to the comforts of privilege. Don’t make assumptions about their life that could be triggering. Use language that will support and comfort them without asking anything in return. What does that sound like? “I miss you. I will see you again soon.”

The real work for all educators is going to be in the fall when we will need to assess and address learning gaps. That’s when we are going to need to embrace individualized learning plans for each student. That’s when we are going to need flexible learning styles. That’s when we are going to have to wrestle fear and anxiety and address trauma.

What our kids need right now is someone to care about them, and to let them know they are not alone. 

At the end of this, what are our students going to remember?

At the end of this, I hope they’ll understand and remember the resilience they have. I hope we show them our confidence in them. I hope we stop underestimating them. In fact, we need to learn from them. They have grit, and they can roll with the punches. We need to stop adulting and start teenagering a bit. We need to give up control and focus on bonds and connection.

At the end of this, I hope, above all, we remember longing for these relationships with our students. When it’s hard in the classroom, let’s remember when we longed to see them, talk to them, to know how they are and be given the chance to help them learn.

Let’s remember our core and what drove us to teach in the first place. Is the core of what we do teaching long division? Or is it taking care of each individual student? 

Many of us are wondering: Will education ever be the same? I hope not. I hope we’ll never forget that relationships matter more than anything.

When we do have the time to dive into the best practices and learn from this experience, I hope we all come out of this open to innovation and disrupting who and what education can truly be. And I hope we remember the emotional well-being of our students has to be at the heart of every decision we make.

Jamie DeWitt is the principal and school leader of NexTech High School, a public charter school serving students in Lansing. NexTech encourages students to own their future by offering blended learning customized to each student’s individual, personalized learning needs, whether on campus or studying online.