Coming back: 100 days (or so) later
Updated: May 28
I have a bit of a mantra grown of a lifetime of moving and having to make new friends every few years: you really only become mates once you have gone through some sort of adversity together. As an adult, hopefully that means a letting your inhibitions slip a bit on a Friday evening with colleagues, or having your fear of spiders tested while supervising Grade 3 camp. Sometimes, though, it ends up being something more serious. Regardless, how we behave in the moment, and in the time following the adversity, can affect our self-concept and define our bond.
Right now our school is phasing back a return to campus, with almost all our students now on site. Walking the space, smiling at everyone from behind masks and trying to maintain some sort of social distance, there is good will in abundance, as well as a healthy dose of apprehension. We want to do the right thing. The safe thing. The caring thing. We have shared, even in our isolation, a truly profound adversity - and we are changed.
Colleagues and I have shared our noticings of the students - the pace is a little slower, the voices a little quieter, the patience for each other a little higher. They are re-establishing old friendships but also forming new ones. My daughter said yesterday that a girl in her class told her that she was so glad to have her as a friend, and that she would work hard never to lose her. My daughter (age 7) said her heart 'beat like this' (picture little, pulsing explosions being shaped with her hands from her chest) - I had never heard her mention this child's name before. My son (age 9) can barely contain his joy each afternoon as we ride home on our motorbike - yelling the days wonders over my shoulder. He told me that his class now has only 4 boys in it - and that this might actually make him lucky. Suddenly he loves and feels proud of his maths, he has borrowed multiple books from the library and read them, he's developed social distancing handshakes with his friends.
Things seem more complex for teachers. They are juggling new daily schedules, new duties, holding down a sense of normality while everything isn't quite normal. They are continuing to provide home learning engagements for students who cannot be in the classroom and bringing them in virtually whenever they can. They are noticing students who have flourished during their 15 weeks at home and those who have struggled, and are planning what comes next. They are thinking of their families and friends in their home countries and wondering when they might see them again. With all this and more going on, it isn't surprising that many teachers are feeling low on reserves.
So how can we support each other following adversity?
Elena Aguilar writes an entire chapter in her book Onward (2018) about focusing on the bright spots and it seems there is no better time than now for exactly that.
This week I tried very hard to spend time with as many teachers as I could, listening to their plans and reflections and catching the bright spots. I didn't have to pry them out, though catching them before they zoomed out of focus and another worry snuck in has been a challenge. "The brain's negativity bias is exacerbated by fatigue and poor self-care," writes Aguilar (p179). Sound familiar? She goes on to say that perceived threats lodge themselves in your brain within a tenth of a second, whereas a positive experience requires at least 12 seconds to be retained to memory. Perhaps a big support for teachers right now might be slowing the narrative down around those bright spots so that teachers have time to soak them up.
Another way to focus on the bright spots is to help teachers unearth the values that drive many of the reactions we have as we face challenges. A key coaching strategy that digs deeper is the abstracting paraphrase. I've leant heavily this week on Cognitive Coaching to do this, listening-in for people's values, beliefs, concept labels and goals. An abstracting paraphrase "...Likely causes a group or speaker to think in new ways, previously inaccessible to them," and provides the space we need for reasoning, (Costa & Garmston, 2015: p227). This in itself feels like focusing on the bright spots because many of our reactions are underpinned by honourable values and beliefs. Once they are identified, we empower ourselves to plan and respond with intention. We feel more in control and our course becomes clear.
Whilst coaches and teachers are not (usually) psychologists, it is important we heed their advice during this time and in general - take care not to inadvertently imply that there is anything inherently positive in traumatic and stressful experiences. Yet research has noted that as people struggle through these events and the time that follows, three broad dimensions of growth can occur - relationships are enhanced, an improved view of ourselves, and positive changes in life philosophy. It is much more than just developing resilience and sounds like what I have noticed in my own kids. Knowing this growth comes from within the person themselves, being intentional with our behaviour following adversity is vital. Focusing on the bright spots - be they values, reflections, or the actions of others - might just help us to grow in this next stage of our COVID-19 experience.
Aguilar, E. (2018).Onward: Cultivating emotional resilience in educators. John Wiley & Sons.
Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (2015).Cognitive coaching: Developing self-directed leaders and learners. Rowman & Littlefield.