At Hicks Canyon Elementary School in Orange County, Calif., students have been learning with digital devices since the Tustin Unified School District went 1:1 six years ago — so the shift to remote learning amid the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t as jarring as it could have been.
Yet, it was still a profound change.
“Teachers didn’t sign up for online learning,” says Assistant Principal Kristy Andre. “They signed up for in-person teaching.”
Transitioning to all-online instruction has been physically exhausting for teachers. But it has taken a huge social and emotional toll as well.
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“The shift happened very abruptly. We went into spring break and then never returned to school,” Andre says. Not only were teachers forced to give up their spring break to create online assignments, but they didn’t have a chance to talk through the shift to online learning and its implications with students beforehand.
Even though Hicks Canyon was a 1:1 school, teachers were at very different levels of proficiency in teaching with technology. “We had some teachers who didn’t know how to screencast or record a video of themselves,” Andre explains. “We were supporting them at the very basic level, showing them how to record video of themselves saying hi to their students or reading a story. And then we had teachers who were creating lessons on SeeSaw and Google Classroom that were rigorous and fun for students to complete. It spanned the entire gamut.”
Regardless of teachers’ proficiency, the shift to remote instruction took a toll on everyone. “Teachers were putting in many more hours, because they were answering email and responding to students’ questions in addition to creating assignments and commenting on student work,” she says. “They were also sitting through weekly staff meetings about remote learning, which we weren’t doing before the pandemic.”
Shifting instruction online put teachers in an unfamiliar spot. The stress this produced was compounded by the natural anxiety that teachers felt about the pandemic itself and its economic implications, like everyone else.
“Teachers have been missing their students and realizing this is not how things should be,” Andre says. “The emotional toll this takes on adults as well as kids has been huge. I think everybody has felt a sense of fatigue from having to process all of this in the moment.”
Making teachers feel seen and heard
The emotions that Hicks Canyon teachers have experienced are familiar to many educators. K-12 leaders have been very mindful of supporting their students’ social and emotional needs during this stressful period — and they should remember that teachers need the same support as well.
At Hicks Canyon, administrators have done many things to give teachers the emotional support they need.
“Social and emotional learning are so important to us, and I think it starts with ourselves,” Andre observes. “If we’re not in tune with our own social and emotional well-being, then it’s hard to model that for our students.”
The first thing school leaders did was to “name and normalize” the anxiety that teachers were feeling, she says: “We acknowledged what they were feeling and let teachers know that it was completely normal. That helps them do the same for their own students.”
Andre also created opportunities to listen to teachers’ needs. At the beginning of every staff meeting, she asked teachers to fill out a Google form indicating how they felt using the Zones of Regulation framework created by Leah Kuypers — and teachers could also share more details in an open-response format. “They knew it was only me who would see what they wrote, so it was a safe forum for them to express themselves,” she says. This exercise allowed Andre to determine whether faculty members needed any further support.
In addition, she tried to send text messages to individual teachers that were authentic in tone. “I would go into their assignments and watch the videos they were making for their students. I would find things they did well and send a personalized text message acknowledging that,” she says. “Text messages can sometimes come off as superficial, so I tried to be intentional about what I would say. Teachers would often send back a response like, ‘Wow, I really needed that today — thanks.’”
During Teacher Appreciation Week, administrators dropped off gift baskets at teachers’ houses. In their weekly email newsletter to teachers, they highlighted exemplary lessons that teachers were doing online. Getting that recognition in front of their colleagues “helped teachers realize all their hard work was paying off,” Andre says. “They felt seen and heard in their daily teaching.”
Andre says she has gotten to know her staff better, despite not seeing them in the building every day — and she believes this focus on meeting teachers’ emotional needs has paid off.
“I think we underestimate how important those personal touches are and how they can make a big impact, especially when we’re all alone and online,” she concludes. “The amount of time you spend on building relationships matters. When you end the kind of year we’ve had and people are still smiling, you know you’ve done something right.”