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Teacher's Lounge Virtual Instruction Advice - Keeping My Smile

Dear Teacher’s Lounge,

We only have twenty-four hours in each day, and as an assistant I am trying to make every day important. While on my school bus I am grateful for the students and greet each one with a smile and “good morning” to start their day. It is difficult to even get a response. As I transition into the classrooms I stay busy working with all of the students that I can give assistance to. How can I stay positive with a smile on my face every day while getting negative responses all day? Sometimes I just want to rip off my mask, hug these students, and just say “I love you” to each one of them!

                                                                                                                        ~Keeping My Smile

Dear Smile,

What a shock returning to buildings has been for staff and students alike, particularly when we cannot rely on some of the key relationship-building strategies we’ve had in the past to let the kids know we care about them. It is heartbreaking.

When I read your message, I can see how much you love the students you serve. To help ease your mind a little bit about some of the vibes you’re getting from them, I want to make one really important distinction between a negative response and a lack of discernible response. For example, you talked about how you keep smiling. Sadly, the kids cannot see your smile, so for them, they could perceive seeing just a blank where the mask is as a negative response when really, you’re doing the opposite. The same holds true for how you receive the responses from students; they might be smiling, or frowning, or sticking out their tongues, or just making no expression at all. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing. When you greet them and they are silent, there could be all sorts of reasons why, from being shy to feeling constrained by the masks and distancing. In general, it might be more beneficial to try and reframe the responses as neutral at worst rather than negative, and you might feel a little more positive about how things are going.

In regards to the now very different process of building relationships with kids given the pandemic restrictions in buildings, we have all been developing strategies over the course of the past few months that might be worth trying. Here is a list of just a few ideas:

  • Give each child a set of index cards in different colors. Each child can create a personalized set of “mood cards,” using each to identify a specific mood and perhaps add a brief explanation or sketch. For example, if I were to create a set for myself, I would work with a range of possible feelings, from “tired” and “discouraged” to “excited” and “joyful.” When students walk into the room, they can show you their card of the day, which gives you a sense of how they feel under the mask.
  • A lot of self-hugging has been going on to mime a real hug. If you feel the urge to tell the kids you love them and support them, cross your arms over your own shoulders in a hug to express the practice of safe distance-hugging.
  • Pick a small number of kids to focus on each day in the moments before and after class. Use that time to strike up a conversation about anything, from the weather to a TV show referenced on a t-shirt. Gradually, students will warm up to you as you make these small gestures.
  • Don’t give up on the greetings, even with no audible response. “Good morning” goes a long way even if we don’t see a smile, as does “It’s so nice to see you” and “I’m glad you’re here today.”
  • Pick a student each day or each week to be a “happiness ambassador” and bring smiles to the classroom. That can be in the form of a prepared joke, a funny story, or just going around and asking for a celebration or piece of good news.
  • Acknowledge the frustration you feel honestly and openly with students, but with an empowering slant: “I really want you to know that it’s hard for me not to see your face or be closer to help you out, and I know you might feel the same way. But I’m not going to give up, and I would love to hear some of your ideas for making this class as enjoyable as possible.” By expressing your feelings, students will appreciate a perspective that they were likely unaware of.
  • If safe and permitted, visit other classrooms and talk to colleagues about their own solutions, and to see some other classroom dynamics in action. The smartest person in the room is the room itself: do not underestimate the power of collective brainstorming!

No matter what strategies you try, here’s the bottom line: don’t give up. Children are looking to us to keep it together and be a force of stability in a world that seems to have gone absolutely insane. Working in a school is never easy, and it’s even harder with so many barriers. We owe it to ourselves to have compassion for everyone in this situation (ourselves included), and to be okay with some very slow progress toward building the relationships that might take longer, but are so very worth it.

Please feel free to write back in and let us know how things are going!

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Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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