3 Lessons I Learned As a Counselor in Yet Another Pandemic School Year
What was the biggest lesson you learned as an educator in the pandemic? School counselor Kate McKenzie shares her top three takeaways from this school year.
Can you sum up this past school year in one word?
For guidance, I thought back to my administration’s January challenge to declare our words of the year. (Mine was the verb “prune,” by the way.) I also remembered that iconic scene in the book Eat, Pray, Love when Giulio says that every city can be described in one word.
Considering all we’ve been through, my word for the school year is flexibility. I settled on this word after reflecting on what I’ve learned in and out of my counseling office. For those who haven’t read my previous posts or attended Xello webinars, 90% of my district’s students chose to attend school this year face-to-face, five days a week. This meant a lot of “all hands on deck” moments for staff.
Below are my three big takeaways of the year. I’d love to know what other lessons you’d like to add from your own pandemic experiences!
1. Flexibility Is the Key to Sanity
Let me start off by saying, I’m one of the least flexible people you’ll meet. I love a good scheduled day. I always volunteer to be the notetaker in meetings. I thrive on to-do lists. But after having to completely replan my 2020 wedding and honeymoon three times, I had to have a come-to-Jesus conversation with myself:
Expect change. Prioritize your glass cups, plastic balls, and ghosts. And my goodness, stop writing on the calendar in pen.
So, in short, I entered this school year with a “be flexible” mentality. It was my saving grace. Going in with the expectation of performing tasks outside of my role, comfort zone, or contract made the constant shifts more manageable. Did I sometimes respond with a Jake Peralta “cool, cool, cool”? Absolutely. But mentally preparing ahead of time helped me be a positive team player.
I witnessed many coworkers doing the same. They started recording read-alouds and lessons for students quarantined at home. They rethought their Morning Meeting games to continue building community at a safe distance. They sacrificed a portion of their lunch to help cover classes. The list goes on and on with ways teachers rose to the challenges of this school year.
And it was very clear which educators were leaning into this flexible thinking mindset and which were stuck in their old ways. The latter became even more exhausted than the rest of us, as well as frustrated and difficult to collaborate with. They wanted to keep the status quo when it wasn’t an option.
I quickly realized that the pandemic brought the best and worst out of teachers, and those who didn’t want to abide by new protocols or mix up old lessons often left feeling discouraged. I’m not saying more flexible teachers thought this academic year was a cake walk. In fact, it may have been one of the hardest years ever. But, overall, those that modified their practices while still keeping students as their focus had a more successful, satisfying school year.
2. Kids Are More Resilient Than Adults
Who do you think was in my office the most in the fall? Nope, it wasn’t our kindergartners who had to start their academic career in masks. Nor was it our sixth graders who missed out on their big, overnight field trip. It was staff members.
They were sad that they couldn’t see the lower half of the kids’ faces. They were concerned that students would be missing out on the normal school/extra curricular experience. They were nervous about having to constantly monitor distance in the classroom.
This uneasiness ruled many of our August professional development days. We focused on safe classroom set up, new rules for the lunch line and recess, and creating mask visuals. The stress was palpable.
But here’s the thing: the kids were fine. They had missed our building community. They were excited to be back in school, see their friends, and have some structure to their day. Most of their thoughts revolved not around COVID, but who was in their class, what games they could play in P.E., and if they’d get a lot of homework. You know, the normal stuff.
Students thrive when there are clear expectations, rules, and logical consequences. They didn’t blink an eye when we rolled out our year’s slogan of “Mask Up, Back Up, Wash Up.” The new rules and extra level of vigilance due to the pandemic made students and families feel safer. It’s no surprise that the staff that set the clearest expectations –and followed through– had the easiest time transitioning kids back to the building.
There were definitely grade-level losses: no group science experiments, no zoo field trips. But it was the teachers that were more upset; they were comparing this year to how it’s always been. You know what? The kids didn’t know any differently. The sixth graders weren’t aware of the restaurant activity for “book tastings.” They didn’t know how recognition night usually looks.
If questions were brought up in class, successful teachers acknowledged losses without dwelling on them. They attempted to shift focus on what students gained from a semester at home– more time with family, learning how to ride a bike, exploring new trails at parks– and what cool new things students would do this year.
We don’t want to project our own worries onto students. Instead, we want to tackle our job with a trauma-informed approach and incorporate social emotional learning. Educators need to trust that while it’s important to be proactive, it’s even more important to meet students where they are. More often than not, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with their resilience and positive mentality.
3. I Can’t (and Don’t Need to) Do It All
My principal told me to start taking things off my plate or I’d burn out. When I pushed back, he reminded me that my word of the year was “prune.” Well played, sir.
Maybe the hard part was figuring out what I could do this year. The “no-no” list was piling up. No more “welcome back” assemblies. No more friendship small groups with kids from multiple classes. No more parent volunteers helping with bulletin boards, running reading clubs, and making copies.
I needed to shift my mindset to the positive. How could I still be an effective counselor this pandemic year? And what would that look like?
I spent a lot of my time working one-on-one with students. Even when it seemed like I was playing whack-a-mole, it was the safest option for everyone. I also filmed a lot of lessons and pushed in virtually so multiple classes could benefit from Tier I social-emotional instruction.
My system definitely wasn’t perfect. At times I felt like I was letting students down, especially when, after tracking my time, I discovered that 20% of my day was performing non-counseling tasks, like lunch duty and internally subbing.
Once again, I needed to focus on the positive. I came into this year looking to be a team player and doing what was best for the building. My counseling mentor always reminds me to be in the moment, even if there’s a million other things on my mind. I made it my mission to be present with students, even if an extra shift in the lunchroom was the last place I wanted to be. These unstructured conversations led me to discover that Ginnie had witnessed the death of her one year old neighbor the night before, that Charlie was nervous to lose his first tooth, and that Sarah’s studying had paid off on her ‘War of 1812’ test. Even if I wasn’t explicitly teaching students my curriculum during these times, I was still making connections. In fact, I may know more about the students after this year than any year before, simply because of our non-instructional time together on a regular basis.
As for my leadership roles across the building, my administration and I quickly realized we couldn’t be leading the six different teacher work committees. So, we started to onboard interested teachers to help lead the work. It was great to not only gain staff buy in, but also collaborate on a vertical level.
Why am I telling you about my dropped responsibilities and at times sub-par counseling instruction? Because I learned that I don’t need to do it all. Like Thanksgiving dinner, when it’s all put on one plate, things get messy and mixed up. Yes, not all academic, social, and emotional gaps were intentionally addressed this past year. But educators worked so darn hard to help students and families navigate food instability, the technological divide, big emotions, and oh yeah, learning content. I’m proud of the work we’ve done.
Looking to the Future
As we wrap up this crazy year, I can’t help but hope that educators reflect on what we’ve learned as we plan for a normal-ish fall. What is essential for our instructional practices and students’ emotional wellbeing moving forward?
My own building has already made innovative strides. After months of professional development, MTSS screeners, and examining building weaknesses, my administration built a leadership team representative of all departments and grade levels. Each of these team members also participates on a different building subcommittee, such as PBIS, Wellness, and CARE, our inclusion and equity team. This restructure will ensure consistent and vertical communication, as well as the alignment of initiatives instead of working in silos. It may take some time to achieve all of our goals, but we’ll all be in it together.
And that’s really the main takeaway of the 2020-2021 school year. When educators are able to learn, collaborate, and reflect together, the positive outcomes are limitless.