Education Youth

An Open Letter to Pandemic Educators

For educators in a pandemic, our greatest priority is not academic progress, but social and emotional well-being. You have likely spent the last year under intense pressure trying to do anything you can to make a difference. Have your efforts closed the achievement gap? Should they be expected to? No, of course not. In everything you do, you have shown kids that they belong, that someone cares for them, that they are worth all your effort, and that you want them to be safe. That is the primary mandate of the educator. Only then will academic progress follow.

This post first appeared on Boost Collaborative on March 2, 2021.

For educators in a pandemic, our greatest priority is not academic progress, but social and emotional well-being. You have likely spent the last year under intense pressure trying to do anything you can to make a difference. Have your efforts closed the achievement gap? Should they be expected to? No, of course not. In everything you do, you have shown kids that they belong, that someone cares for them, that they are worth all your effort, and that you want them to be safe. That is the primary mandate of the educator. Only then will academic progress follow.

Just six months ago I wrote that our fight was against COVID Learning Loss. I may have been wrong. The devastating effects on the academic success of school-age children from the Coronavirus Pandemic must be addressed – and it will be in time. First, our focus must be on kids’ social and emotional well-being.

There is plenty of research to support this idea. Here are just a few organizations and frameworks that place social and emotional skills, the learning environment, and the developmental assets of the child above – or as a prerequisite – to academic instruction:

  • The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has developed a trusted framework for evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL).
  • The Search Institute has identified 40 positive assets that kids need to succeed they call the Developmental Assets Framework.
  • The David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality helps youth programs set and achieve meaningful improvement goals based on data to create positive environments for youth.
  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – This should be common knowledge, but remember that this is not all on you. Even as a parent or guardian, it takes a village.

These frameworks and the research behind them are all pre-pandemic, but during the pandemic, the trauma you and your students face is likely more complex. As a pandemic educator, I know you are making every effort to prioritize your students’ social and emotional well-being.

You prioritize emotional safety, not just physical safety

In-person instruction, distance learning, and hybrid approaches all have complex physical safety needs. As I have said before don’t sacrifice emotional safety in your pursuit of physical safety.

You prioritize your own social and emotional well-being

Regardless of what we say, it is our actions that instruct the children we are educating. To create a safe and supportive environment, kids need to see you modeling social and emotional skills. This includes taking care of yourself, perhaps now more than ever.

You prioritize listening

These kids are amazing, and we are privileged to serve them. As educators and social sector leaders, I believe it is our responsibility to get out of the way and get behind this generation. This also means letting student voice and choice influence how and what you teach.

What else are you prioritizing?

Let me know in the comments. Think of pandemic education as being stranded on an educator’s desert island. You don’t have every tool at your disposal, what will you still bring to the “classroom”?

And of course… thank you.

Thank you for who you are.
Thank you for all you do.
Thank you for everything you have given.
Thank you for all you still have to give.
Thank you for educating our kids.

Daren Howard is a social sector consultant and writer. He currently serves as a member of the Board of Directors at InPlay, a nonprofit that seeks to increase equitable access to after school and summer learning programs. Daren earned his MBA at California State University Dominguez Hills, but will never be done learning.

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