Teaching During a Collective Trauma
We are living through a collective trauma. Covid-19 is not just happening to me or you, or the community we live in. It is happening to the world. That is a hard idea to grasp. This is an event that is defining this period of our lives, and the fallout is one that will need special care and attention. Normally during a traumatic event, we turn to each other. We embrace, we commiserate, we share food and drink and we show up in each other’s lives. This time we have been told to do the opposite. We have been told to go against our instincts as human beings. Instead of gaining solace by being together, we have had to be apart. Covid-19 is not like other traumatic events. Many, such as natural disasters, have an end. Covid’s ending is unknown, even to the experts. It makes everyone feel more vulnerable.
This means that we must enter the new school year with the intent to repair and heal this trauma. Whether we are aware of it or not, our brains have been in a fight/flight/freeze state. Going to the grocery store might feel unsafe. Picking up the mail each day might feel risky. Not being with friends and family who calm us, might leave us feeling anxious. If we as adults are feeling this way, can you imagine how our children are feeling? This means September must be about repairing and reconnecting. Yet how do we do that within a social distancing framework?
The first thing we must do is prioritize cues of safety. We have, as a society, felt unsafe. We need to ensure that our children feel safe returning to school. This will include several important steps. For example, when possible, have teachers do temperature checks instead of the administrative staff, as most children have a relationship with their teacher. Explain why desks are apart, and model washing and sanitizing. Try to use fun cloth masks when possible as opposed to sterile looking medical masks. Many children have fears around doctors, hospitals and illnesses and these masks can trigger these fears. Try to identify procedures in your school that might create fear or uncertainty, and change those up so that children feel comfortable walking through those doors.
Regulation should be worked into the day right from the start. Children need to be in a regulated state before they can learn. This can be done through yoga, repetitive movement, art or music. Begin each day with these activities and build them into breaks throughout the day. Have a check-in system so children can let teachers know how they feel and teachers can gear the regulation activities to the day. One of my classes uses a number system of 1 to 10 to let me know how they are feeling. Choose a system that works for the ages/needs of your class.
It is important to build relationships while maintaining the distancing rules. Regulation, relationships and community must be in place if academics are going to happen. Do school assemblies through Zoom. Take time to chat as a class about how everyone is feeling with being back in the world. Hold space for their grief – they have lost a part of their childhood and many have missed out on important rituals and milestones. Many missed birthdays with friends and families, some missed graduations or religious ceremonies, and some might not have been there for final moments with aging relatives. Listen to their stories and validate their stories. Their narratives are important to their healing. Create space every day for them.
Finally, work with staff to model vulnerability and compassion. Children will allow themselves to be vulnerable if they see that trusted adults are vulnerable. It’s okay for us to share what has made us sad during this time. Staff can build a sense of safety in the school through the warmth and compassion they show each other. Again, children learn from this. Avoid toxic positivity. We need to help our children learn that all emotions are valid and it is okay to share these emotions. It is what allows us to heal from these events. Start the year with ceremony, instead of finishing the year that way. Take those end of year rituals and move them to the beginning. Start with fun and safety. Above all, we need to show up for our kids and let them know that it is okay to feel everything they feel, and together we will find our way through all of this.