Most schools have launched a new school year in a start like no other with the majority of classes being offered virtually or in hybrid format.
How do we approach Fall 2020 with its continuous requirement to develop and adopt plans, change adopted plans, then repeat as circumstances shift? How do we align our belief in developmental, relationship-based, arts-infused education with distance education, physical distancing, fear for well-being, and the accumulated weariness of months of work-from-home and juggling of roles?
There are no easy answers, but our personal and professional principles help guide us. We can return to our personal mission: Why do I teach? What do I understand to be the purpose of schools and of teaching? What is my view of childhood and of children? Plus, as educators working from the impulse of Waldorf education, we can turn to common principles to provide guidance for our work in this extraordinary, uncharted time.
Our principles help us navigate this time of multiple crises. As an example, we see this in one shared dilemma: the use of screens. We have held a position on screens and children that is thoroughly grounded in research; unlike much of education, we have kept screens out of the classroom as much and for as long as possible and expended time and energy dissuading parents from use of screens with their young children. We have explained what we know: children learn best in direct, engaged relationship; learning is most effective when it is “whole child,” somatic and experiential. In the physical classroom, we rely on multiple cues as we constantly adapt our teaching to meet the needs of the students. We know, and have told our communities, that screens work against all of this. They encourage unnatural stillness. They impose images on children rather than inviting them to develop their own. They affect the way the young child’s brain functions.
This all remains true, but we are now confronted with the reality of a time in which, for most of us, we cannot be together “as usual” in a classroom. Virtual contact, typically through Zoom, has become really important. How can we reconcile and explain this in light of our previous stance against screens? The key thing to remember here is that Zoom is a tool to support our pedagogical principles and work. Even with significant limitations, Zoom helps us maintain connection and community, provides students with access to their teachers, and allows teaching and learning to proceed.
Since March, we have all heard many, many examples of creative and innovative teaching using the tool of Zoom, teaching that directly reflects our beliefs and principles. Educators are bringing their knowledge of child development as they decide how and where to use Zoom. (How much is too much for the younger child? Which activities work well for different ages on Zoom?) They are keeping in mind our image of the holistic human being. (How do we bring movement, art, nature, and social-emotional learning into a virtual environment? How do we include a mood of gratitude and wonder?) They are fostering and maintaining community and connection through class and community events and activities.
We know this is not simple or free of problems. Schools are balancing accountability requirements for instructional time with concerns about length of time on screens. We are all concerned about access and the widening of existing gaps. In our current reality, access and diversity remain enormous challenges in education. Systemic racism and inequity that are far from new have been laid inescapably bare in recent months. Our virtual reality has highlighted fundamental issues of equity, access, and inclusion of all students. We are all looking anew at who is in our schools and classrooms, who has the technology and access needed for virtual access, where we make assumptions about students, homes, and resources, which parents are “essential workers”, who is working from home, who has the luxury of time and space to support distance learning.
We are engaged in a great awakening. We worry, rightfully, about existing gaps growing wider. Yet, we seek social change through education. We must seize new opportunities for change and growth. The pandemic will end at some point. Schools will reopen. Our challenge will be to take this enforced opportunity to reexamine assumptions, to awaken, to support a reshaping of schools, of classrooms, and of the process of teaching, based on a coherent, complete image of all children’s childhood. Our children are counting on us for this.
Sending warm wishes and strength to every educator and deep gratitude for the principled work you are doing every day,
Views from the Field: 21 Observations, Tips, and Questions from Teachers on Virtual Teaching and Learning
We invite teachers and parents to add their own experiences—and experiments--to this growing list.
- Build in frequent breaks. Encourage students to move, look outside (even better if they can step outside) during breaks.
- Adapt movement to the screen. From a kindergarten teacher: “Here we go ‘round the mulberry bush” became “Here we go climbing the mulberry bush” so she could see the children as they moved.
- Headphones can be a challenge as they tether the child to the screen. They may be necessary if there are siblings, crowded space, or the child is participating from a daycare center.
- Encourage moments of a longer gaze, away from the screen; looking at something living and green is even better (research shows that looking at plants and trees, or even images of plants and trees lowers stress and improv es focus).
- Hydrate! Important for students and teachers. Don’t forget nutritious snacks as well.
- Be in dialogue with your school’s administration about overall screen hours – for you and for the students (for some of us, classes split for health and safety mean double teaching duty).
- Engage parents and be aware of unrealistic expectations on them (especially “essential workers”, those working from home, and families with several children, all needing attention).
- Children in childcare settings may have little support for classes. We need to be mindful of location.
- Practice self-care – many are depending on our teachers and this can be exhausting. We need to remind one another to take care of ourselves.
- Have open office hours for parents of younger children and for students and parents in older grades.
- AND, establish clear boundaries. You can’t and shouldn’t be available 24/7.
- Be prepared for technical glitches. (What is the plan if the teacher gets kicked off Zoom? It happens from time to time.)
- Many are still dealing with disparity of technology and access. What can be offered to close these gaps?
- Build in movement, eurythmy gestures, and stretching to counterbalance sitting still and hunching over. Remember to do them yourself!
- Parents need reassurance and support – frequent emails with supportive messaging help. No one has an instruction manual for our current reality.
- Students are so excited to see their teachers and one another. It is the beginning of a new year, whether virtual or face to face.
- How do we sustain their initial enthusiasm as the Fall progresses without feeling as if we have to be entertainers?
- Find the right rhythm for class parent meetings. Regular, but manageable for you (and for parents).
- How are we managing special education assessment? Is our district of school allowing these to be in person? What about assessment overall?
- Add short personal notes to children in supply bags or boxes.
- Be open to not knowing, to your questions, and to moments of inspiration. It is not business as usual.
Liz Beaven, EdD, has over 30 years experience in Waldorf education as a class teacher, school administrator, board member, adult educator, researcher, parent, and grandparent. She serves as the President of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education and i Provost of the California Institute of Integral Education (San Francisco). These reflections and pointers are adapted from a recent Alliance for Public Waldorf Education newsletter. (http://publicwaldorf.org/)