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Addressing the Social Emotional Needs of the School Community

As current school leaders, we have to be mindful of how we will create school cultures that will support the social emotional needs of our teachers and students and their families. Now more than ever, there is a need for people to share and understand as we seek to make sense of our world today. There is a need to begin emotional and psychological healing but that can only happen when we create safe spaces to share our anxieties and fears.

As current school leaders, we have to be mindful of how we will create school cultures that will support the social emotional needs of our teachers and students and their families. Now more than ever, there is a need for people to share and understand as we seek to make sense of our world today. There is a need to begin emotional and psychological healing but that can only happen when we create safe spaces to share our anxieties and fears.

As current educators and future admin, we have to be VERY aware of the inequities and injustices that encompass our schools and that impact our students. We have to be ready and prepared to take a stand, define and defend a position. We cannot change the circumstances and influences impacting our schools but we should not be comfortable and settle with those situations. We should not rest until we create equity for all. We have to address and leverage the voices of our students, the marginalized and often lost voices in our school communities. More importantly, we have to be uncomfortable, humble and open to do things differently.

There is no escaping the reality that exists regarding social and racial injustices in this country, particularly now in 2020. Throughout our media platforms, there are constant images of “Black Lives Matter” protests, many prompted by an act of violence against an unarmed Black male by police. These protests have resulted in violence in communities AND against the police. You can’t ignore the fact that our society is ripe for “a revolution”. Moreover, our entire world has being upended as a result of the COVID 19 virus. We have been forced to wear masks, shelter in place and do most of our activities remotely. Thousands of lives have been lost and everyone in this country has been impacted, despite race, socio economic status, religion or gender.

This reality can’t be ignored, even within our schools and our classrooms. We are now teaching virtually. This way of educating our students, and the extent to which we are educating, had never been imagined. Moreover, our students are personally experiencing many of the injustices being protested and have the scars (emotional and/or physical) to prove it. They may be living in situations where the pandemic has created economic, physical and emotional stress on their families. Trying to teach content relative to the academic core without infusing these realities is unavoidable. It is imperative that we create the spaces to have these conversations.
One must be intentional and purposeful with every individual and every action. This is particularly true when working with children in schools. Classrooms created should provide safe spaces for students to engage in dialogue around social and racial injustices. Our teaching should help them begin to sort out the emotional whirlwind they are experiencing. Our teaching should begin to help heal the emotional pains our students bear as a result of this societal impact. Our teaching should begin to demonstrate to our students how to speak out about injustices and how to create plans and strategies that will help bring about social change. Our teaching should promote safety not violence and hate. Our teaching should say to students, “It’s ok to get angry but you must use your angry to challenge the ‘institution’ and to do the right thing.” Our teaching should highlight that throughout history, change occurred because people demanded it. Our teaching should discuss the impact of a community’s voice about failures to recognize and respect their rights to our constitutional privileges as stated in the Preamble to the US Constitution.

There are many situations and circumstances we have no control over. Yet we are responsible for providing equitable, relevant and engaging learning experiences for ALL children, daily. This minimal control of our surrounding factors has created a struggle for many of our leaders and teachers. Many leaders and teachers are unable to adapt successfully to meet the needs of their students. Even more compelling, some are unwilling to adapt. They have become so embedded in how things have been that they can’t see the need to evolve as their current surroundings are changing, nor the need to have conversations or create these safe spaces.

The inability and/or unwillingness to adjust will cripple many schools and districts as we try to educate and engage our students and families. We cannot continue to ignore that times are different for our students and for us, as educators. This is our reality.

Leaders have a difficult job in balancing the needs of the students and their families as well as the needs of the staff. Yes, we know we need to address the social emotional needs of the students, but the teachers have these same anxieties and stressors. They are struggling trying to make sense of this new way of teaching without having the proper resources and skills to accomplish the task. Furthermore, there are personal struggles the teachers have to address, as a result of the societal events, which lead to their struggle to focus exclusively on educating the students.

So, what does a leader do? As a leader during this virtual teaching and learning spaces, there is a need for instructional leaders to create emotional and academically safe space for staff. Leaders should seek to create virtual professional learning communities (PLCs). These PLCs will allow for the sharing of ideas around instruction and for finding the social emotional support needed. Leaders should leverage time allocated for ‘traditional staff meetings’ for the PLCs. During these PLCS, common goals and expectations of the purpose of these groups should be established. These PLCs should not be solely focused on academics but sharing strategies for self-care and on how to address conversations around inequities. These PLCs will act as the support groups many teachers need in order to avoid feeling overwhelmed, stressed and isolated.

There is so much to be said and so much to discuss. But I will leave you with this thought. We cannot be satisfied with what is nor what was. Times are definitely different. Our schools will reflect those differences. We as leaders have to be able to understand and manage the changes while empowering and creating places to emotionally heal. A tall order but not impossible.

Author: Antoinette Pearson, EdD

An example of effective PLCs as part of school turnaround