Photo: Thomas Courtney
Cooking class is underway.

From the moment she arrived in the fall, my student teacher, Shadi Roueenfar, decided that she was going to focus her professional growth and instruction on social-and-emotional learning.

The students of Room 801 were no more: Instead, we became The Thunder Eagles of Fifth Grade and, with embedded and directed social-and-emotional learning strategies, Ms. Roueenfar created a community of compassionate learners noticed campus-wide by other staff and colleagues.

Now, in the wake of the pandemic, the environment has changed. In some cases, we are finding the need for social-and-emotional learning has never been greater. Just a few weeks ago before school closed for the year, we were in a Zoom meeting with our students and one of them wrote in the chatbox: “I’m really sad.”

Looking at her face in the little box on my screen, I could tell she was crying and then the screen went black. She muted her microphone and would not respond to our offers to listen. And as any educator might, I began to worry for her.

Today, data is indicating that addressing mental and emotional trauma could be a far greater need than ever at this pandemic moment. Governments are seeing domestic violence cases surging worldwide. Many states are seeing spikes in 911 calls and gun sales are soaring. Without the outlets kids have in school with friends, without motion and activity and in some cases without basic necessities because of financial hardship, they are hit particularly hard.

It was the moment when I saw my student’s screen go black that I realized there was more to distance learning than keeping the children’s study skills fresh. After some serious brainstorming, Ms. Roueenfar and I decided that for the sake of the kids’ health, we were going to have to bend the rules. And make some new ones, too.

New school rule #1: Pets and baby brothers are allowed in school.

Courtesy: Thomas Courtney

Jhazlynn and her birds

One morning, our student Jhazlynn Arroyo discovered that her bird, Popcorn, had laid an egg while we were teaching geometry. Things went a little nuts. After several minutes of trying to redirect the kids, I declared that from now on pets were allowed in school.

Why beat them when you can join them, right? To the delight of their peers, each child got their dog, their cat, their frog or even their favorite stuffed animal, and we went wild.

And suddenly something magical happened. As we all talked about our pets and in some cases baby brothers — my dog Oreo now makes regular appearances — I began to see that although talking about geometry was important, so was sharing.

Several weeks later, there’s more magic. I’ve gotten to know many of my students’ moms, dads, siblings, even grandmas, in a whole new way. This has led to a deeper connection than I ever thought possible over the computer.

New school rule #2: It’s OK to share — really.

It quickly became obvious to us that what we had been feeling, the kids had been feeling, too. And just like us, they needed to know they could share whatever they liked with someone, anyone. We found tools in our video conferencing software that helped us give them small breakout groups to share fun topics, and we allowed ourselves the daily space for them to connect on their terms because they need it.

Andrew Leal no longer was just a kid, he was someone who we knew lived and breathed soccer. Andrea De Santiago was a pastry chef, not just a fifth-grader. She even inspired us to do a cooking class.

Think about it. Sharing allows children to make meaningful connections with one another and with their teacher. I now see it as well worth the small amount of time it takes, thanks to distance learning.

Courtesy: Thomas Courtney

Luis Perez eats his pizza.

New school rule #3: There are no more walls.

Kids miss not only other kids, but the adults on campus, too. We regularly invite others to stop by. Thursday, Mr. D. came by to do a couplet rap battle. Friday, our PE coach pops in to challenge the kids to a calisthenics competition. The librarian comes in to recommend books to read aloud. When a friend stops by, we remind students that there is a space in our online portal for the children to write and talk with any of these friends, or our school counselor — just like they normally can do on campus. I can’t wait to bring this idea back to class in the fall.

Courtesy: Thomas Courtney

Students race Mr. D to get a parent’s shoe, which they used in a lesson about the metric system.

New school rule #4: Teachers need time to be together, and not just for work.

This one was for us. For my own well-being and for those of my colleagues and friends, I made a “office hours” period for us to check in virtually with each other whenever we felt like it. Maybe it was seeing the kids, but I noticed that, like them, we needed time outside of business to share and talk.

To my surprise, most days, someone usually pops in to say hi, to vent, or to laugh. It reminds me a lot of those late afternoons, when your colleague down the hall comes in, closes the door and says, “Can I talk to you?”

Because we all, kids and adults alike, need someone to talk to right now. Don’t we?

As President Abraham Lincoln once said in a time of crisis, “nothing valuable is lost by taking time.”

In this time of crisis, bend the rules for your students a bit, and give yourself permission to make a few new ones with them. Maybe, like me, you’ll see the value of it now and when we’re back in the classroom.

•••

Thomas Courtney teaches fifth grade at Chollas-Mead Elementary school in San Diego Unified and advocates for social emotional learning along with his cohort of Teach Plus California fellows. He wrote this piece in collaboration with Shadi Roueenfar, a recent graduate of San Diego State University’s credential program, who will begin her teaching career in the fall in Los Angeles with her own 5th-grade classroom. 

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent diverse viewpoints about California’s public education systems. We welcome guest commentaries from teachers about how they are adapting to distance learning. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Jason Ferguson 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    No more walls!! Great article. Hoping all will adapt, adjust and enjoy the many possibilities of the online experience!

  2. Aime R. 1 month ago1 month ago

    I applaud the great work done by everyone who made this process happen for all the children and everyone who benefited from it. As a mother of a gifted child I know these children can face emotional difficulties because they need more outlets. Social distancing has been difficult, especially for children who may have trouble communicating their emotions. What a blessing to the kids who have teachers who care about their emotional well-being, not just … Read More

    I applaud the great work done by everyone who made this process happen for all the children and everyone who benefited from it. As a mother of a gifted child I know these children can face emotional difficulties because they need more outlets. Social distancing has been difficult, especially for children who may have trouble communicating their emotions. What a blessing to the kids who have teachers who care about their emotional well-being, not just academics. I would have loved to see more of this on a regular basis with my child’s school. I hope it is something that gets implemented with all online learning for every child.

    Replies

    • Thomas Courtney 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

      Couldn’t agree more Aime. I think I’m learning a lot about how, even when things are back in the class and “normal”, we as teachers and educators can make much bigger strides including families and getting to know kids.

  3. Bo Loney 1 month ago1 month ago

    How much did you worry about that bright eyed enthusiastic kid that knew everything you were going to teach before school even started that year? That kid that loves learning. How much do you worry about the kid that sticks out like a sore thumb for being different while you try to slow them down? Do you worry when you stick them outside because they already know the content … Read More

    How much did you worry about that bright eyed enthusiastic kid that knew everything you were going to teach before school even started that year? That kid that loves learning. How much do you worry about the kid that sticks out like a sore thumb for being different while you try to slow them down? Do you worry when you stick them outside because they already know the content and they are now rolling on the floor in boredom? Do you worry when others find them on the playground during instructional hours? While you tell their parents to slow them down. How much emotional support do you give to a gifted child by choosing not to acknowledge they exist. How much social and emotional worry does our state put into academically gifted children?

    Replies

    • Bo Loney 1 month ago1 month ago

      My comment is not personal to this author or their own personal strengths and accomplishments. My comment is to an emotional trauma that the educational system has inflicted by not meeting social and emotional needs or even acknowledging that these high needs exist.

      • Thomas Courtney 1 month ago1 month ago

        It pains me to read your comments because I am sure there is a story there and I want you to know as an educator I work to change these stories. As the case may be, I am GATE certified, and I worry about all my students equally. I never stick anyone outside and none of my students, nor any of my colleagues's students wander the halls during instructional time. I am sad and sorry … Read More

        It pains me to read your comments because I am sure there is a story there and I want you to know as an educator I work to change these stories. As the case may be, I am GATE certified, and I worry about all my students equally. I never stick anyone outside and none of my students, nor any of my colleagues’s students wander the halls during instructional time. I am sad and sorry to hear that this may be an experience you had as a student or parent. I sure hope it wasn’t and I would encourage you to discuss it with staff there.

        As with all differentiated instruction, I get to know my students well, and I make many opportunities for authentic and powerful advancement. I take great pride in challenging all students. I think though that your point addresses differentiation, not SEL. SEL is proven to promote social and emotional growth in all kiddos. A good starting place to see this would be the casel.org website and specifically search for the “presentation.” It was a major eye opener for me. I learned a lot there over the last year.

        I feel it is important to point out, that while it is well documented in research that students designated as GATE often have high levels of anxiety and depression, it is also duly noted in data that students in low socio-economic neighborhoods suffer from high rates of trauma, domestic abuse, transiency etc. In other words, research is telling us that all kids these days need us to bend the rules a bit, get to understand them. I don’t personally see how targeting one group among the others would help us do that. I feel as though we have enough division going on right now.

        Again, I did not speak to either in the article because it was not the purpose of the commentary. Wouldn’t you say, that as with our battles with civil rights, racial injustice, etc, that when we fight for all, we fight for the few among them? I hope to see SEL brought into classrooms this year with a vengeance. I think all kids and adults too can benefit, and I think when we do that, bright eyed children of all ability levels are going to do better in lasting ways. I hope you do too, friend. My best to you.

  4. Bo Loney 1 month ago1 month ago

    Funny that social and emotional needs of gifted students, a minority in the biggest sense, don’t have a voice in the narrative at all.

    Replies

    • Thomas Courtney 1 month ago1 month ago

      Two of the students in the narrative are gifted and talented. Others are second language learners, writers, students with special needs, skate boarders, lovers of pizza, readers of comics, and completely hilarious, not to mention beyond smart. I did not speak to any of these subdivided groups because SEL is something that all students need and deserve, just like all kids need dinner or to brush their teeth before bedtime. I would encourage you to … Read More

      Two of the students in the narrative are gifted and talented. Others are second language learners, writers, students with special needs, skate boarders, lovers of pizza, readers of comics, and completely hilarious, not to mention beyond smart. I did not speak to any of these subdivided groups because SEL is something that all students need and deserve, just like all kids need dinner or to brush their teeth before bedtime.

      I would encourage you to check out an amazing book that helped me see why it is so essential for all subgroups of students. It’s called Unselfie by Borba and I encourage you, and any others interested to check it out.

      • Bo Loney 1 month ago1 month ago

        It’s just funny that all of a sudden after the gifted community brought up social and emotional needs (that aren’t being met), suddenly it became an issue to all of us that already were having their social and emotional needs met.

  5. Ana Garcia 1 month ago1 month ago

    You are beyond amazing!
    Thank you for all you do for our kiddos at Chollas Mead.
    -Ms Ana

  6. Wendy 1 month ago1 month ago

    YES Tom Social-Emotional learning and supports are SOOO important!

    Replies

    • Thomas Courtney 1 month ago1 month ago

      Thank you Wendy for being a champion of SEL before it was cool. I ride on your coat-tails. You’re the original SEL hipster. 🙂

  7. Sabrina 1 month ago1 month ago

    I totally agree that we must take into account the emotional needs of both the students as well as the educators during this time of unpredictable change in our schools and our world. I applaud your efforts for creating an atmosphere that encourages the students to shine in their owe way as well as using their gifts as part of their learning. The connection with one another and with their teachers is very important … Read More

    I totally agree that we must take into account the emotional needs of both the students as well as the educators during this time of unpredictable change in our schools and our world. I applaud your efforts for creating an atmosphere that encourages the students to shine in their owe way as well as using their gifts as part of their learning. The connection with one another and with their teachers is very important at this time for it helps the kids to feel a little bit of normality as they are physically separated.

  8. Lisa 1 month ago1 month ago

    My daughter was in Kindergarten when the schools shut in March. The district did online learning, but refused to do any face to face meeting. It was a social emotional tragedy. She never saw her teachers or friends again. Now, the state of California has made a law where face to face time is required, or they won’t get funding. The number of teachers who were either lazy, or non-empathetic was so high. The district … Read More

    My daughter was in Kindergarten when the schools shut in March. The district did online learning, but refused to do any face to face meeting. It was a social emotional tragedy. She never saw her teachers or friends again. Now, the state of California has made a law where face to face time is required, or they won’t get funding.

    The number of teachers who were either lazy, or non-empathetic was so high. The district had a virtual board meeting last night to discuss distance learning. There were teachers on there that were absolutely upset that the district required them to do Zoom, and be available to students for only 1 day out of 5 days for 90 minutes. Then I read your story, and it makes me want to cry. Large numbers of teachers need empathy training classes, or our children will become emotionally unstable adults.

    Replies

    • Thomas Courtney 1 month ago1 month ago

      Lisa, I couldn't agree more with you. My daughter, although not in the story, is a student at my school. As both a teacher and a parent, I think all of us need some empathy training right now and I think schools can do much better listening to their customers. I feel fortunate. My amazing principal and amazing staff for example are conducting trainings over the summer targeting these very things you mentioned, working hard … Read More

      Lisa, I couldn’t agree more with you. My daughter, although not in the story, is a student at my school. As both a teacher and a parent, I think all of us need some empathy training right now and I think schools can do much better listening to their customers.

      I feel fortunate. My amazing principal and amazing staff for example are conducting trainings over the summer targeting these very things you mentioned, working hard to understand this moment – after high stakes testing has put us in a laser-like focus for so many years – to be there for all kids and families, to listen and to then to act.

      I wrote a commentary in Voice of San Diego recently addressing the need for educators to listen to parents right now. Listen and act. As I mention in that piece, survey after survey seems to show that what happens in schools, and what parents want are sometimes at odds. I want you to know at least one educator hears you and many of us are working on real change for kids and families. My best to you, and thank you so much for your comment.

    • Heather 1 month ago1 month ago

      In my school district, we were told not to use Zoom or any video meetings with our elementary students. Something about security and violating terms of service. Then the situation was compounded: All of the grade level had to have the exact same classrooms and assignments and it was a mess. In my district the teachers were wildly frustrated with the inability to effectively communicate with kids. This summer they finally allowed us video chats … Read More

      In my school district, we were told not to use Zoom or any video meetings with our elementary students. Something about security and violating terms of service. Then the situation was compounded: All of the grade level had to have the exact same classrooms and assignments and it was a mess. In my district the teachers were wildly frustrated with the inability to effectively communicate with kids. This summer they finally allowed us video chats for summer school and the relief was great. I’m sad to hear that some teachers oppose this, it’s actually a great deal easier to teach having access to this tool.

  9. el 1 month ago1 month ago

    This is neat.

    I’ve been a remote worker for many years, and pets and these side conversations are a huge part of what binds and energizes our team, a team where some of the people have never met in person. Sharing joy brings people together. It creates productivity and creativity. And I love the surprise virtual guests – a fun thing that can continue, with few limits on where people are.

    Replies

    • Thomas Courtney 1 month ago1 month ago

      el, I would have loved to have been able to learn from your experiences back in March. It’s been a steep learning curve.

  10. Victorya 1 month ago1 month ago

    This brought me tears of sadness and of joy. Thank you for being a light in these students world during this time. So grateful for teachers like you!