Making Meaningful Shifts to Educate the Whole Child in a Post-Pandemic World: It Begins with Empowering the Adults in the System
When the 2021-2022 school year began, there seemed a palpable sense of cautious optimism that the new school year would remain challenging yet it would be “better” and more “normal” than the previous one disrupted by a global pandemic. The optimism made sense, given the in-person learning my school district resumed in the spring, the availability of COVID-19 vaccination, and a masking mandate. However, it soon became apparent that the multipronged challenges of addressing learning loss, behavioral management, and social-emotional learning (SEL) would be even more daunting and taxing for the frontline teaching and support staff, due to the emergence of the variants which caused ongoing disruptions as well as the pandemic’s lingering and adverse impact on the mental health of staff and students alike.
As a licensed clinician supporting two public elementary schools in Santa Clara Unified School District, I knew it was essential that I continue in my professional learning (PL) as I engage with students, families, and staff still reeling from nearly a year and half of navigating the pandemic. Abram Agnew, one of the two elementary schools I serve, just opened its doors in August 2021 and Lead by Learning was one of the consultants contracted to coach the new staff. When the founding principal, who was committed to implementing the Multi-Tiered System of Support that included a strong Tier 1 mental wellness component, invited me to join the certificated staff at the monthly training, I enthusiastically embraced the opportunity. Additionally, I scheduled individual coaching sessions and I was invited to join the Design Team. Since I don’t typically receive PL at work and usually facilitate or co-facilitate staff PL on mental health topics at both the district and site level, I was curious about what I could learn to guide my work at this convergence of education and mental health fields during these uncertain and demanding times.
Immediately at the first session, I was inspired by the call for the adult learners to develop key mindsets in our learning journey together:
- Teaching, leading, and learning are uncertain and complex work.
- Equity requires questioning assumptions.
- Learning is fundamentally social and emotional for adults as well as students.
- Agency and purpose drive curiosity and deep learning.
Hearing these points in refrain throughout our monthly training affirmed and validated the struggles that teachers and leaders have been grappling with since schools reopened for in-personal learning. SEL is instrumental in meeting the complex challenge of educating the whole child equitably, and it begins with empowering those working directly with the students.
Creating a safe space to pause and reflect on one’s needs and starting wherever an individual is at are two tenets that resonated with me as a mental health practitioner. Change begins with self-awareness, a key feature in SEL competencies, and it makes sense that the adults in the system cultivate and practice it so that they can teach, model, and practice it with their students.
In the subsequent trainings, we then learned and synthesized four key practices that when integrated with the aforementioned key mindsets can lead to improved learner outcomes:
- Using data to make learners’ experience visible
- Supportively Challenging Ourselves and Our Colleagues
- Practicing Public Learning
- Making Sense of Goals Collectively
As my colleagues and I continued making inquiries into how to respond to our students who needed greater support with academic instruction, behavioral management, and mental wellness, the permission slip we had to practice public learning, collectively make sense of goals, and supportively challenge ourselves and each other was liberating. This sense of empowerment further increased when we were encouraged to use data including street data to make visible the learners’ experience. Moving beyond the “why” and focusing on the “how” felt like we were making gradual yet tangible strides towards improving student outcomes for our diverse student population.
Over the course of an extremely difficult and challenging school year, I duly noted a few of the” a-ha” moments that helped to sustain my optimism and solidify my commitment to champion equity and social justice in my school community.
- Since learning is social and emotional for students and adults alike, everyone shows up in the learning space more ready and able to learn when SEL is infused throughout the instructional day. In the classrooms I visited or supported, I observed a notable difference when SEL became part of the classroom culture. Staff subsequently reported fewer discipline referrals and marked improved reading level.
- When we question our assumptions about the person we are interacting with, be it a student or a colleague, we allow for more honest inquiry and dialog into more equitable solutions. When my colleagues consulted with me on students of concern, the most effective and compassionate strategies often arose when we viewed the challenges through a different lens, i.e. the “learning needs of the student” rather than “the student with problems”.
- Agency and purpose drive curiosity and deep learning. Motivating staff to learn and shift practices during an overwhelming and exhausting school year was possible when staff felt that they had a voice and could set target goals towards feasible learner outcomes.
Seeing is believing: staff ready to pivot their practice demonstrated growth in their capacity and skill set and continue to grow in their professional competency; their students benefit from a more inclusive and equitable learning environment. These a-ha moments serve to strengthen my belief that meaningful shifts can happen in public education at this critical juncture. Furthermore, the tenets such as creating safe space, giving agency, and promoting equity align with my values as a social worker and as a BIPOC mental health practitioner.
As I write this entry and reflect on my professional learnings since the pandemic, I remain cautiously optimistic about this school year and beyond – my optimism is tempered by the cognizance that improving outcomes for all learners, especially those farthest from opportunities, remains daunting and requires courageous, effective leadership as well as collective accountability from adults who could exert tremendous influence to transform systems that no longer serve our students. My optimism is also infused with a sense of empowerment that the tools and practices I gained from Lead by Learning will serve me well as I continue to strategically team up with teachers and leaders to facilitate the necessary change to improve learner outcomes and mental wellness for all members of my school community.
Yvonne Hirsch (she/her/hers) is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) with a Pupil Personnel Services Credential; her recent certifications include yoga teacher, social emotional learning facilitator, and Dialectical Behavior Therapist. Currently a Wellness Coordinator in the Santa Clara Unified School District, Yvonne has a strong track record in supporting her school community to make meaningful shifts towards improving student outcomes and school culture and climate. Her self-care consists of gardening, hydrotherapy, book club, and hanging out with her family and rescue pups.