As we close out our series on reflection, it feels important to reflect on the collective strengths of school communities. Over the last year, school and district leaders were faced with weighing up and making incredibly difficult decisions that would have varying impacts across their system. Additionally, many teachers were forced to completely shift gears to virtual learning; some were completely remote, some were hybrid, some were both depending upon the time of the year. Finally, parents faced a number of challenges from this shift including figuring out child care, navigating technology issues, and supporting children with the emotional stress from continuous change. With so many challenges, it can be difficult to notice the positive or areas of growth and opportunity.
Our negativity bias, our tendency to recognize and dwell on negative stimuli, often makes it difficult to focus on strengths during challenging times. However, recognizing our strengths can help us better navigate complex change and challenges. In fact, recognizing strengths is a key component of self-awareness. CASEL (2020) defines self-awareness as:
The abilities to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior across contexts. This includes capacities to recognize one’s strengths and limitations with a well-grounded sense of confidence and purpose.
While recognizing our strengths may seem easy enough, it can be much more difficult as the same challenges persist. This last year required school communities to sit with difficulties that seemed to persist throughout the whole year. However, there were many strengths displayed during this time by all stakeholders. I reached out to a variety of leaders, teachers, and parents to hear what they had to say about their strengths during this last year. One of the most interesting patterns from this conversation was some initial self-deprecation. I could tell maybe they either hadn’t been asked to reflect on their strengths or had thought their perceived weaknesses somehow overshadowed the amazing strength they displayed over this last year. Here is some of what they had to say:
School and District Leaders
When I asked school and district leaders to share their strengths from the last year, the most common responses were positivity, solutions-focused, active listening, and acknowledging the “little things” that made their schools stronger. An example of this includes celebrating daily successes such as being the first to respond to a colleague needing support or asking for support when needed. They also listened to understand and not respond when teachers needed a place to and space to be heard. Furthermore, the wide-range of experience and skill sets made the transition to virtual learning more difficult for some buildings than others. Leaders learned that celebrations at the individual level were necessary and much more effective than general, overall building successes.
Leaders learned that celebrations at the individual level were necessary and much more effective than general, overall building successes. (Tweet this)
Parents, Caregivers, and Guardians
Perhaps the group that was the hardest on themselves were parents and guardians. Even when parents had the option to send their children back to school, it was often in very different conditions based on local and state guidelines. However, many identified strengths around flexibility, grace, and perseverance. Parents and guardians saw themselves letting go of things and teaching their children to be flexible by helping them create their own routines. Furthermore, day-to-day challenges and high emotions made it difficult for children to stay regulated. Parents and guardians provided a space for their children to share their emotions freely which strengthened these relationships. This last year created an opportunity for empowering children and creating the space for them to explore their emotions about everything they were experiencing.
This last year created an opportunity for empowering children and creating the space for them to explore their emotions about everything they were experiencing. (Tweet this)
Many teachers spent the school year mourning the loss of the classroom experience as they had come to know and love. However, even through this grief, they found ways to ensure, be flexible, creative, and team-focused. Perhaps the most impressive show of vulnerability came from our teachers constantly trying to find ways to engage students in this new landscape. Many teachers began to share their new learnings and tools that they were able to use to enhance their virtual classrooms. They were learning and sharing simple strategies around creating Google Docs to more complex strategies like virtual breakout rooms. Regardless of the complexity, knowledge sharing across teams and virtual platforms skyrocketed as teachers asked for help from each other daily. Teachers used this last year to cross the typical boundaries of time and space to support one another.
Teachers used this last year to cross the typical boundaries of time and space to support one another. (Tweet this)
Overall, one thing that stood out to me from these conversations was the incredible vulnerability displayed by leaders, teachers, and parents. Leaders continued to find solutions that often needed solutions as each day and hour presented its own unique set of challenges. Teachers persevered and continued to try on new strategies daily to better meet the needs of their students. Finally, parents let go of a lot of control and gave their children the space to explore their own social and emotional needs. It makes me wonder, what if we were like this all the time? The grace we gave ourselves during this time to meet each other where we were at and to be flexible has implications for our students. The kind of modeling the leaders did for their teachers, and parents and teachers did for students demonstrates a focus on social-emotional skills. What might our students learn from us if we continue to apply these strengths to the upcoming school year?
Click here to download a free guide presenting 5 easy activities that promote reflection, to use in your school and district and share with your colleagues.
CASEL (2020). SEL: What are the core competence areas and where are they promoted? https://casel.org/sel-framework/