By Lydia Okutoro-Seck, Head of Middle School, at The Harley School in Rochester, NY. This article originally appeared in the Rochester Business Journal.
This past year presented some of the greatest educational challenges endured by students, teachers, and parents across the globe. Many families struggled to navigate remote learning technology. Then there were the psychological, emotional, and physical challenges associated with schooling from home. As a middle school educator with a young learner at home, I was doing double duty teaching my students while trying to support my own child during a key point of his reading and math development. In some ways, I fear that I failed him. And sometimes, still, I battle with the nagging frustration that comes with that sense of failure.
However, despite the hardships, pandemic teaching and learning gave us all opportunities to make permanent, impactful changes to how families, communities, schools, and institutions approach adolescent education. While many people may speak of the pandemic’s resoundingly negative impacts, it’s important to also note the effective practices that were implemented. These “best practices” forced schools in the U.S. and around the world to adopt more efficient, holistic, and innovative approaches.
An effective exercise to process these changes is to use the “Rose, Thorn, and Bud” reflection structure. Viewing COVID-19’s influence in this way allows us to consider the positive outcomes (the “Rose”), the negative outcomes (the “Thorn”), and the opportunities (the “Bud”). This helps us to find hope in the hardships–which many continue to face almost two years since the novel Coronavirus first turned the world upside down.
One of the most significant positive outcomes I have observed is the increased ability of students and teachers to be more adaptive, resilient, and innovative. I spent the past several years as an educator in India and the Middle East where many aspects of the education system relied largely on technology even before COVID. In those international schools where students and teachers represented 25, 30, or 40 countries in a given school, technology was a given. It was the currency with which you navigated your entire world. That was not the case on a large scale in the U.S. before my family and I moved abroad. Now, we have all been forced to learn the language of the “digital natives.” The American adoption of technology even in early education during the pandemic has been a welcome and essential improvement.
Not only are students now more comfortable using technology from an early age, but innovation provides endless opportunities for educators to enhance lessons, engage learners, and provide targeted, real-time assistance and feedback. Frankly, prior to the pandemic the U.S. was behind its counterparts in Asia when it came to appreciating the value of digital tools. That value has now been realized tenfold in helping to provide students with structure, language, and agency during remote learning situations and in the actual classroom. I had one moment of awe (among many) when I witnessed my 6-year-old give a 5-minute presentation and Q&A on Zoom using a few slides that he helped create. His teacher shared her screen, and as I hovered out of sight I could hear him say, “Next slide, please” and continued to address his first-grade peers, some of whom were tuning in from India and South Korea.
The thorns of the pandemic have unfortunately been particularly damaging for young and impressionable students. The most concerning of these include emerging mental health issues as a result of months of isolation from peers, anxiety about quarantining, and fear of illness (or worse). With the open and prolonged access to technology came visibility of all things. Almost overnight, kids became exposed to just about everything. And they did not have the proximity or immediacy of peers and teachers to help them process their experience in the ways they were able to pre-COVID.
As a result, some students still find themselves struggling to rebuild connections and reacclimate to in-person learning alongside fellow students. To address this, school counselors and faculty need to put systems and programs in place to help students overcome what may become lingering effects of prolonged remote learning.
This brings us to the “Bud,” which represents the hope that came from the pandemic, the new ideas and processes that have the potential to bloom into lasting transformations to our education system. From my perspective, the most prominent (and promising) “Bud” coming out of COVID-19 is the idea of weaving social-emotional learning into the fabric of school curriculum worldwide. Now, we have the opportunity to put into practice what school counselors and health educators have preached all along and tried to get the rest of us to do: adopted practices that include checking on student wellbeing regularly and teaching coping mechanisms to better manage emotional, social, and psychological situations.
Social-emotional learning is just as important as academic learning, but we still have a long way to go to fully destigmatize this topic. COVID-19 was a catalyst that highlighted the urgent need to continue these “check-in” practices post-pandemic to ensure that adolescents are well adjusted individuals and able to process and understand their feelings. Having structured, routine conversations about these topics can make all the difference in students’ ability to develop a healthy sense of self and positive relationships.
With the uncertainty in recent news regarding what the upcoming academic year may look like, now is the time that educators and institutions need to be reflecting on these takeaways to best prepare for a safe return to school, both physically and emotionally. It’s in young students’ best interest to return to an environment that has adjusted to their new circumstances and unique needs, especially following months of stress and trauma. Our children deserve that.
While this “Rose,” “Thorn,” and “Bud” are applicable across most educational systems, every school has its own specific challenges and opportunities. Taking time to thoughtfully reflect on our children’s experience and unique contexts can make all the difference in how we not only survive this pandemic in the long run. It can help us thrive despite this unfortunate global event.