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Educators, Get Prepared for a W-Shaped Recovery ... Emotional Not Economic

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Today's guest blog is written by Sean Slade, senior director of outreach for ASCD. 

A W-shaped recovery is one where "the economy starts looking better and then there's a second downturn later this year or next. It could be triggered by reopening the economy too quickly and seeing a second spike in deaths from Covid-19, the disease the coronavirus causes." (The Washington Post) It is primarily an economic term that outlines how businesses and trade will likely not bounce back—such as in a V-shaped recovery—but rather have a series of peaks and troughs before we get back to what could be considered normal. 

I am not an economist, but I am an educator, and it is becoming clear that a similar issue will likely occur within our sector and amongst our students, staff, and families. Schools should start preparing themselves for what will very likely be a W-shaped recovery in terms of our emotional well-being and sense of security. 

There has been some degree of relief across the country as schools have reopened—even if that reopening has centered around Zoom calls and asynchronous learning. After half a year of uncertainty, many of us are thankful for a return to some sense of normalcy. Teachers get to teach (though it's very different), students get to learn and socialize (though from their basements, kitchens, and corridors), and (some) parents get (some) time to focus on their lives away from child care and edutainment. But it is very likely that we will be experiencing a W-shaped recovery, or even a multi-W-shaped recovery, as we navigate this year. Once this relief of return has evaporated in the air, many will be reflecting on how we have not returned to what was considered normal.

These reactions may be as simple as This is not 'school' as I remember it, or I hope this isn't how it's going to be forever. For others it may be a growing realization that their homes or learning spaces are making real learning near impossible. Juggling siblings, family care, no or intermittent Wi-Fi, sharing devices, along with little or no access to support or counseling, will affect any learner's ability to learn. And in the midst of all of this, people will continue to fall sick and to lose their lives. Whether these are family members, community members, teachers, or even peers, such loses will have deepening and prolonged affects. Just last week, soon after reopening, six educators across five states died as a result of COVID-19. My aim here is not to paint a dire picture but rather to raise the very real possibility that we will all find ourselves in ongoing troughs as we navigate these difficult times. 

So, what to do? The best answer we have is to be proactive and to build up our school and community's protective factors. The leading resilience researcher, Bonnie Benard, highlighted how our networks can help buffer the effects of adversity. Whether that be school, family, or the community, she found that focusing on caring relationships, along with meaningful participation, and high expectations, helped establish environments where youths felt safe, supported, and connected.

Just as in the family arena, the level of caring and support within the school is a powerful predictor of positive outcome for youth, [and] while the importance of the teacher as caregiver cannot be overemphasized, a factor often over-looked that has definitely emerged from protective factor research is the role of caring peers and friends in the school and community environments (Fostering Resiliency in Kids). Similarly, research that focuses on trauma-informed practices outlines the power of relationships, connectedness, and belonging. In her 2019 ASCD Educational Leadership article, Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies, Jessica Minahan, echoed the focus on relationships and caring.

  • Expect Unexpected Responses
  • Employ Thoughtful Interactions
  • Be Specific About Relationship Building
  • Promote Predictability and Consistency
  • Teach Strategies to 'Change the Channel'
  • Give Supportive Feedback to Reduce Negative Thinking
  • Create Islands of Competence
  • Limit Exclusionary Practices

What should aid the enhancement of these actions is that these are also many of the same actions that are aligned to effective teaching and learning—but we too often skip them as we chase the benchmark or a test score. Given that we will be in this crisis in some form for at least the calendar year if not the school year, this is the time to refocus on those actions that connect us and protect us. We may have little control over the virus and its consequences, but we do have some control over our schools, classrooms, and relationships. 

When it comes to student trauma, there is much that is beyond educators' power, but there is also a great deal they can do to build a supportive and sensitive environment where students feel safe, comfortable, take risks, learn, and even heal. (Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies) 

In our chapter Listening to Students in The Handbook of Positive Psychology in Schools (2009), we asked students what they needed from adults in the school to help them—their answers were summed up by the phrase just "being there."

Being there was the underlying theme that echoed throughout all the Circle focus groups and all series of questions. Be there when students need help, be there when they need structure, be there when they need advice, be there when they need to be pushed, be there when they need guidance, be there when they need more space and time, and be there when something's wrong and they don't know what to do. "Being there" encapsulates a relationship, a friendship—someone who knows your name and knows "your story." It encompasses caring, and believing you will succeed. In its most simple form it consists of physically "being there"—being present and making time. (Benard & Slade, 2009)

Connect with Sean Slade on Twitter. 

Photo courtesy of Getty Images. 

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