by Angela Adams, Lead Coach, Carolina Teacher Induction Program

Last June, my four-year-old asked me when Christmas would be here. I answered, “Six months.” “Six months is FOREVER!” was his response. I immediately started going through the mental list of things to do with two small children and a large extended family and thought, “Six months is not nearly long enough!” This difference in perspective is something we expect between adults and small children. For my son, six months is an eighth of his life; for me it’s a tiny percentage. We discuss this phenomenon in the Carolina Teacher Induction Program (CarolinaTIP) where I work as a coach for first, second, and third-year teachers. As a “grizzled” 20-year classroom veteran, I know there will always be new students, new parents, new administrators, new standards, a new school initiative, a new day. I’ve seen it happen over and over. So, I can handle an unfamiliar online gradebook or a schedule change fairly easily. When it comes to classroom experience, I am reminded that novice teachers have much less context and that the things happening take up a far bigger “slice” of memories. While I can move past a negative parent email knowing it represents a tiny fraction of all emails for the year, that same email may make up a full quarter of all the parent communication a young teacher has ever received. A CarolinaTIP coach lends perspective to those situations. We call it “right-sizing.” Right-sizing consists of listening to new teachers, then saying “This is normal. This is okay. I will help you navigate this,” or “This is not normal. This is not okay. I will help you navigate this.” It’s an important part of our job, and it’s our privilege to be able to support educators in this way. Whether the situation is run of the mill or catastrophic, the common denominator is the sentence, “I will help you navigate this.”

Keeping this in mind, let’s consider the COVID-19 pandemic. Public schools have been closed for six weeks, and this school year will end without any P-12 students getting to say goodbye to their teachers or without their teachers getting to say goodbye to them face-to-face. Now, try to look at this semester through the lens of novice teachers who may have been just starting to get their legs under them. For some, the spring concert was going to feel slightly less intimidating because of the winter concert’s success. The upcoming third round of parent conferences might not have seemed so daunting because of the two before. Now, these educators have become virtual teachers trying to make connections and increase student knowledge in an eLearning environment. All during a time of unprecedented national fear about getting sick, worry there won’t be any food left in the grocery stores, anxiety about the actions of our fellow citizens, and concern for the economic and health ramifications of this virus. It’s enough to make me, with my 20 years of classroom experience, want to curl up into a ball until it all passes. How much more so for our young coworkers? With the teacher shortage as it is, we can hardly afford to let any of them throw in the towel before they’ve truly gotten to experience the joy of our beloved profession.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic is unique, there is enough tangential intersection with past events for veteran educators to offer up empathy to younger, less experienced teachers.”

How are they doing? In the case of my own first and second-year teacher coaches, their feelings are all over the place. Some are finding solace in the establishment of office hours. Some are wondering if their students are learning, especially the ones that have been unresponsive. Some are worrying about the students who might be taking care of younger siblings or not getting enough to eat. Some are proud of their successes in virtual teaching, running video conference “classes,” and making connections with their students. They are feeling creative and overwhelmed and unsure and relieved. The common theme through all my conversations with them in the past weeks is that they miss their students terribly and are grieving that loss. I know listening is my most important job as a coach, especially with a new teacher who is grieving. When the talking is finished, and I’m left with the choice to say, “This is normal. This is okay. I will help you navigate this,” or “This is not normal. This is not okay. I will help you navigate this,” which one is true? The answer is both. This is not normal. We don’t know if it will be okay. And still, there’s some familiarity to it all.

Whether it’s been for a hurricane or some other weather-related catastrophe, we have seen people run to stores in panic. In the 1980s when the AIDS crisis hit, many of us wondered if toilet seats and water fountains were safe anymore. My first year of teaching was the year of the Columbine shooting, and my fourth year in the classroom was 9/11. Both events seemed to make the world shift right under our feet, and as teachers we were tasked with helping our students process their own fears and feelings about whether things would ever be “normal” again. When the housing bubble burst in 2008 and the Great Recession took hold, we had students whose parents lost jobs, who suddenly became homeless or stopped coming to school, who took on a whole new set of “adult” concerns about the economy.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is unique, there is enough tangential intersection with past events for veteran educators to offer up empathy to younger, less experienced teachers. As some are grieving, empathy may be the most powerful support we can give. Empathy is based in connection. It is feeling WITH someone, not for someone. It is connecting with someone’s feelings and requires us to connect with something in ourselves that knows that feeling. One of the most empathetic things you can say to anyone grieving, “I know a bit about how you might be feeling and I’m here.” There’s no solution-offering, no Pollyanna-ish “It’ll be fine!” and no pointing out silver linings. Just “I know a bit about how you might be feeling, and I’m here.” And we veterans DO know what it feels like to be worried and sad about world events. If we can find a way back to the emotions we felt in the days around the Sandy Hook shooting or the fall of the World Trade Center, we may be able to summon up the empathy to help support and hopefully retain these young professionals.

“Let’s draw upon our experience and show empathy by reaching out and checking in with that young colleague from down the hall or even in another school. We can all find opportunities to do the same.”

Veterans and new teachers alike are struggling with finding a new normal for the rest of this school year and maybe beyond. I propose that for our novice colleagues, those feelings of worry, fear, and uncertainty loom even larger. Like a four-year-old’s interminable wait for Christmas, the school calendar feels much different for the novice. Let’s draw upon our experience and show empathy by reaching out and checking in with that young colleague from down the hall or even in another school. In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be right-sizing things for novice teachers the best I can, but truthfully I’ll mostly be listening and telling them, “I know a bit about how you might be feeling, and I’m here.” We can all find opportunities to do the same.

SC-TEACHER
is the South Carolina Teacher Education Advancement Consortium through Higher Education Research

A South Carolina Center for Excellence

University of South Carolina
College of Education 
820 Main St, Columbia, SC 29208

Established: 2018
by the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education