What Matters Most?

I recently engaged in The Third Path webinar series led by Dr. David Tranter. Tranter advocates that educators employ a relationship-based approach when seeking greater student wellbeing and achievement. During the first webinar, to make clear his point about important role relationships play in education, Tranter asked participants, “What matters most?” My reflections on his question follow.

To know where you are, look back. To know where you’re going, look around.

Looking back, I recall how, during the earliest days of the Covid lockdown going to the grocery store was an eerie experience. Getting there required driving on Ottawa’s once busy streets that were barren, except for an occasion delivery truck skirting along. At the store, a line of people slowly snaked toward the store’s entrance. Every person with nose and mouth covered, precisely distanced from each other. 

Inside the store, freshly disinfected carts were in their special place. On the floor, a series of arrows on the floor indicate the direction I was supposed to push my cart. Past shelves that had been emptied by shoppers stocking up with much needed items. Throughout the store, people, as if shunning me, kept their distance. At the checkout, printed on a cartoon-like footprint were the words stand here. I did what it said, until my turn came to checkout.

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As I drove home, over the radio, I listened to news channels reporting about death and illness faraway. At home, groceries put away, I watched the surreal scenes on television as coffins were stacked in refrigerated trucks. My heart was touched by the reports of families in China, Italy, Spain…losing loved ones to the virus.

Then the virus arrived in Canada. Daily, I heard a steady drum beat of increasing case counts and death rates. Family members, friends and colleagues began voicing uncertainty and fear. The institutions and organizations we had so often leaned on during difficult times, now felt unstable. In all facets of society, including education, isolation began to reign.

In March, I was told to work remotely from home. To live on Covid-time. Connect with teachers and colleagues via the Internet. See them on a computer screen. For someone who loves to be in schools, with teachers and students…not at home, I found this to be quite challenging and exhausting.

Elsewhere, amidst the unplanned transition from education-at-school to remote learning, supports once readily available for educators and parents to aid exceptional students became limited. Stretched thin, educators and parents struggled to make do with what they had. By mid-June, when schools closed for the summer, many were at a breaking point. 

“What will happen during the summer?” I asked. No answer forthcoming, attention, expectation and hope shifted to schools reopening in September. 

Given the uncertainty, instability, fear and isolation of previous months, we all wondered what school would be like in September.  Not surprisingly, as July and August came and went, and the date for re-opening approached—educators and parents voiced concerns and fears. 

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In my role as a Special Education consultant for the Ottawa Catholic School Board, the concerns and fears first appeared as general questions about reopening occurring during the pandemic. Most centered on models for resource and EA support and the delivery of specific services. Soon after questions arose about what mask-wearing and social-distancing would entail for exceptional learners. Then, as some time passed questions became more specific, most pertaining to programming and IEP development for individual students.

When questions first started coming, my colleagues and I didn’t have many answers. A disconcerting circumstance for us that was akin to learning to fly a plane after it was airborne. Being the recipient of lots of questions for which answers were lacking, learning and navigating at the same time, was an uncomfortable place to be. The discomfort I felt was humbling. 

Despite my many years of experience as a teacher, and a solid knowledge of special educational practice, a large number of the challenges I’m now facing are new. The educational system I and others had known well, is changing rapidly. It looks, feels and functions quite differently than it did six months ago, especially remote learning. Reopening schools is requiring huge amounts of reflection, ingenuity and innovation on the part of all parties involved, including me. Making answers to questions about reopening more complex than in previous years.

As for looking around to determine where to go, my colleagues and I are fortunate to be in a situation much like a pilot who is supported by “co-pilots” on a long and difficult journey. We, likewise, are feverishly collaborating to solve issues that pop up on the radar or appear on the windscreen. The knowledge and experience we share is a source of much confidence that the careful, one-step-at-a-time approach we are taking will meet the needs of our exceptional students.

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As we look around at where we are and where we need to go, we navigate with a GPS that asks What matters right now, in this time and place?” An approach that’s reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt admonishing his troops to “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.”

When that approach is applied, safety is the paramount concern in order for a school to reopen. To meet that concern, each teacher must set up her or his classroom to ensure the physical safety of all students. For most teachers, this involves distancing of desks, cohorting students, and teaching protocols about handwashing, line-ups, recess and dismissal. 

As I continue looking around, it’s readily apparent that navigating the spectrum of unknowns is highly stressful for educators. Reopening schools is exacting a steep and emotional toll on them. The seemingly ever-changing class lists contribute to their feelings of instability. As does late changes in teaching assignments. This was certainly the case for the 27 members of my department recently deployed to classrooms.

At schools, for the sake of safety, educators wearing face masks and shields greet students every day. Students, wearing masks themselves, and their classmates keep safe by maintaining appropriate distance from each other, and the teachers and staff. In virtual classrooms, students are even more distant from classmates and educators. Remote learning is indeed remote. And much different educational experience for all students regardless of the platform. 

Transitioning back to school has been more complicated for our highest need learners. Six months or more at home has resulted in some students experiencing a loss of skills and a need to relearn the structures and routines of school. A reality further exacerbated by students returning to a much different school with masks and PPE laden support workers. Creating anxiety and uncertainty for many students for students who need predictable environments. 

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Today, a look at where we are, reveals some questions still remain hard to answer, especially about how best to provide virtual support for learners with pervasive needs. The truth is, we can’t replicate the classroom experience of face-to-face learning, but we can provide the best possible education under the circumstances. While virtual learning provides an important and much needed option during the pandemic, for some students the approach falls short of replacing the experience of being in the same room together; sharing, laughing, and fully in each other’s presence. 

When the world was locked down, in an attempt to curtail the pandemic, people were cut off from each other. Told to avoid large crowds, work from home and give up social gatherings with friends. A development that’s been especially hard for most people.

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By nature, we humans are social creatures. During the pandemic we’ve embraced unfamiliar social practices. Connecting with family, friends and colleagues online. Engaging with the people whom we live by playing board games, taking on new hobbies, completing home projects and so on. Throughout, many of us have come to see the importance of the people in our lives. That the simple things often taken for granted, do have meaning. 

I draw much comfort from knowing many people have found that self-imposed distancing need not be isolating. We’ve realized our interconnectedness. That individual choices and actions affect the world. That when I wear a mask, I protect myself and others. And we can connect and bond despite distance. Doing so we demonstrate the human capacity to love and care for each other.

I believe my physical and emotional safety depends on the physical and emotional safety of others and vice versa. My belief makes clear there is no greater value than the people around me. The relationships I foster gives me a sense of belonging, identity and support. I learn from your experiences and insights; you learn from mine and we learn together through the pursuit of new experiences along our shared journey.

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My response to Dr. David Tranter asking, “What matters most?” is simple. My dealing with this pandemic and its effect on schools and exceptional students has taught me that what matters most is human connection. We belong to our family, friends, colleagues and community. But we also belong to each other. We are each on this journey to belong, to be accepted, to connect with others and to be loved. That is what matters most. I must not forget that now, and during the days ahead. 

The foundation of all teaching and learning is human connection. That’s what is enabling us to navigate the complex workings of education during the pandemic. It’s the basis for our living and learning kinship. And the reason why each of us at times is a mentor and mentee, who leads and learns while going forward. 

It is in this human connection that each and every person in the OCSB system finds the courage to take on a new day and make the best of the situation as it unfolds. And it’s that connection that makes me proud to walk this journey alongside members of the OCSB community. 

Together let’s continue “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.”