Calling on Community and Embracing a Growth Identity

This post was written by educator Jennifer Burgin.

Who do I want to be during COVID-19? The question appeared in the center of a graphic I saw recently on social media and it struck me—it was the first time I saw something that helped me unpack my evolving feelings during this time. The graphic features three concentric circles, each with a specific “zone”: fear, learning, and growth. Thinking back to Friday, March 13, it was the last day of class with my kindergarteners and, I’ll admit, I was certainly in the “fear” phase. I was anxious, but felt prepared to let them go for a month. Then weeks later, when our governor announced that school would be closed for the remainder of the year, I had to come to terms with the fact that my time with my students in class was over. But in the time since, something unexpected happened: I found new ways to move forward along this continuum. And as I become more and more comfortable with this new normal, I vacillate between “learning” and “growing.” I’ll admit, there are still some moments of fear but I remember to ask myself: Who do I want to be? What kinds of habits and behaviors do I want to have?

Part of the initial uneasiness stemmed from an inability to be there for my students in the way I normally would. While my district provides academic support for at-home learning, it looks different for elementary students to better bridge gaps in access and equity. For a while, I struggled to determine what to do and what this would look like for me and my students. I wanted to quickly fix everything; I wanted to ensure that I could continue to teach and nurture my littles in exactly the same way I had in the classroom. But this was impossible. And as I realized this, I learned to let go of past expectations and give myself grace. I had to grieve the loss of the learning that might have been, and embrace the learning that could be—the idea that my littles would learn and grow in different ways, filled with skills and experiences that they may not have otherwise experienced outside of the classroom.

While I recognized there could be learning and adventures at home, I also knew there was still room to serve my students’ needs and create connections from afar. I started making phone calls with my co-teacher, Wesley, to check in on our students and their families. Calling students was something I hadn’t realized would be so good for them because I kept thinking, it would be so good for me to hear their voices. It turns out, these calls are good for both of us. I’ve found that all of my students, in their own ways, are still reading, doing math, and learning. Through our phone calls, I’ve found ways to transition their personalized learning experiences into opportunities to expand their exploration at home. We talk about things they’re looking forward to (big hugs!), insects they find (and the wonder of caterpillars morphing into butterflies), and ways they are helping around the house (“mentoring” their baby siblings).

After I speak with each student, I then take time to talk to their parents. At first, I was really focused on resources: What kinds of things can I give you? How can I fill in the gaps? How can I be helpful? But what I found was that parents didn’t so much need projects; they were grateful for someone to simply check in on them. Some parents told me they were worried that they weren’t doing a good enough job. Another dad told me that his one goal was “not to mess up” what his child learned in school. During each call, then and now, I remind parents that they are enough, and that their children are going to thrive. Parents cannot undo what has already been done; they can only enhance it! And parents are much more capable than they give themselves credit for. Think about it: they’re not homeschooling, they’re pandemic-schooling. This is in no way meant to replicate or replace what teachers do in the classroom. Instead, I think this is an opportunity for parents to get a glimpse of the magical learning and growth that happens at school. I am learning that a new part of my job is to help pass that magic wand and assure parents that, no really, you can do this. So for me, kindergarten now involves a lot more adults. We talk often. Just like with my students, I am practicing listening to their unique needs, and it feels good knowing that the relationships I’ve built with them are taking us through this together.

While I work to support parents, parents at times reciprocate that support for me, too. One particular call moved me to tears. A mom told me, “I see a little bit of you every day because my daughter has spent so much time with you, she imitates you.” That was really powerful to hear–that I made such an impression on a student. It made me realize that spending three-fourths of our time together in school was more impactful than I had initially realized. My modeling of certain behaviors and habits had already become a small part of their lives. When I find myself worrying, “Am I doing enough?” and comparing myself to the distance learning successes I see on social media, I try to reframe my thinking and focus on the cards I’ve been dealt and the resources I have available. Take our calls for instance: if I tell the kids to get outside, I remind myself to get outside, too. If I’m asking them to have time to play, I’m setting aside time for myself to meditate. If I ask families to support their community and the needs of others, I look at my own community and the ways I can support those around me and make connections. Like I tell parents: “I am enough right now. I am doing enough. And when that changes, so will I.”

This process has been a journey and, along the way, fellow educators have helped me immensely. I’m part of an educator chat group with other elementary school teachers who have supported me in getting to where I am today. One of the members, Alison Travis, reminded me in a message back in late March that I didn’t need to do the same things as other educators in order to succeed; I needed to do what was best for my students and me: foster connection. Reading her message, and seeing others like it, set me free from the unattainable expectations I had placed upon myself at the start. 

I can look around and see that I am not the only one struggling, though I recognize everyone’s journey is different. And while you may experience some fear and anxiety during this trying time, I am confident you will also learn and grow. To my fellow educators, as you move forward, I humbly share this advice that I received from my peers and which has helped me in my day-to-day:

Make that phone call in your own way. Take time to encourage one another, be kind, give grace to yourself and to parents and students. Put yourself out there in your virtual community and take a moment (or two!) to embrace the power of connection. Go on social media to seek out positivity and be a cheerleader. Find a colleague or a parent or a friend, read one of their posts and comment. Add words of encouragement. Tag someone who might want to know that you’re thinking about them, amplify someone’s great idea, applaud another educator, share a video to uplift someone, respond to a tweet. Dive into your virtual community and replenish your heart.

So, now it’s my turn to ask you: Who do you want to be during COVID-19?


Jennifer Burgin is a kindergarten teacher in Virginia. Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @MrsJBurgin

Feature image by Mark Thiessen.

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