You’ve Got Class: How to Find Empathy in Schooling This Fall

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By Connie Gentry | Illustrations by Christin King, designer at @CK.CREATIONS

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This year, instead of focusing on grades and academic achievements, we need to rethink how we measure success. Now is a good time to step back and consider what’s working, what’s not working and what we can do to make this unforgettable year memorable for all the right reasons. Chatham County Schools administrators, counselors and teachers shared their views on best practices for families to consider, as well as opportunities for neighbors and the community to pitch in.

ESSENTIAL SERVICES

Often what’s not working is basic access to internet. This has made virtual learning unachievable for many, especially in predominantly rural areas.

Chatham Central High School Counselor Sandra Young says it’s a big problem for their families, particularly because the three middle schools feeding into the school are Title I schools, a classification based on the number of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. That is just one indicator of many socioeconomic factors weighing heavily on Chatham Central’s student population, which is 70% white and 30% Latinx, Black or other minority.

“A lot of families are having to figure out how to adjust schedules, with parents who work first shift and third shift,” Sandra says. “If their student is not self-motivated or needs help, when do the parents sleep?”

Although all students have a school-issued Chromebook, inconsistent internet access means the school also has to prepare paper copies of all assignments as well as all reading materials. To some extent, this is true across all of the county’s 19 schools, which include six elementary, five K-eighth grade, three middle, four high and one early college. Chatham County has more than 8,800 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grades, and multiple schools have prekindergarten and after-school programs.

It’s a lot to manage with duplicate paper and digital lessons, but the first step is to come together to advocate for improvements. “As a community, we should all reach out to legislators and advocate for broadband,” says Gary Leonard, chairman of the Chatham County Board of Education and a retired educator of more than 40 years.

Wi-Fi access would help solve logistical challenges and create a more equitable learning platform, but that’s not the biggest problem students, families and schools face. The most critical need this year is emotional support and empathy.

“Students are so resilient; they can find ways of doing things and doing them well. But kids pick up very quickly on our emotions. The biggest thing is for everyone to stay positive and advocate for the kids. We need to give them confidence.”

– Gary Leonard, chairman of Chatham County Board of Education

“We want to ensure that learning loss is minimized and that students are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to grow,” says Chatham County Schools Superintendent Dr. Derrick D. Jordan. “Social-emotional well-being is a key ingredient with that work. If students are not in a good place, they are less likely to perform at their best. Our teachers, support staff and administrators are even more aware of that reality during the pandemic.”

This is certainly true for the veteran middle school teacher who was named Chatham County Teacher of the Year in June. “Being a teacher changed my perspective of the world,” says Angela Vanore, a sixth grade teacher at Silk Hope School. “I always wanted to do some kind of humanitarian work to give back; maybe this year is me giving back,” she adds, as she describes the long hours and complex needs of teaching in the current environment.

A typical day, which has always started early, now lasts into the night. It’s not uncommon for Angela to message with parents past 9 p.m. Her own children – Ann Margaret Maupin, a sophomore, and Robert Anthony Maupin, a senior at Jordan-Matthews High School – are picking up more duties at home as Angela spends essentially all of her time working. She creates six video lessons each week, records audio assignments and content for those students who aren’t reading at a sixth-grade level, develops different learning pathways to meet the wide range of capabilities among her students and prints paper packets every Wednesday to distribute before the next week.

“I’ve never worked as much or as hard as I do now,” she says. But the hard work isn’t what weighs on her. It’s the speculations by some that teachers “are not really working when school is virtual” and the social media posts that “bad-mouth” teachers – that’s what brings her down. “I just wish people knew how hard we’re working; how much we care about our students and are trying to do what is best for them.”

GIVING GRACE

Virginia Cross Elementary Principal Sarah Chicchi says her Title I school has one of the highest percentages of students in need in the district, but that she’s “so proud of our families for prioritizing helping their students get work done,” she says. “Many of the parents don’t have the luxury of being at home 9 to 5. Some are working multiple jobs, and some don’t have literacy skills; even with these barriers and tons of stress, they’re prioritizing their children’s schoolwork.”

“It’s funny how much students who didn’t like school really miss it. They miss their friends and their teachers, and have a better appreciation of the classroom.”

– Sandra Young, counselor at Chatham Central High School

Recognizing these circumstances, the school allows as much flexibility as possible for family schedules and does all it can to support social and emotional needs. “Every lesson starts with a social-emotional activity, and every session ends with an optimistic closure: ‘We can’t wait to see you next time,’ or maybe a class cheer,” Sarah says.

The biggest challenge by far has been helping kindergarteners acclimate to school. Not only is it difficult for the youngest students to understand school when they’ve never actually attended, it’s also much harder for the educators.

“It’s different not knowing the student in real life,” Sarah explains. “For the older students, we have a baseline knowledge.”

Orlando Dobbin, counselor at Pittsboro Elementary School, agrees that kindergartners have the steepest learning curve. “It’s a big leap for them to do this weird version of school that no one’s done before, and developmentally their attention span is shorter, so it’s harder to sit in front of a screen to learn,” Orlando says. “It’s very stressful for the kids and their parents.”

Unlike middle and high school students, elementary students also have more trouble navigating websites. Orlando emphasizes the importance of simply having a routine and a schedule, including specified times for breaks.

For young elementary students who aren’t reading and are just learning to communicate their needs, visual prompts are important. Create their schedules using pictures and consider using a hand signal or simple body language for them to communicate when they need a break.

Physical activities and arts can provide much-needed breaks from academic classes, and the Chatham Arts Council, which provides a program that brings artists into schools, works across all of the elementary schools to connect students with the arts.

Its executive director, Cheryl Chamblee, says the council has renamed its program this year. “We’re calling it ‘Chatham Artists Outside of School,’ and we’re finding ways to reach kids in their communities,” she says. “This is not ideal, but I believe artists can rise to this creative moment, and children are inherently artists. If we give children the tools, they can rise to this moment.”

Fundamentally, everyone needs to readjust expectations for this year and allow for more flexibility in the learning process. “Be kind and show mercy,” are the recommendations from board members and the executive director of Chatham Education Foundation, which partners with residents, businesses and foundations to improve education opportunities in public school.

Mary Monroe Kolek, board chair; Mary Lou Huisking, a retired educator serving on the board; and CEF executive director Jaime Detzi say that this will be a year of building life skills and resiliency. Don’t let yourself get caught up in the moment or too critical of your student or their educators – that’s true for kindergartners just learning how to learn, students who typically overachieve and are dealing with the stress of isolation, and children with special needs who don’t have access to all the resources they need. Assess what works and what doesn’t work all along the way and adjust your family goals based on what is working.

From where he sits, Orlando sees more that is going well than failing. “I’m pleasantly surprised by how well things have gone,” he says, but also emphasizes that lowering stress is the most important goal across all grade levels and for all families.

“Give yourself grace,” Orlando says. “It’s easy to focus on what you haven’t gotten done; instead, think of all you have done. What we’re doing is working, and that’s worth celebrating.”

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