I teach Leadership at Thomas Jefferson High School in Federal Way, Washington. When COVID 19 began to impact Washington schools I was at a conference, 300 miles away. The governor had a press conference at 2 pm on a Thursday where he shut down all schools in my county the following week. My colleagues and I watched the news in the hotel lobby and immediately packed up to head home. We had one day to prepare before we would be on “Hiatus” from school for 6 weeks and all of us wanted to be there for our students. We spent the ensuing three plus hour drive figuring out what to do with our final day. One colleague used a feelings chart to check in with students, the other created an at-home educational activities list for students, while I figured out how to do an impromptu yearbook signing to send kids off with some positive affirmations (we’ve got a pretty great team).
The next day I was able to see all 6 of my classes for the final time before we would transition to a digital world with many variables still unknown. We held our yearbook signing activity, each getting to go around and share a kind word with each other, and then I had to give them their homework. I told each class that their homework for the next 6 weeks was to put what we talk about in class into action and practice good leadership/character. It was homework they could practice regardless of their access to WIFI, devices, or technology. It was homework they (
we…I) should be practicing all the time, but it felt like a fitting way to go into uncertain times.
We’ve now completed our first week away from brick and mortar school and there are still many things unknown. As I’ve transitioned to a work from home mode, I’ve tried to touch base with students to see how they are doing on their homework. But the more I thought about it I realized that this task isn’t really homework, this is the test. This is what our daily work has been preparing us for. Fortunately, my tests are simple. This one only has 8 questions.
Question #1 – Can you be Patient?
With the quick switch to a 100% digital world, there are many that are feeling left behind. I recently set up my grandma with a “grandpad” (think iPad for over 80). I knew my grandma wanted to stay connected as we physically distanced, but the newness of this tool that was supposed to help was overwhelming. My grandma was never good with tech, but diagnosing it over the phone during this time was even more frustrating. As my patience grew thin, I finally listened and learned that it wasn’t just that she was unfamiliar with tech, she was literally scared of it. She’s scared of messing up, of breaking the shiny new thing, of being incompetent. I think some of our students are in the same situation with this abrupt change. Can we be patient with those learning to adjust to this new normal?
Question #2 – Can you be Kind?
I’ve ordered food from 4 local restaurants, picked up curbside delivery at target twice, and been on the phone with 3 different customer service agencies. None of these people signed up to be “front line” workers but have continued to work and provide a service for the rest of us. They have loved ones who are nervous and scared about them, yet still, show up to keep us functioning. I’ve ended each interaction with the words, “Be safe, I appreciate you” and have been amazed at the complete tone shifts these people experience. The simple acknowledgment of the sacrifices they’re making with a kind word or piece of appreciation goes a long way to help them get through tough days. Can we be kind to those who are risking their personal health and safety to provide for the rest of humanity?
Question #3 – Can you be Honest?
“How are you doing?” I’ve been asked that question a lot this last week. Most of the time I’ve given the standard, “Hanging in there” or “Doing alright” answers. But a few times, people have paused after I replied, knowing there is more to the story. This isn’t a time to pretend everything is fine. What you are experiencing is normal, what you are feeling is okay, and your fears are valid. And chances are that whatever you’re feeling, they’re feeling it too. Can we be honest with those you trust about how you’re feeling right now?
Question #4 – Can you be Respectful?
As an educator, this switch to online learning was fast and furious. I like that analogy because if you’ve seen any of the more recent flicks in the franchise, they are filled with some incomprehensible moments. That’s literally our life in education right now. You want me to completely transform the way I’ve taught the last (enter crazy amount of years here)? Some have worked tirelessly to figure out how to make it happen with as smooth a transition as possible, others are stumbling through, while some are still processing. All of which are appropriate responses because we all process differently. Can we be respectful to others as we all figure out how best to move forward?
Question #5 – Can you be Selfless?
I admit I looked at round trip tickets when this whole thing started and was ready to spend the duration of this shut down working in a remote (read: warm, sunny, with delicious food) location. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m naturally selfish. I don’t like it but it’s the way it is. When I set my self-interests on the side for a little, I realize there are plenty of opportunities to help through checking in on your neighbors, donating to a worthy cause, buying a sensible amount of toilet paper, or donating blood (Hey Siri, set a reminder to give blood tomorrow). My challenge is to choose against that natural selfishness and to choose what I know is right, even if it isn’t the first (or second) idea that pops into my head. Can we be selfless enough to make the decision that’s right for humanity?
Question #6 – Can you be Forgiving?
I’ve snapped at a few of my loved ones this last week for “no reason at all.” We’re all stressed, whether we admit it or not. This is the first global pandemic most of us have ever encountered, it’s going to be challenging. So, when someone is quick to anger, gets frustrated at you, or shuts down, recognize it may not be your fault and grant them a little extra grace. Can we be forgiving (to others and ourselves) as we try and rebound from challenges unknown to us?
Question #7 – Can you be Humble?
Social distancing is the only tool we have in the fight against this pandemic. I am a happy, healthy human being with a great immune system, but the reality is, it’s not about me, it’s about us. Humility requires us to do the things that put we before me. I’ve got a number of
friends heroes in healthcare who I’m sure wish they could stay home, be safe with their loved ones. But instead, they suit up every day to help. Can we be humble enough to stay home and help those in the world of healthcare have a fighting chance at doing their job?
Question #8 – Can you be Committed?
This is the glue that holds all the other seven test questions together. While the other 7 are all fairly easy to agree to, they are a lot harder to practice when thrown into battle. When our emotions are running high, when we’re stressed to the max, when we’re hurting; these are the times when commitment is most important. Can we be committed enough to stick to these essentials, even when times are tough and we are truly tested?
And if you find yourself getting any of these questions wrong, don’t worry. There will be make-up opportunities offered every day.
Coley Veitenhans is a National Board Certified Teacher at Thomas Jefferson HS where he teaches 6 sections of leadership, coordinates a student mentorship program, and serves as the student activities adviser. He strongly believes that schools should go beyond preparing students to answer what they want to be when they grow up and start asking "Who they want to be?"