This is the first time in my many years as an educator that I have experienced a major societal event without being with my students. Even in the summer, I had the reassurance that I would see them soon and we would talk about what was going on in the world. That is not the case today. All this time I thought I was the wise sage who helped them during confusing times. I now understand that I need them as much or more than they need me. When the school year begins, we will have to establish new norms for our learning environments and effectively communicate with our students, teachers, and administrators.
Our students have lived through a global pandemic, national protests, societal shifts, and possible untold personal turmoil since we all were last together. Along with formal teaching and learning, our students will need to talk and we will need to listen. Some of those conversations may be difficult or even a little uncomfortable, but those types of interactions are often the ones that have the greatest impact on our students. Fortunately, there are many resources available to help us strengthen our communication skills to be better prepared to have those conversations. The TEDTalk “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation” by Celeste Headlee is a great place to start: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1vskiVDwl4&t=315s.
Headlee provides helpful tips for having more meaningful conversations. For example, she says it is important to try not to multi-task and remain present during conversations. As educators, we know that is easier said than done. Feeling heard is one of the best gifts we can give our students.
Today there seems to be many more questions than answers. Headlee states that to have healthy communication, we must admit when we don’t know something. I could not agree more. While we have been doing our best, in many instances we have been building the plane as we fly, and we don’t have to pretend otherwise with our students. Saying “I don’t know” is sometimes the bravest thing we can ever say, and it gives our students permission to not have the answers but to persevere in the midst of uncertainty.
When communicating with administrators and other stakeholders, we need to focus on solution-based conversations. Many districts, states, and other organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have created procedures for re-entry and reopening schools: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/schools.html. AASL’s pandemic resource site http://www.ala.org/aasl/about/pandemic also provides links to resources for school re-openings.
We must familiarize ourselves with the role school libraries have in this new environment, then customize and implement the new guidelines to best serve our students and faculty. Now is not the time to have philosophical pedagogical conversations or voice unnecessary complaints. School library positions are in jeopardy in many areas of the country, so we must have solution-based conversations. Headlee recommends staying out of the weeds to ensure effective communication. Therefore, when talking to administrators, be succinct and proactive. Provide guidelines for the use of materials, furniture, and technology. Provide plans to implement social distancing in the library and explain how materials will safely be circulated. Be prepared to have those all-important financial conversations. Ultimately, these conversations should reinforce awareness of the indispensable role school librarians serve in teaching and learning regardless of how the new school year evolves.
We must also take time to check in on our colleagues. All of us have been impacted by current events, and we need to acknowledge that, even in the midst of the beginning-of-the-year chaos. Headlee suggests asking open-ended questions, but not equating our experiences with others. So, when in doubt, ask, then listen. Perhaps teachers have been physically or financially impacted during this time. Or maybe the national protests have personally resonated with your colleagues. Regardless of the topic, if you are unsure how to begin these conversations, there are resources to help. For example, the National Museum of African American History & Culture’s site “Talking about Race” has videos, discussion questions, and plans of actions on topics including racial bias and being agents of change for educators, parents, and people committed to equity.
Once we return to school, in whatever form that takes, we will be inundated with activities and deadlines. Let’s all strive to prioritize conversations on our ever-expanding to-do list while navigating a new school year.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020. “Considerations for Schools.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/schools.html.
TED. 2016. “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation | Celeste Headlee.” YouTube. https://youtu.be/R1vskiVDwl4.
Cadet, Danielle. 2020. “Your Black Colleagues May Look Like They’re OK – Chances Are They’re Not.” https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2020/05/9841376/black-trauma-george-floyd-dear-white-people.
Ury, William. 2015. “The Power of Listening William Ury TEDxSanDiego.” YouTube. https://youtu.be/G_SbnrtMvYQ.