Getting to Know You

Guest Blogger: Kelly Sipe (September 2021)

In the first six weeks of school the foundation of the culture and community of one’s class is birthed.  In lower school, we spend that time learning about one another and setting the tone for expectations and the very ethos of our classroom community.  

During this time we create classroom agreements together as we discuss what we each need in order to live, learn, and thrive in our classroom space. We engage in exercises that steer us towards building a classroom community that fosters a sense of belonging among the group. Children also begin to see how they fit within the group academically, and socially, and they evaluate their capacity to meet expectations.  

Teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic adds a new page to this Getting To Know You playbook. In a year untouched by a pandemic, I might find a group of five-year-olds sitting in close reading/learning circles, collaborative groupings, teachers and students sharing special high-fives, hugs, and other greetings. I might be teaching social skills like noticing body language or how emotions are expressed and exchanged with others.  

These skills are still taught during pandemic times, but we have an overarching new parameter: practices to ensure the physical safety of students and teachers. There is an additional level of directive language that daily advises and reminds students to wash hands, socially distance, keep masks over noses, refrain from touching/hugging others, work independently at desks (as opposed to collaboratively at tables), eat without conversing, etc. Those safety protocols push back against the relational, collaborative, communal living-learning of a classroom. It is more important than ever that we prioritize connections and support students’ needs for autonomy and social-emotional competence.  

  • The eyes have it.  We spend time talking about emotions – identifying them, labeling them, and noticing how we (and others) express/show feelings in verbal and nonverbal ways. Masked faces certainly require us to hone this skill, as smiles and other overtures are out of sight. The childhood poster with various facial expressions and emotions labeled has been shelved in a storage closet.  Instead, we engage in activities that draw our focus to each other’s eyes, taking the time to make eye contact and learning to be an emotion detective.  We notice the position and shape of the eyebrows, the size and shape of the eyes (how open they are), and we ask ourselves what emotion(s) bring those creases to the sides of our eyes. 

One of my favorite moments after a lesson on the messages within our eyes was when out of the blue a child came running to me on the playground to announce that she had seen her friend’s eyes light up,” just like a star blinks at night,” when she went out of her way to invite that friend to play. “I didn’t know I had the power to switch on someone’s eyes!” That led our entire class into a discussion of how feelings in the heart are shown through our eyes. I told the little girl that day that she had touched her friend’s heart when she invited her to play.  

  • Wisdom of the Heart.  Directional language seeks to deliver messages for an immediate response or reaction. Relational language seeks to build a bridge that supports reciprocal exchanges. One thing about children is that their hearts innately know genuine care and interest when they are present. Masks, protocols, distancing, and all the barriers placed between us and our students are not greater than our hearts’ capacity to connect when we fully give of ourselves, when we are fully present to others. If we continue to lead with our hearts, children will see and feel it.
  • Family Focus.  Connect early and check in regularly with students’ families.  Ask parents what their hopes and fears are as they think about the school year. Those questions will not only help in guiding and teaching their children, they will also let families know that their needs and values are important. 
  • I’m OK in this moment.  Take the time to care for yourself.  Give yourself and those around you grace, patience, and acceptance.  Many of us are living with the impact of trauma from the past 18 months, whether it be job loss, family changes, social isolation, distance-learning, or any of a number of other possibilities. We may find ourselves feeling resilient, grateful, positive, and “‘normal”’ in one moment, and overwhelmed and defeated in the next. It has been a year-and-a-half of emotional extremes. Revisit trauma-informed teaching practices to support your students and their families. And seek ways for self-care in times when we educators find ourselves filling more roles than ever before.

We are all in this together.  Relationships and connections are built by shared experiences. Seek creative new ways to give students (and yourself) a sense of control given the environmental parameters currently placed upon us. Build community, create ways for students to feel they are positive contributors to your classroom community (and beyond); instill in them a sense of being valued, of truly belonging. These elements will enable students to feel equipped with what they need to meet expectations and daily challenges. As we enter a school year where educators find themselves filling more roles than ever, strive to create a community that fosters an all-in, all-together mindset. Let us walk through this pandemic era teaching with and for each other.

Kelly Sipe is an educator, author, and mother.  Kelly has been in the field of education for over 25 years. Throughout her career, Kelly has maintained a focus on the social-emotional lives of children and currently teaches kindergarten at Greensboro Day School in Greensboro, North Carolina.