The last year and a half has given us multiple obstacles and opportunities in our personal and professional lives. As educators, we have had to adjust our very definition of what teaching and learning looks like and where and how they happen. For our youngest students, the pandemic has had a profound effect on how they view and interact with the world around them. This clearly impacts their experiences with school and learning.
Colegio Interamericano serves students from preschool through twelfth grade. As the new Early Childhood Education (ECE) principal and a mother of a seven year old and three year old, I started this year knowing that our youngest students would be coming to us with some unique needs, experiences and abilities. Our PreKinder students are only four and therefore have spent nearly 40% of their lives in this pandemic. They likely don’t remember a time when masks weren’t required or when physical distancing wasn’t expected. Because of this, when our doors opened on the first day of school and more than 95% of our ECE students were on campus, we were thrilled to see that our students were adapting with the safety protocols in place.
While they showed strengths in mask wearing, hand washing and physical distancing, another impact of the pandemic was that many of these students hadn’t attended school prior to this year. This was clear in everything from their social skills to their language abilities. My own preschooler was anxious around big groups of students, unsure about some common classroom expectations and shy with her teachers and peers.
We all know children are resilient and it wasn’t long before we noticed that our young students were thriving in the learning environment we provided here on campus. Sadly, two weeks after the school year started, the alarming rate of cases in our city forced our doors closed and required our families, teachers and students to shift back to virtual learning. I remember sharing the news with my two daughters. My 2nd grader cried and my preschooler appeared indifferent. She truly didn’t understand what this meant or how this would impact her and I realized that she was likely a good representation of many of our students in ECE.
That night, after considering the most effective ways of communicating challenging themes with young children, I decided to write a children’s book. Since our mascot is a Grizzly Bear, I wrote a story about a character I created named Greta Grizzly who went through the same kick-off to the school year as our students. By the next day, our art teacher had illustrated the book, our Vice Principal had translated it and our communications department had turned it into a beautiful video. With one day left with our students on campus, teachers were able to share the story with their students and use it to initiate important conversations about the shift that was to come. Parents also had it handy to share as a family and answer any questions that were likely to arise.
I’m proud to say that this tool was a useful resource for our students. Some of our Kindergarteners commented, “That's just like what’s happening to us!” in class when the video was shown. A first grader shared her teddy bear during a virtual class and had named her Greta after the story. My own children were more positive about at-home learning, knowing that it was their way to keep themselves and others safe.
In leadership roles we have to consider the impact of change on all stakeholders, but our primary focus should be on our students. In my opinion, they have been incredibly resilient, flexible and understanding but that doesn’t mean these changes don’t have lasting effects. When we can soften the information and present it in a familiar form, while using language they understand, we can do our part to lessen the shock and support the transitions for everyone. Greta Grizzly will likely be popping up in more stories as the year progresses and help soothe the mind of our youngest learners.
Enjoy Greta Grizzly.