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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Together Again for the First Time

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

After his plane was shot down during the earliest part of the Vietnam War, Commander James Stockdale endured 7 years of imprisonment and torture at the hands of his captors before he was released. When asked what had helped him survive, Stockdale said, "You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."

This seems like a powerful stance to assume in the face of the COVID pandemic, and although the virus confronts us with existential realities as brutal as Stockdale's, I'd like to discuss a lesser but important brutal fact that I believe is getting little examination in the current remote education conversation. To wit, synchronous and asynchronous connections from school and friends and the resourcefulness of families can provide elementary age children with only a portion of the social and emotional learning that they'd be getting in a high quality classroom.

What is a high quality, say, first grade experience in this context? It is foremost one in which teachers understand that much of the learning that they're entrusted with is about helping children understand themselves and each other elementally: their bodies in space, the powerful role of language in their social worlds, their gross and fine motor skills, the capacity to delay gratification, their growing ability to compromise and be patient and understand community and the social contract, their imaginations and sense of delight and absurdity and the melancholy peculiar to young children. And most importantly, good elementary school teachers understand that children learn more about themselves and their social and emotional worlds from and through their peers, by spending their days together, in person, in groupings engineered with varying degrees of nurture, structure and latitude by teachers with a deep understanding of child development. These teachers are leveraging the children's biological imperative to play, their genetically encoded educational framework, and they are acting on their conviction that any activity including goals in literacy, numeracy, or methods of investigation should also include goals of social, physical and emotional growth.

Now, some families have enough close-age siblings and parents or guardians with the wherewithal, experience and motivation to recreate some of the productive firsthand energy described above. I think of several military families I've known over the years in which one of the parents, typically a mom, has developed an expansive (and fierce) skill set in supplementing for their children the many and often weak schools they've had to use. Surely, most parents and teachers all over the world are striving to do the best for their children's continued growth. I also appreciate the profound optimism that many of my educator colleagues have in the remote learning tools they've researched and pushed into action on short notice.

What I'm encouraging here is the leavening of that optimism with a brutal fact: that the pandemic has separated elementary age children from their most important teachers, each other, and our best remote efforts can make up only a portion of this gap. I know a lot of outstanding independent school elementary teachers, and when they allow themselves to imagine their students back together, they generally well up with wistful, joyful tears and then speculate on what it will take to rebuild their classroom communities. If it's any consolation to parents, these teachers worry far less about filling in inevitable academic skills gaps than they do about helping students recapture lost time with each other and all of the social and emotional growth they would have made through it.

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