So… there’s a lot to write about everything going on right now, but I’m going to start with talking about how the structures we have in place are the best things we have to lean on what crisis hits.
To that end, we’ve heard a lot of talk during the shutdown about how important it is for teachers to reach out to kids. But we’ve heard very little about how that’s supposed to work. For elementary schools, that’s easy – the teacher calls the kids. But for high schools, where kids have seven or eight teachers on their roster, who is calling? How do you make sure that every kid has a teacher who knows them and would have the kind of relationship where a phone call home would make sense? For us at SLA, this gets to the heart of what Nel Noddings called the ethic of care. For us, it is best summed up when you hear an SLA teacher talk about what they do and they said, “I teach my students math,” or “I teach the 10th graders English.” We believe, simply, that the fact that we teach students is always and necessarily more important than the subjects we teach.
But you can’t authentically build that system on the fly – not easily, and not for every kid. There has to be a systemic approach to the ethic of care or it just happens by the good will and caring attiture of teachers which may or may not reach every kid. That’s the why Advisories are so important at the high school level. (And middle school, for that matter.) At SLA, our Advisories are four-year, longitudinal groups so that the same 20 kids and one teacher are together all four years. Other schools do multi-age Advisories (or Family Groups) so that there are a mix of kids from each grade in each Advisory. Some schools do change advisories each year, but I really do like the consistency so that kids have the same advisor all four years.
Advisories also provide an important touch-point with the school for parents and guardians. When there are issues, parents know who their first point of contact can be, who can coordinate efforts if a student is having issues, and who will be their child’s advocate should the need arise. At SLA, we do all our parent conferences as Parent-Advisor-Student conferences, so that families are meeting with an adult who knows the student not just as a student of a specific subject, but as a whole person.
To that end — whenever schools with Advisories have to ask the question, “How do we take care of all the kids,” they know what structure they can lean on is. When the Coronavirus shutdown occured, we at SLA put a plan in place so that every student could hear from their advisor multiple times a week, and we kept having Advisory class every Thursday afternoon at its usual time through video conferencing so that kids could get some time with the group of people that have been with them throughout their high school career. (For a point of reference, Advisory at SLA usually meets twice a week for 45 minutes.)
If this crisis has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t retrofit caring for kids. If we want to ensure that, in a crisis, every student knows they are cared for, we have to have that system in place long before the crisis hits. That’s what it means to build a system of care in our schools, and what it means for us, in this time of global crisis is that every kid has been called or texted or emailed by their advisor multiple times for check-ins.
The ethic of care must be authentic, systemic and real, so in a crisis, we can lean on it and do what we do best – talk with kids, listen to them, ask them how they feel and what they need, and be there for them – even through social distancing – as best as we can.