It’s been three days. Three days since our world’s been turned upside down. Three days since our schools were shuttered completely. Three days of Distance Learning. Nearly three days since the Shelter in Place order came down for millions of residents in the Bay Area.
The streets are eerily quiet.
The swings on the playground only move when a gust of wind wills them to.
A few lost sweatshirts hang on hooks outside of quiet classrooms waiting for their owners to return.
Parking lots are empty.
Baseball fields are silent with only distant memories of “aaaaa batta, swiiiing batta.”
And yet, our homes are full of children who look out the window for any signs of life.
Crawling up the walls as they struggle to understand, let alone cope with the dramatic change in their lives.
Mom and Dad look tired. Grandma’s trying to help. The neighbor dropped off some toilet paper the other day; they had more than enough.
Dad struggles to get the kids lunch and hopes he can get them back focused on the tasks the teacher has shared on the internet. He has a 1:30 conference call for work that he can’t miss.
Mom is busy trying to help. She’s on her computer most of the day attempting to “work from home.” The noise the kids make requires her to sneak away into the laundry room to get some peace so she can concentrate.
Looking to mom or dad, the kids hope they’ll hear, “This will all be over soon.”
But we can’t. We can’t tell them it will all be over soon. We don’t know. Our heads tell us, “Surely it will be over in three weeks, right?” But our gut tells us we’re only lying to ourselves. We’ve seen the data. We hear the news. To “flatten the curve” they’re gonna need us sheltered in place much longer...right? We want to be wrong. Desperately, we cling to some hope that the United States will be different.
The reality is, the United States is no different. No country is. Viruses have a powerful way of reminding us that the trappings of status, privilege, education level, employment, country of residence, citizenship are really just social constructs that lull us into believing that the human condition is different for different people. Viruses don’t care about any of that.
So regardless of who we are, what narrative our lives have weaved, we find ourselves in this place together. There are so many unknowns. So many questions. So few answers. And that just has to be okay.
There is one common overwhelming emotion that I sense from people as I attempt to lead a small school district in the heart of Silicon Valley during this unprecedented (at least for modern society) Public Health Crisis. That emotion is anxiety.
Our anxious feelings rise when we feel a lack of control, when the uncertainty of the future overwhelms our ability to naturally calm ourselves, stay focused, accomplish what needs to be accomplished, and support others in the process. We struggle to manage our own response to all the stimuli that we receive.
In my role, I am responsible to avail myself to a variety of people--parents, students, teachers, support staff, the public, policy makers, the press--and receive without judgment their varying states of emotion. I feel honored to be able to do so, really. In many ways it is a sacred trust to be in a position of leadership during this time. I am often reflecting on what it is I can say or do that will help calm the understandable anxiety, especially the last three days.
There is no operating manual for what we are experiencing or how leaders should respond. And so, I show up. I listen. I try to respond the best my heart knows how. Probably the most important thing I am doing, if only for my own benefit, is asking every day and with every conversation, “What am I learning?”
The universe is remarkable at teaching us what we need to know in the moment. We just have to make space for the lesson and silence our ego and fear long enough to listen. I thought that maybe a few folks would be interested in knowing what I have learned in the last three days; turns out leading through a crisis is a master class for which few are interested in signing up and yet many need to attend. So here goes. What have I learned the last three days…
Helpers are our hope.
I am overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people who have stepped up to do their part and offer their services during a time like this. Daily, we have to turn down offers of help from caring individuals who want to do something for anyone who may be in need. The news is full of stories of people rolling up their sleeves and helping. As Mister Rogers famously said and has been shared many times in the last few days, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
We are resilient and our children are capable.
Of my children, two are school aged, kindergarten and fourth grade. My wife and I are both public school educators. If for anyone, this should be easy for us, right? Well, it’s not. It’s hard. Amidst the craziness, we are learning that our boys are capable of so much more than what we give them credit for most of the time. We’re realizing that we can do this. It won’t be easy, but we’re going to be okay. This will be a process. We’ll get better at it as we go. Our kids will likely lead the way.
Perfect is the enemy of good.
It’s no surprise in our community that so many teachers, parents, and even many of our students are going above and beyond to try to perfect Distance (At Home) Learning. If there has been one criticism that I have heard, it’s that we’re trying to do too much or make it too perfect. I don’t know if it is just the community I serve that needs to hear it, but I think we can all benefit from this reminder: You are where you are, and that’s exactly where you need to be. Where do you want to be tomorrow...without wrecking yourself or others in the process? Take this one step at a time. Pace yourself. We really only have two goals with Distance Learning:
It’s all about relationships.
Of all of our teachers’ efforts, there is one that hands-down seems the most impactful--personal contact. Whether it is virtual study groups, community circles via Hangout, video story-time, or one teacher on a conference call with one student, I have been so comforted and inspired by the stories that involve connection. It’s a reminder to us all that relationship is at least as important as knowledge, and I would argue, even more important. Even if your child doesn’t complete all the tasks assigned, be sure that s/he/they are connecting with their teachers when offered and with their classmates and friends as often as possible. It’s been said before, and is more evident now than ever before, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Grace is a choice.
When anxiety is high and answers are few, it’s understandable that folks feel frustration when their expectations are not met. Everyone is meaningfully impacted and challenged by the virus and the Shelter in Place; no one is immune. And since we are all in this together, I believe we have an obligation to offer one another grace, and to hope for it in return. Grace--freely given, and sometimes undeserved, favor--is a choice. Our expectations are not always going to be met. This will be hard. People will disappoint us. And yet, we are all just doing our best. I have seen how my own offerings of grace have made a difference the last few days; conversely, I have seen how my snap judgment and frustration have sowed discontent and impacted morale. Whether it is with our students or their parents, whether it is with our teachers or administrators, whether it is with our family or our neighbors, or even and especially if it is with ourselves, I hope we can all go to the well of grace for it is one of few things of which there is an endless supply.
Public School Teachers are a national treasure!
While certainly not the intention of a country-wide shut down of our schools, the Shelter in Place we are experiencing has at least reminded me how incredible our public school teachers are. One glance at your preferred social media platform and you will see parents around the country commenting that “Teachers deserve to be the 1%” or “I’ve never been more grateful for my kids’ teachers.” or “How do they do this everyday?” It’s true. One unintended outcome of this situation will hopefully be the realization that my own family is having each day: Our teachers are special. No computer will replace them and no average joe can do what they do. If and when you have a minute, maybe send your child(ren)’s teacher a note to tell them what you LOVE about them and what your kid LOVES about them.
The schools may be quiet and the commute to work for those of us that are essential workers may be traffic-free, but the struggle is real. This new normal will hopefully not be “normal” for too much longer and we can return to “regular” life a bit smarter, healthier, aware, and appreciative of the people in our lives. We will get through this...together.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.