Surviving and Thriving in a Remote World

Surviving and Thriving in a Remote World

By Timothy Dohrer

It has been a little more than six months since the pandemic forced us into physical distancing and altered our ability to connect face to face. It has exposed the huge technology gap in our schools and communities. It has also taxed our educators to rethink teaching and learning within a few short days and weeks. Students, parents, and teachers have all had to “pivot” from decades of standard operating procedures to what we call “the new normal” of masks, Zoom rooms, and hand sanitizers.


This radical change has put us all into survival mode, especially when it comes to schooling. We focus on the basics of survival: food, clothing, shelter. For many kids, the Free and Reduced Lunch (and breakfast) program at their school is the only way to eat. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over 1 in 5 children live in a food-insecure setting. Schools had to figure out how to deliver those meals to kids and families. Too many children facing poverty don’t have warm coats to wear as the weather turns cold, nor do they have access to basic school supplies. And with many parents struggling to earn a paycheck due to pandemic-related closures, as many as 30 million Americans are at risk for evictions this fall.


Being in survival mode has a powerful impact on our bodies and minds. The amygdala signals the central nervous system to be on alert. The fight, flight, or freeze response in encoded in our evolutionary D.N.A. to help us survive an attack or imminent threat. Our bodies physically respond by accelerating our heart rate, pumping blood to our legs and arms, and our cognitive brain functions go “off-line”, so we respond instinctually. Usually, this is only for a few minutes, until the danger has passed, and we can return to a resting state. However, the pandemic goes on and on and on, but our minds and bodies think we are still in survival mode. This leads to wear and tear and exhaustion and burn out. This is what our students, our educators, and our families are feeling right now. 


So what do we do? What can we do? First, we should acknowledge what is happening around us: we are in survival mode. We must address the basics first: food, clothing, shelter, physical safety. This also puts us into a mode of self-awareness and self-management, which helps us begin to deal with the psychological safety necessary for the next steps of learning. In order for the cognitive part of our brain to engage, we must find ways to calm the amygdala and move out of survival mode.


For teachers, this means making sure each student in your charge has the basics covered. If you discover they are not, talk to a school leader or administrator. Ask what resources might be available to help this student get past survival mode. Connect with community organizations and resources to help bring the basics to the lives of your students. Think outside the box beyond our normal operating procedures and be creative with problem-solving. 


We have seen schools and communities solve some huge problems of survival mode, from delivering food and WiFi on busses, to personal phone calls and in-person visits to homes checking in on students, to neighbors offering to shelter in place so parents can go to work during school time. We have also seen students, teachers, and parents doing incredible work to move beyond surviving to thriving. This fall, teachers are creating rigorous and engaging learning experiences and students are responding with curiosity and creativity and excellence. Even during this pandemic, it is possible for students to thrive. Some people have called this “learning to Maslow before we Bloom”, referring to Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human needs and Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive skills. 


None of this is how we want schools to operate, but it is what we are doing to survive. We must do what we can right now to make sure every child is moving beyond survival mode and finding ways to experience the joy of learning and connecting. Some of this can be done remotely, but some will need to be done in person, face to face, when we can assure each other of safety. In the meantime, teachers and administrators are doing everything they can to keep kids moving beyond surviving and find ways to thrive during these challenging times.

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