Caring Teachers in the New Normal

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(A) THE Reality

Introduction

The New Normal was thrust upon us by the pandemic Covid-19. Since 18 March 2020, the whole of Malaysia was under Movement Control Order (MCO), then Conditional MCO (CMCO) followed by Recovery MCO (RMCO) until 31 August 2020 where schools were closed for about 5 months in total. Teachers and students could not go to school, and therefore no PdP (pengajaran dan pembelajaran – teaching and learning) happening in the traditional way. Even when schools reopened for exam classes on 24 June and later extended to the whole school on 15 July and 23 July, a new way of coming to school has been put in place.

This is to ensure “social distancing” which seems the only way to keep the coronavirus at bay. Without many physical contacts, the deadly virus cannot spread easily.

However, I don’t agree with the term “social distancing” because we, human beings as social animals, are still connected through the wonder of the internet. The internet is still able to promote social communication between human beings through popular social apps, like many free social media platforms – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Whatsapp, etc, and more innovative face-to-face free apps like Zoom, Google Hangout, etc. Imagine people can still connect to meet online as families, even distant relatives connect through these media; what more formal work meetings can also be held online.

We are not practicing social distancing in this manner, but rather “physical distancing” where we are not actually physically present to each other. The Ministry of Health uses the term “physical distancing” now. Another better term is “safe distancing.” The current safe distancing is one meter apart.

As I have mentioned just now, safe distancing is to keep us physically apart so that the virus cannot spread easily among us. Most of us were sequestered in the home for nearly 83 days (18 March until 8 June 2020) under MCO and CMCO.

New Normal for Teachers – Online Class and SOP for Physical School

During this time, most of us as teachers have to continue to carry out PdP from home. This is the New Normal for teachers.

No doubt online resources and some sort of e-learning have been going for years. These are actually nothing new. The new difference is e-learning has become mainstream rather than at the side.

In most cases, teachers were thrown into it without much preparation. Yes, even though in the government schools there were already some training in Google Classroom (GC) but the implementation was not carried out properly.

E-learning is stepping away from having didactic instruction where the teacher preaches, and the students listen in a physical classroom. With this New Normal, it is now the time to acknowledge that we are all learning all the time (https://inservice.ascd.org/how-covid-19-will-force-education-into-the-future/).

And with coming back to school for physical class, there are lots of SOP to adhere to. For example, 1-meter distancing, wearing of face masks, temperature taking, frequent hand washing, etc. It can be a hassle. There are extra duties for teachers on top of the usual workload of teaching with the compliance of SOP. Teachers have to make sure students follow the SOP and not infringe on them in order to keep everyone safe in school. School is like a prison now with strict supervision.

No group work, no co-curricular activities; therefore no more fun in attending school. Even teachers can’t interact socially and bond with one another because there’s no more sharing of food at table.

Mindset

It’s a VUCA world – one that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. But can we view it differently? Instead of the negative, let’s look at VUCA positively – Vision, Understanding, Clarity, Adaptability. While we cannot control everything, we can control how we respond and react to situations. We do have a role to play as both members of society and as educators to envisage what changes we want and need – and what we don’t – and we must play our role in affecting those desired changes.

So, in order to be caring teachers during this time, it is good to ask myself where I am now. What are the things I can control and what I cannot? To help others, we have to be good ourselves. How to help our students with psychological and emotional needs if we ourselves are not stable enough.

(B) MY Reality

Where I am and to where I wish to shift myself in order to help my students

First, I have to ask myself where I am during this time of Covid-19. Looking at the diagram below will help me be aware of my feelings. And by doing so, I can ask where I want to shift myself to. Then only I can be more caring towards others, especially my students.

Source: internet

Fear Zone – a negative outlook on the crisis caused by Covid-19

a) Paranoia and fear prevail; I spread negative news and emotions only; I have many complaints.

b) In a way, I am stuck in my situation, I wallow in my negativity; I give in to my instant emotions; I cannot seem to get out.

c) In this zone, we are not helpful to ourselves and also to others. We do not exude enough positivity. And we do not trust in God.

Learning Zone – start to move out of the negative by finding out more information about the situation

a) Identify and accept the emotions that I have; there are many things I cannot control and I have to accept this reality. It’s not so much of having the attitude of giving up, but rather an attitude of surrendering to the things I cannot control.

b) Take the effort to read more, listen more to news; have an open mind for opposite views.

c) Most importantly be grateful for the things I have, rather than craving for things I do not have.

Growth Zone – reaching out

It is said, “No man is an island.” We are all interconnected. To be fully alive we connect with others.

a) I take on the positive outlook on life and spread this outlook to others.

b) I am empathetic towards myself and others.

c) I look for ways to adapt myself to changes caused by the disturbance.

d) Make the effort to thank others, to reach out to others and to help them in ways I can.

Spiritual Zone – trust in God

a) I deepen my personal relationship with a loving God who is also all powerful.

b) I trust in God who can overcome all difficulties.

c) I pray for others and with the strength from God to reach out to help others in concrete ways.

As teachers, it is very important to move out of the Fear Zone into the Learning Zone, and progress to the Growth and Spiritual Zones. As Christian teachers, we have to have the trust and hope in God who saves.

Yes, we can question God why this has to happen, causing many deaths and suffering to countless people. For your info, this age-old question of why a good God allows evil to happen is called theodicy (theos and dike – justifying God). It is a very human question. No intellectual or moral reasoning can answer this difficult question. Believe me, numerous people have tried and are still trying to come up with logical answers. In the end, it boils down to a trusting loving relationship with God. Ultimately, we surrender to God’s divine providence. We still have hope in this God who can do all things, even when we don’t understand why this has to happen.

Thus, as teachers, we have to admit we don’t have all the answers to life. And it’s ok. We admit we are humans. Teachers can review our role from being “Sage on the Stage” to “Guide on the Side.” To be a guide, we have to be a step ahead of our students. With more years up our sleeves, we have more wisdom and experience. With these we can guide our students.

A practical way to be aware of where I am now is to daily pray the examen introduced to us by St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits in the sixteenth-century.

The steps of the Ignatian examen are:
1) Gratitude
2) Grace
3) Go through
4) Get forgiveness
5) Go forward

Challenges in the New Normal for Teachers

It’s not easy to do PdP online and be a caring teacher at the same time. There were many challenges.

Hardware

There’s the issue of hardware – inadequate devices for both teachers and students. Findings from a survey by the Ministry of Education (MOE) involving close to 900,000 students/parents indicate that 37% of students do not have any appropriate devices. At the same time, only 6% to 9% of students own a personal computer and/or a tablet; 46% have smartphones (http://www.krinstitute.org/assets/contentMS/img/template/editor/20200426_Covid_Education_v3.pdf).

Besides that, there’s the problem of slow internet connection, especially in the rural areas.

A big portion of students is already at a disadvantage when it comes to e-learning due this issue of hardware. The gap between the haves and have-nots of society increases with this pandemic. It’s very obvious, education is not equal for all.

But there are examples of grit among some students in trying to access education online despite the hardware issue. In rural Keningau, “Dua beradik bina ‘sekolah’ dalam hutan di Sabah untuk terus belajar” using smartphone by trying to get signal by going up a hill (https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/bahasa/2020/05/25/dua-beradik-bina-sekolah-dalam-hutan-di-sabah-untuk-terus-belajar/).

Software

The other issue concerns software – when the hardware is available, some students encounter the lack of diligence to keep going at PdP without the physical presence of a teacher (or parent). Self-learning is just not the thing for most students. Teachers find students are slow to respond, late in handing in assignments, wake up late, do not turn up for live classes, etc.

On the other hand, teachers feel daunted by the burden of learning something new and embark on unchartered waters into the unknown world of PdP without a physical classroom.

The pick and choose attitude is one bad outcome of our current situation. Students tend to pick the assignments they like to do. They can ignore the boring ones and no immediate consequence can be felt. Even online Mass suffers the impact of this mentality. Mass goers tend to pick and choose the live streaming or recorded Mass they like from anywhere in the world. It’s like a large array of supermarket product display. We have the freedom to choose what we want.

Face Masks

It’s very difficult to teach with a face mask on. Even though MOE has decided that it is not necessary for students and teachers to wear face masks all the time in school, it is safer to wear them.

Voices are muffled when speaking with face mask on. People can’t hear very well, what more students trying to listen to what the teacher is saying in class. There’s also the difficulty in breathing, especially when walking from classroom to classroom, especially when climbing stairs.

On top of that, there’s the fear of contaminating the masks when wearing and removing them, and how to store them properly, especially the washable ones. For those who care for the environment, there is the danger of polluting the already endangered environment with this kind of disposable but not bio-degradable masks.

Frequent Hand Washing

We have to remind ourselves every time to sanitise our hands either with soap and water or liquid sanitisers. What more to remind the students! Soap would be a better option as it is gentler on the skin and more environmentally friendly. It is definitely a new normal that we have to adapt ourselves.

1-meter Safe Distancing

This SOP of safe distancing urges people not to talk to each other at too near a distance. People tend to be very sociable, especially women who naturally use touch to convey a non-verbal message. This is something all of us have to be careful, and be aware, and keep to the distance.

In the classroom, because of the physical distancing, the space between students is greater than before. Students find it difficult to pay attention to the teacher teaching because of the distance and the block of the face mask. They spend more energy trying to listen and see what’s going on in front; thus making them more tired and depressed in class. What more spending their recess time in the classroom! The students lack the movement they need to be healthy and boosted for their attention span.

(C) NEXT Reality

We Care

But in spite of all these challenges, we keep going. Why? It’s simple – because we care. I like this poem found in the internet.

Source: internet

We continue with our PdP because we care for our students’ progress in education.

How do we provide the care needed for our students?

1) Connection

As this poster shows, physical distance should not keep us away from our students or from other teachers. In physical school, it is a so-near-and-yet-so-far situation because we have to keep to the 1-meter safe distancing. School is like a prison where everywhere and every time there’s some SOP to follow. Students are under constant supervision by the teachers. Connection is therefore crucial now, even though with a simple hand gesture. Most of the time we can’t smile because of the face mask. But we can show we care through our presence during our supervision.

During MCO and CMCO, we try to connect with our students online. We may connect with them through text and learning materials, but more so connectedness through live camera is also very important just like in a physical classroom.

This connectedness gives the personal touch much needed by young people which they may not get from their own parents. A simple message, a concerned question, a checking-in are all it takes for the connection.

Of course, we have to be aware of the boundary between student and teacher. In this time, the boundary may be blurred because of the prevalent use of the internet. I see two kinds of blurred boundaries.

First, the boundary of time. Student may contact the teacher at odd hours like late at night because that’s the time they do their assignments and being young people, they have the immediate urge to ask questions and expect instant answers from their teacher. It’s good for teachers to state their working or contactable hours in order to set this boundary of time.

Second, there is the boundary of relationship. How much is personal? Is it too personal when we care for the welfare of the child when the child has problems with peers and family? How far can we go to help the child? This is not an easy issue to settle. There will always be the blurred boundary. I suppose with our wisdom, we know where to draw the line.

Besides the connectedness through text, there is the connectedness through live face contact. When students can see our face, they can see our expressions and thus the emotions we want to portray.

A French philosopher by the name of Emmanuel Levinas (1905–1995) proposes the face as the living presence of another person. The other person is someone genuinely other than myself and he/she is exposed to me and expresses him or herself via the face simply by being there as an undeniable reality that I cannot reduce to images or ideas in my head. For Levinas, the face is the most exposed, most vulnerable, and most expressive aspect of the other’s presence.

I know some teachers are shy to show themselves on camera during online class. Maybe it’s because they are embarrassed of their home face look/dress or the background which would be their room or house. Well, to solve this issue, we can dress up as if we are going to school and use one wall of our home for the background. Remember the connection is more important than the look of our surroundings.

In post MCO school, the usage of mask is a big challenge for teachers. When we teach by speaking, we tend to speak also with our facial expression. However, with a mask covering most of our face, students now can hardly see the subtle emotions we want to convey when we are teaching.

Yes, we can compensate with our body language, excessive gestures and even intonation of voice. But the mask can hinder our tone. And our movement can be hindered by the dreadful 1-meter safe distancing rule. Somehow we have to bring forward that we are still connected even behind a mask. Inventing a new way of communicating in the classroom, but also of teaching and learning, with masked faces, is a real challenge for everyone! Try to be more expressive with our body language. When we cannot communicate with our face, we can communicate with our body using excessive gestures to emphasise a point.

And knowing (not just thinking) that we are interconnected is very important. As with an online class, we cannot take for granted that students will be connected with us just because we send notes and assignments for them to do. Just by talking in the classroom and writing on the board, we also cannot take for granted that the students are connected to us. We have to maintain that personal touch whether in a physical classroom or in an online virtual setting.

That brings us to the education of the whole person which is the basics of Catholic education.

2) Education of the Whole Person

Education is not just about academics. It is forming the well-being of the student in all aspects of the human person. The intellectual, physical, emotional, social and spiritual aspects of the person are interconnected. Therefore, the child grows in all of these aspects.

And we have to care and give concern to them in all these aspects. For example, we must take into account the child’s family background to help them to progress academically because this factor affects their learning ability. We must also factor in peer pressure in their social interactions when it comes to completing group work.

I am surprised to hear that online tuition centres are gaining popularity. Parents are willing to pay extra for their children attending tuition online. Possibly the teachers in the government schools are not teaching much online compared with the private schools; that’s why parents have to resort to online tuition. This is a classic example of focusing only on the academics. Schools have to be more than the academics. It is about forming the human character and moral values even though education is carried out via online. This kind of education can still be done and emphasized.

3) Resilience

We can educate the young on resilience: what does it take to stand up again after every fall? Problems, crisis and challenges will surely come in life, like now when most of the time the students are stuck at home, they are forced to live with family members who may not be conducive to their well-being, etc; stuck in the physical classroom without much movement because of the SOP.

For those who never experience any sort of adversity, they would not know how resilient they can be. It is only when one is faced with obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that resilience, or the lack of it, emerges: Does one succumb or does one surmount? We have to help our young to surmount these challenges, and they will emerge stronger.

Research have shown that most resilient children have a strong bond with a supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor-like figure (https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/the-secret-formula-for-resilience). As teachers, we can help the child psychologically with the need for independence, seeking out new experiences, and push them to have a positive social orientation.

One of the central elements of resilience is perception: Does one perceive an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? Frame adversity as a challenge, and one becomes more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event; one becomes more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.

In addition, when there is meaning to an event, it becomes easier to take it as an opportunity to grow rather than be traumatized by it. Teachers with the wisdom in us can help our students to see meaning in the stressors of life, what more to perceive with eyes of faith in a loving God.

The person of Jesus is especially helpful because he went through human sufferings and joys. Therefore, the God we know and believe in is not someone distant and oblivious to our human experience. The God-man, God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, that is, Jesus experiences all this in his life on earth. We know and believe that God understands when we connect with God in our pain and stress in life.

Moreover, to have a positive perception can be taught. Reframing them in positive terms when the initial responses are negative, or in a less emotional way when the initial responses are emotionally high can be trained. Over time, people can regulate their emotions and perception.

Another method is to help students change their explanatory styles from internal to external – “Bad events aren’t my fault”; from global to specific – “This is one narrow thing rather than a massive indication that something is wrong with my life”; and from permanent to impermanent – “I can change the situation, rather than assuming it’s fixed.”

Resilience goes hand in hand with perseverance. Stressors of life can become so intense that resilience is overwhelmed. And perseverance comes with training. Never give up.

4) God and Divine Providence

Resilience and perseverance come easier to a person when God is in the picture. God here means a personal and relatable Person with whom one can trust and grow along with.

This God provides for our every need. We can depend on God, that’s why God is called Divine Providence, the One who provides for our needs.

When we look beyond ourselves or others, then we realise there is something bigger than all these. God is the higher goal in our lives. When we are able to connect with this God as a Person, then we experience the touch of life. No doubt it is easier done for Christians with their faith in God-made-man or God incarnate (the God who enfleshes), that is God who becomes one of us with human feelings and experience. Jesus went through all our human experience and is able to understand them. With Jesus, it is easier to relate than anything else.

Closing

And so, we need to pray often in order to build our relationship with God who is the source of our strength. Find inspiration from scriptures. Be strong and caring in the Lord.

Psalm 103 
1  Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
2 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
3 who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
5 who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
AMEN

– Fr Francis Lim, SJ

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