Relationships at the Core

Last week, I asked our Student and Family Support Team to pose a question to parents on their regular check in calls. I was hoping to learn how many of our GVP families will have an adult present in the home to supervise children during the day while parents are at work in August, September, and October. At GVP, we have been planning a hybrid reopening plan where we bring in brand new students and families to the school in the first two weeks for registration, orientation, assessment, and technology instruction and support. After that, all GVP students will be learning together in online classes through the end of October. 

As the faculty met last week to start thinking about collective planning, calendars and class schedules, and discussed how teachers might manage teaching their own children as well as the students at GVP, I started wondering and worrying about our students. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the young women at our school often bear the biggest domestic burdens in their homes as older sisters. They are most often the ones cooking, cleaning, helping to occupy and oversee siblings, and helping with homework, paperwork, interpretation, and appointments. The challenges for them in staying home and being the ones “in charge” of the household while their parents are at work are real and will require some careful consideration as we plan for the return of virtual school in August.

When the COVID crisis first hit, many GVP parents were furloughed from their warehouse and factory jobs. Now, most of them are back at work, and that will certainly have an impact on their children at home all day, often without adult support and supervision. By law, our GVP students are capable of staying home with siblings and acting as babysitters, but practically how can they manage online school, their siblings’ online school, preparing meals, changing diapers, cleaning, and more?

As I think about the challenges that we have to consider and as we carefully plan for online schooling, I am reminded of my own experiences as a “latch-key” kid in the 1970’s and 80’s. My single mother was a nurse. She worked swing shifts for years and often I was required to care for my little brother and sister and help my mother prepare for work. I walked my siblings to school, often walked to the grocery store down the street to bring home food, cooked, cleaned, ironed my mom’s uniforms (before the time of scrubs for nurses), and generally tried to keep my siblings entertained and quiet while my mom rested and slept. I remember the summers being particularly difficult, as I was responsible for my siblings for so many more hours of the day. I had to keep them occupied, keep them quiet and out of the house so that they wouldn’t create a mess or too much noise. There were many times that I wanted summer to end. I couldn't wait to go back to school where I could once again focus on friends and learning new things and leave my household obligations behind. As I also wrote in a previous blog, I always loved school, and now I know that this was part of it. School was often much easier for me to navigate than my home life. I was freer at school and had positive relationships with my teachers and most of my classmates. Of course, I cannot possibly compare my own experiences to those our students and families face, but I think that in some ways I can better understand our students’ desperation to return to school. In fact, that’s almost all we on staff are hearing from students these days. Students want us to know that they are ready to go back to school. They want to know when they will return. They miss their teachers, miss their friends, and want to go back to GVP—but not back to online school. 

I have been working with tweens and teens in schools for more than two decades now. What I have come to know is that most don’t come to school to learn. They come to be with people they care about and who care about them. I know that there are some students who really get excited by learning, but I have never heard a teenager say that they couldn’t wait to get back to school and start learning. What they typically say is, “I miss my friends. I miss my teachers. I miss my coaches and teammates.”

For all of us charged with bringing education to students online, we have to remember this and find new ways of connecting and putting relationships at the core of what we do and the top of our goals and priority lists. This is an extraordinary challenge in this COVID time. Even families homeschooling their children understand the value of community and social learning. They take their children on field trips with other homeschool families, meet in small learning groups, and engage in experiential learning outside of their homes. This is not possible right now in Georgia. We can’t take 48 students, 10 faculty members, and 5 volunteer chaperones together on our buses to public places for tours and learning visits. We have to maintain our distance and gather in groups of 10 or less. Finding ways to create social learning contexts, connections, and the closeness that permeated our small school in the past in our new online virtual classrooms is our great challenge in the coming weeks and months. 

I find myself thinking about the girls at our school so often now. I imagine they, like me, are growing very tired of being at home. They are likely very tired of the monotony and tired of the responsibilities. They may be tired of being so close to their parents. After all, what teenager really wants to spend all day, day after day for months on end, with their parents? These young women do want to learn, but they really want to learn at school and away from home where they often must manage numerous responsibilities in addition to learning. While I am excited about the start of school, I have a great deal of anxiety around our students and their abilities to manage so much. I am not sure they will find the time and space to focus on school from their homes. We will do our very best for them. We will try, assess, and adjust. We will absolutely put our relationships with them in the center of all that we do. 

I have been aware of the abundance of educational research that shows the value and importance of positive relationships on student success. At GVP, the connections between  social and emotional learning and academic success has been core to our educational model. Now, there are more and more researchers expanding this work in various fields. Social scientists, medical doctors, and mental health practitioners are actively engaging in research around relationships in schools. Recent studies have shown that positive climates and relationships in schools contribute to good mental health, optimism, and wellbeing in addition to academic achievement and school success. Educators continue to call for more research into the associations and interconnections between relationships and success in school and life for students. In particular, educators need to understand the practical implications of this research so that we can create policies that prioritize positive relationships and ensure that systems and structures are in place to sustain them. As a society we are learning many things through this unprecedented time in our history. I hope that some of what we learn about students will bring much needed change to our nation’s schools. 

No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship of mutual respect, teacher to student. ~ Dr. James Comer, Yale University

We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back. We call upon our sisters around the world to be brave – to embrace the strength within themselves and realize their full potential. – Malala Yousafzai

Here are a few powerful articles about girls, home, and school: 

A ‘Generationally Perpetuated’ Pattern: Daughters Do More Chores

Girls spend 160 million more hours than boys doing household chores everyday

COVID-19 school closures: Why girls are more at risk