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PrinciPALS Podcast Transcript: 2.01: What We're Learning about Learning During a Pandemic

By Jij de Jesus, Emma Wellman, and Conor Bentley

Listen above or on Apple Podcasts.


In this episode of The PrinciPALS Podcast, Jij and Emma discuss some of the most inspiring things they’ve learned (so far) while educating preschool- and elementary-aged children during the pandemic, with a hope that their perspectives on in-person learning may help other educators—as well as answer some of the many questions parents and caregivers have as schools readjust learning models in 2021. Jij and Emma also draw on their lessons to create tips that will help parents and caregivers continue to support children (and themselves) at this time.

The transcript of this episode appears below.


Conor Bentley (00:02):
From Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah…

Jij de Jesus (00:05):
I’m Jij de Jesus.

Emma Wellman (00:06):
And I’m Emma Wellman.

Conor (00:08):
And they’re the princiPALS.

I’m Conor Bentley, and on today’s episode of princiPALS, we’ll be talking about doing school during a pandemic.

Emma (00:28):
On The PrinciPALS Podcast, we tackle big questions and share big ideas about how to raise excellent humans.

Conor (00:35):
So, we’re not in the princiPALS’ office today. It’s good to see you, Jij and Emma, and nice to be back with you, but we are obviously recording virtually on Zoom because of the pandemic. And that’s apropos because that’s what we are talking about today. But how are you two doing?

Emma (00:54):
Pretty good. Glad to see you, Conor.

Jij (00:57):
I’m also pretty good, and also glad to see you, Conor.

Conor (01:00):
It’s nice to be seen, at least on Zoom, but let’s talk about, a little bit, why, because obviously we are recording virtually because of the pandemic and that is our driving question today, relates to that very directly, which is: what are we learning about kids and ourselves as we do in-person school during a pandemic?

Emma (01:21):
Yeah, so we are very fortunate at Rowland Hall. We are one of a very small number locally, and I think nationally, too, of schools that have had on-campus learning since the start of the school year. And we are, of course, a PreK–12 school doing that here in Salt Lake City. And so I think, I hope, we will have some good perspective to share about that. This is our, as were recording this, we are in our fourteenth week of on-campus learning, which is marvelous.

Jij (01:53):
Our hope is that these important things that we’ve learned by doing school in-person, that that learning is helpful to anyone out there who’s listening.

Emma (02:02):
Another thing I want to kind of mark about that is we are so thankful to get to be on campus, because Jij and I both feel strongly that the best way, especially for younger children, to learn is when they can be on campus with their teachers, with their peers. And we recognize that that represents a kind of privilege. We're able to do school all together on campus right now because we are a school with a lot of great fortune, and that's not a small thing. So, just want to acknowledge that at the outset before we share what it is we're learning.

Conor (02:34):
And we all know how important it is, like you said, to be in person if you can, and I know that's really valuable for a lot of families and that's been a huge issue nationally, but I think it's great to acknowledge that and talk about that. And, I'm just curious—what have you learned?

Emma (02:51):
Well, we have learned a lot of things about hand sanitizer and about temperature checks and about logistics, but we are actually not here to talk about any of those things, as thrilling an episode as that would no doubt make.

I want to start by just sharing that we are learning, kind of relearning, how capable children are. They're maybe even more capable than we knew before, and it turns out that kids can live, and sometimes thrive, even in a pandemic. And sometimes they can do that even better than the grown-ups can, in my experience. Kids can cope with changes from what grown-ups think of as normal so long as those changes are pretty consistent. And so that's a lot of the focus for us at school is trying to build that consistency. And I want to acknowledge that we are hearing and learning that there's an increase in younger children, from five to eleven years old, who are needing support with respect to mental health issues. And there are a lot of reasons for that. And while we are not inoculated against those effects at Rowland Hall, I think there are some things that we are doing or that we're not doing that are helping. And in particular, I think the fact that we do get to be on campus with so many of our learners every day is really a big piece of that. And again, just trying to build in that consistency and to be connected with students so that they have the best chance to show us their high capability, I think is really a big piece of that.

In the summer, just like a concrete thing about how amazing little children are, we were very worried, especially in the Beginning School where we have preschool and kindergartners, that the youngest kiddos would not be able to wear a mask all day. We have people who are, like, just three when they come in, and they're like these little creatures wandering around still learning to use the bathroom independently, frankly, and we were going to ask them to wear masks all day long. We thought it might be really hard, and we learned very quickly, within the first week, it was totally no big thing. The teachers are wearing masks. The kids are wearing masks. It's just what we do. And lots of the older students, in the Lower School especially but even our kindergartners, can follow distancing protocols, which we weren't sure they'd really be able to keep track of that and kind of inhibit their natural inclination to be hugging each other and wrestling around, and, in fact, they can manage it really remarkably well. They are so capable, and if we set that expectation and normalize it for them, it can be no big deal.

Conor (05:31):
So what you're saying is the preschoolers should be setting examples for adults who are going to the grocery store, and it seems like they're handling it better, maybe, than some adults are.

Emma (05:44):
Totally. I mean, we keep hearing all this stuff about how terrible it is to have to wear masks for people and I am here to say if a three-year-old person can do it while they have something really exciting to tell you and they urgently need to go to the bathroom, anybody can do it. Like for sure it's a manageable request.

Conor (06:03):
Well, that's good because I get very excited about things, so that's good for me to know.

Emma (06:08):
Yes. Excitability sometimes can be an issue for me too.

Another thing that we've noticed that's been pretty amazing and totally unexpected is that often at the beginning of the year, but all the time, we would see in the Beginning and in the Lower School, I think, some trouble that children would have separating from their grown-ups at the beginning of the school day. Sometimes children would get a little worried or a little tearful and it would be kind of a stressful moment of separation. And of course, this year we have some protocols which don't allow grown-ups who are not employees to come into the building, so we've built all these other, you know, logistics for drop-off and pick-up. And we've seen that those behaviors and the sort of tumult and anxiety around separating has really diminished. Kids are, like, marching into school very confidently and getting started on their school routines in the mornings. They are really excited to run in and see friends, and it's just been a remarkable shift. Big smiles on their faces, and it's also so comforting, I'll say, for all the grown-ups who are doing the drop off because we carry our own worries in those moments of separation, and especially in a moment like this one in the world. And so getting to see these little people going off to just do school and feel great about it is, I think, a confidence booster for all the grown-ups who are then going on to do whatever they need to do for their day.

Jij (07:31):
Yeah, and I will add, you know, of all people, I think Emma and I both firmly believe in the capacity of young children and even I underestimated what kids would be able to do. Right? When we were reimagining the elaborate pick-up and drop-off procedures in the Lower School, for drop-offs we actually had a plan in place to have our social-emotional counselor, Chuck White, available at a drive-up station because we thought there was going to be an increase of need around supporting separation at the start of the day. And we did not need—not that we don't need Chuck, we always need Chuck White support. We didn't need it in that way because kids are capable and, again, like Emma said, more capable than we knew or even predicted.

Emma (08:22):
Yeah. So that's one of our big learnings this year that I think, again, as I said, it's kind of a relearning, but it's so affirming and we can take our cues as grown-ups from these little people sometimes, I think.

Conor (08:36):
That's huge to see. I mean, I think that's one thing that I know I've struggled with, and I think a lot of adults have struggled with is, you know, things are different and how do we cope with those? But I think you're right. Seeing small children able to deal with some of the strange things that are now required in the world is great to see and it's really, I think, that's—just hearing those stories makes me feel better about the fact that we can do this if we really put our thought into it and try to care about the greater good and the sense of doing things for other people.

Jij (09:16):
Well, and I'll say that, you know, these new procedures and new ways of doing school aren't actually that strange for our students at this point. Right? And I think that leads to another thing that we've learned in doing school in the midst of a pandemic, which is: good teaching is still good teaching. And if we think about all of the new routines, expectations, procedures that our students are able to demonstrate each day to keep themselves and each other safe at school, that's a result of great teaching and that's a result of our teachers being really good at what they do. Right? So our teachers help children understand the why behind positive behaviors. They model positive expectations and routines for our students and give kids lots of opportunities to practice and master new skills and use reminding and reinforcing language to make sure that kids know that they're on the right track. And with all of that, again, we think back to June, when we didn't think a three-year-old could wear a mask, and now we know that they can because they understand why, they know exactly what to do, and they get lots of support from the grown-ups who care about them here at school.

So, you know, this idea of good teaching still being good teaching, you know, plays out in lots of ways. We're seeing the engaging academics that happen throughout the day. Right? And we always think of engaging academics as this vehicle to help kids become better people. And now there's this added dimension of: engaging academics are serving as this sort of anchor of stability for our children in the midst of a really uncertain moment. So when we think about the impact of great teaching, the pandemic is really heightening the, you know, that positive impact, a positive experience for children at school. I think, just as I've had the chance to walk around the campus in the Lower School and the Beginning School, you know, the fact that school even feels like school is the result of great teaching. Right? It's a result of centering what kids need. It's a result of giving children voice and choice in their learning. It's a result of connecting with students, building classroom communities, creating academic activities that are really engaging, that push kids to think and learn and work with each other and apply what they've learned. These are all the hallmarks of great teaching and, again, we're seeing the results.

Conor (12:02):
I'm just wondering if it's creating opportunities to talk and learn about different things. You know, the pandemic has changed things, but is it offering, you know, sort of those teachable moments that we talk about a lot and things that maybe students and teachers wouldn't necessarily have addressed, but it's creating opportunities to learn and grow around new topics and new things that maybe weren't part of the curriculum or wouldn't have been a part of the curriculum if not for the pandemic?

Emma (12:37):
I mean, certainly in the Beginning School there's been a focus on, at the beginning of the year, you know, a lot of folks spent a lot of time talking about masks, and our stuffed animals got masks, and teachers would be silly and not have their mask up over their nose and then the kids would give them friendly reminders and we would sort of practice that. We read books about people who wear masks and are helping other people like superheroes and that kind of thing, and that's definitely not any curriculum that I've ever seen before this year. There's also a lot of conversation about keeping each other safe and taking care of one another, which has always been part of what we do at Rowland Hall in our social-emotional support curriculum and also when we're having conversations around social justice in developmentally appropriate ways with our students. But this year, because it's like front and center for everybody in, like, a concrete way, I think that's fostered, that’s sort of sparked a number of conversations about how we want to all be people who take care of each other. And so we wear masks and we wash hands and we, you know, make different choices about what to do in our personal lives, that kind of thing.

What do you see, Jij? Does that line up with what you see in the Lower School?

Jij (13:51):
For sure. And, you know, we've had a range of fifth graders who designed Chapel services, virtual Chapel services, to share with Lower School students how they can take care of each other and themselves in this very different sort of moment. We've had Lower School students create songs and posters that they wanted to share. And these were not things that we told students to do. Right? These are things that kids recognize at the moment. They knew that taking care of one another and being part of a strong community are just values that we hold as a school. And they saw an opportunity, self-identified an opportunity, to share those out in different ways. And that, to me, that's great teaching because kids are taking ideas and applying them in new and novel ways.

Emma (14:48):
Oh, you know, another thing I'm thinking about when I think about great teaching being great teaching is we had a lot of questions as a Beginning School team, as a faculty, about whether kids would be sort of ready to come back and do school. You know, these are pretty young kids. Many of them went to distance learning for, you know, the back half of the school year, which represented a pretty good chunk of their experience in school at all, and so we were not sure. You know, and that went in lots of different kinds of ways for different families. It was a lot to manage and juggle. And what we found is that these kids were so ready to come to school and learn stuff and be with one another and connect with their teachers. And so it was, I think, a comforting fact for teachers and really affirming that they could just use their same teaching skills that they always know to use and that are going to be effective with young students in that way again. It's sort of business as usual.

Jij (15:54):
There was also a lot of worry about what curriculum or what academics kids would miss and if kids would show up and come back to on-campus school with these big academic gaps and, you know, again, great teaching is great teaching. Our teachers used some assessments early on to just see where everyone is upon return back to campus and have the ability, and have had the ability, to tailor their instruction and their support based on where kids came back. And, you know, what we're seeing is there weren't these massive gaps. Certainly some areas where kids needed targeted support because their experiences they had in the spring were just different than in previous years.

Emma (16:40):
Another thing that we are learning—and again, this is one where we're kind of relearning it, but it's even more true in this moment—is that community is key. And you know, at Rowland Hall we talk a lot about community as being something that defines our school, and I know it defines lots of school communities as well. And whether you're new to the school or you've been around for 35 years, I think that's something that people value and really resonates for them. And we would not be on campus doing what we're doing were it not for the strength of our community. We have so many people who have bought into this project of having kids on campus learning with their teachers safely and all the work that goes into that. And it requires lots of hard work and some sacrifices for folks, too, and we are appreciative of that. And it's worth it in my view.

You know, this virus spreads when we are close to one another, when we are physically close. And what we're learning is that, at this time of year anyway, it seems to be spreading amongst people who are emotionally close with one another too: friends, families, neighbors who are getting together indoors and wanting to connect and be together in this moment. And so it's really painful, frankly, that that's actually some of the riskiest behavior right now. It can be a challenge. And so a question for us at school early in the year, and an ongoing project for us, is how do we build community when we need to be farther apart? How do we keep people connected emotionally when we can't be together physically? And so we make a distinction at school often between physical distancing and social distancing, like we can be social creatures who are holding each other and connected and having fun while being physically, you know, staying six feet away from each other. And that's something that we're trying to do creative thinking about in terms of virtual events for our grown-ups and, similarly, kind of virtual events for our kiddos. One thing that we notice globally right now is that there can be a tendency for people, and also just like the reality of life right now, can make you feel kind of lonely and isolated.

Jij (19:01):
So interestingly enough, Emma, there's some research done by this professor at UC Berkeley, his name's Dacher Keltner, and he studies the science of happiness. And essentially happiness is inextricably linked to having strong social connections and contributing to something bigger than yourself, contributing to the greater good. In this moment when community is key, I think that research explains why. Right? That being connected, contributing something that's bigger than ourselves is really important to avoid this sense of loneliness or isolation or, sometimes, despair that can, you know, that we can sometimes experience in the midst of this pandemic.

Conor (19:47):
Well, I would say to that, because I personally am a very social person and I've struggled with that a lot because it is hard, people want to get together and do things that they've always done. And I think that this is the component for me that has been the most difficult, is trying to be creative about how to still socialize with people, but adhere to the protocols that we need to have in place to keep people safe.

Emma (20:14):
That's like a really good segue into the homework, but before we go into the homework, my educator brain tells me we better review the big ideas. So I'm just going to say them again to make sure people remember them. So the first one is, you know: kids are really capable, even more capable than we knew before. And: good teaching is still good teaching. And: community is key.

Conor (20:39):
Like any typical princiPALS podcast, we have to have some homework, and even though we're virtual, we can still do homework virtually.

Emma (20:48):
Oh sure. So, as always, we have a few different homework opportunities for our many, many listeners. The first is an invitation to attend to your attention. And this is really kind of a reframing opportunity for folks, and I know it's something that I am always working on. And so I'm not saying, I'm not sharing this homework because it's something that I claim to have mastered yet, but it's at least something that I know is valuable for the work I do with young children. I think it'll be valuable for parents and caregivers too. So just thinking about what you're spending your time thinking about, noticing what you're reading, being mindful of how many minutes a day you are doomscrolling. I would strongly advocate that you try to really not do very much doomscrolling at all, though I understand that happens to me too. You know, with the pandemic and the election and heightened urgency around work we need to do with respect to racial justice in this country and the post-election now, too, there is a lot to feel down about and challenged by and overwhelmed by. And that's all real; I'm not saying it's not real, for sure. And there’s stuff that we can do when we think about it to try to right-size it and to direct our attention and energy in a more positive light. It can be really easy in a moment like this one to center feelings like worry and loss and uncertainty and to to tell ourselves over and over again, like, “This is so hard. This is so hard.” And I think, again, while that's real, it’s also really effective to tell yourself that you can do it. I have a, one of our veteran 4PreK teachers who is regularly quoted because she says, “This is hard, and we can do hard things.” And usually she says that to people who are four about, like, tying their shoes or putting on a glove independently, but these days she often says it to her colleagues, you know, about all the different things that we're trying to do as grown-ups to support our little learners. And it's really true: spending time monitoring your own thoughts and driving them toward some more positivity and senses of empowerment where you can, I think is really effective.

Jij (23:06):
And I'll just chime in—and this is from my parent perspective—it’s been beneficial for me to pay attention to what my kids are paying attention to because that can help me center the right sorts of things. So, you know, my kids, my children at home, are not centering things like worry and difficulty and frustration and fatigue all the time. Right? They're thinking about puzzles and our pandemic pet, our guinea pig, Sasha. And they're thinking about the game Sushi Go! and rubber band braiding. These are things, you know, if I center positive things, then it’s helpful for me and, in turn, helpful for my children or people I'm working with.

I think the next bit of homework is, you know, thinking about this idea that great teaching is great teaching, I think there are things that we do as parents and caregivers that are good for kids, and we've been doing them for a long time. So I think the next bit of homework is just to keep doing the same things that you've always done that are good for your kids. Right? And I would encourage parents and caregivers and listeners to start with what kids need. And kids have, I think, three basic needs: their needs around significance, belonging, and fun. And if we think about those, then, you know, then we can really set them up for success and we can create things that help them feel secure, like building in routines and structures and predictability.

Emma (24:43):
You know, you're right, Jij, and I think that's true for grown-ups, for everybody right now. Finding opportunities for belonging is so important. And that leads me to the third bit of homework, which is to actively seek opportunities for community. And as I said a few minutes ago, like, this is a time when community is super extra important and it's super extra hard to find it and to feel connected to folks. And so this one does take some work, but it wouldn't be homework if it didn't take some effort. And I have a couple of, again, strategies that I'm trying to use in my own life as well. One of them is to really find ways to help other people. It's easy in this moment to get bogged down with, like, all the stuff that feels hard about my life and the things that I need to do that are different or the worries that I have for my family members or for my colleagues and friends. And so one way to channel that in a helpful and productive way, but also to kind of put it on the back burner, is to think of things that I can do to help other people and to busy myself with those things. Because even though it feels like I'm super stretched and I'm busy, sometimes it can be like a balm on that unsettled feeling to go do something nice for someone else. It makes me feel good, it makes them feel good, and I also feel like I've done something in the world that's made a difference, which can be really important in times like these.

Conor (26:11):
I did something like that early on in the pandemic. I was kind of feeling cut off and I just took a Friday morning off from work and I delivered donuts to some friends and just went around and stopped and dropped them off and said hi from a safe distance. And they were really happy to have a donut and hopefully to see me, and I was really happy to see them and get out of the house because I think it's hard. It's, you know, we are doing things differently. But I like to think of it, too, as, you know, I mow the lawn in the summertime on Wednesdays, and then I don't mow the lawn when it's not nice out and in the wintertime. And so, that's different, but it's not necessarily bad, it's just different. I don't do it all year-round. And the same thing with some of these things that we're doing during the pandemic, we don't, necessarily, are going to do them forever, but we're doing them right now because we have to.

Emma (27:03):
Yeah, that's really true and that reminds me of the sort of the reframing piece, too, and like all of these homework opportunities kind of go together. I mean, I think it's about, like, intentionally making choices rather than just letting the world wash over you in the moments when you can make a choice towards something, then I think that's helpful. The other thing I'll just point out in terms of opportunities for community is that, you know, there are so many ways to connect with other people, you know, because we're lucky to be doing a pandemic when we also have the Internet. And so even though it might seem tricky because it's sort of different and it's not automatic, like I can't just walk outside my door and hang out with people necessarily, there are plenty of ways to get involved and get connected with other people. And, in fact, in some ways it's easier to get connected with people all around the world. A quick example is that we just had an evening, like parent/caregiver education event on Zoom, and there were folks who were able to participate in that event from all across the country who normally would never have been able to be there because we would have done it in person. So there are definitely opportunities to connect that aren't normally there.

Conor (28:27):
So let's just quickly review what the homework is, just in case people need a quick refresher before we go.

Jij (28:33):
So, yes, let's review our homework. So we encourage you to reframe your perspective and attend to your attention. Don't just pay attention to all of the difficulty and challenge; find those moments and opportunities to see joy and opportunity in this moment. Next is, as parents and caregivers, do the same things you've always done to benefit your children. Right? And again, starting with what your kids need, those needs of significance, belonging, and fun. And then, finally, seek opportunities for community. And we know it can be harder to do so in these times and, with a little effort, those opportunities exist and they're out there. So if we do those things for homework, I think we're going to be set up well for moving forward, regardless of what's going on in the world.

Conor (29:31):
Well, for more information and resources from this podcast, as well as the other episodes of princiPALS, you can go to rowlandhall.org/podcast. You can download the podcast at Apple Podcasts or on Stitcher.

And until next time, I'm Conor Bentley.

Jij (29:50):
I'm Jij de Jesus.

Emma (29:51):
I’m Emma Wellman.

Conor (29:53):
And they're the princiPALS.


About Jij de Jesus
Jij de Jesus is the Lower School principal at Rowland Hall, an independent private school in Salt Lake City, Utah. Prior to Rowland Hall, Jij worked at Town School for Boys in San Francisco, where he held a number of leadership positions, most notably as director of the Exploration of New Ideas program, and was a fourth-grade teacher. He began his career in experiential education by leading wilderness trips. Jij holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Northwestern University and a master’s of education in private school leadership from the University of Hawaii.

About Emma Wellman
Emma Wellman is the Beginning School principal at Rowland Hall. Emma joined Rowland Hall in July 2018 after working as a teacher and administrator at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Emma has also been an adjunct instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago and the owner of a childcare business, Banana Mashers. She holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of Michigan and a master’s in child development from the Erikson Institute.

About Conor Bentley ’01
Conor Bentley is a graduate of Rowland Hall’s class of 2001. He holds a master’s degree in education, works in higher education, and has produced several podcasts, including the public-radio parody
Consider Our Knowledge.

Parent Education

PrinciPALS Podcast Transcript: 2.01: What We're Learning about Learning During a Pandemic

By Jij de Jesus, Emma Wellman, and Conor Bentley

Listen above or on Apple Podcasts.


In this episode of The PrinciPALS Podcast, Jij and Emma discuss some of the most inspiring things they’ve learned (so far) while educating preschool- and elementary-aged children during the pandemic, with a hope that their perspectives on in-person learning may help other educators—as well as answer some of the many questions parents and caregivers have as schools readjust learning models in 2021. Jij and Emma also draw on their lessons to create tips that will help parents and caregivers continue to support children (and themselves) at this time.

The transcript of this episode appears below.


Conor Bentley (00:02):
From Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah…

Jij de Jesus (00:05):
I’m Jij de Jesus.

Emma Wellman (00:06):
And I’m Emma Wellman.

Conor (00:08):
And they’re the princiPALS.

I’m Conor Bentley, and on today’s episode of princiPALS, we’ll be talking about doing school during a pandemic.

Emma (00:28):
On The PrinciPALS Podcast, we tackle big questions and share big ideas about how to raise excellent humans.

Conor (00:35):
So, we’re not in the princiPALS’ office today. It’s good to see you, Jij and Emma, and nice to be back with you, but we are obviously recording virtually on Zoom because of the pandemic. And that’s apropos because that’s what we are talking about today. But how are you two doing?

Emma (00:54):
Pretty good. Glad to see you, Conor.

Jij (00:57):
I’m also pretty good, and also glad to see you, Conor.

Conor (01:00):
It’s nice to be seen, at least on Zoom, but let’s talk about, a little bit, why, because obviously we are recording virtually because of the pandemic and that is our driving question today, relates to that very directly, which is: what are we learning about kids and ourselves as we do in-person school during a pandemic?

Emma (01:21):
Yeah, so we are very fortunate at Rowland Hall. We are one of a very small number locally, and I think nationally, too, of schools that have had on-campus learning since the start of the school year. And we are, of course, a PreK–12 school doing that here in Salt Lake City. And so I think, I hope, we will have some good perspective to share about that. This is our, as were recording this, we are in our fourteenth week of on-campus learning, which is marvelous.

Jij (01:53):
Our hope is that these important things that we’ve learned by doing school in-person, that that learning is helpful to anyone out there who’s listening.

Emma (02:02):
Another thing I want to kind of mark about that is we are so thankful to get to be on campus, because Jij and I both feel strongly that the best way, especially for younger children, to learn is when they can be on campus with their teachers, with their peers. And we recognize that that represents a kind of privilege. We're able to do school all together on campus right now because we are a school with a lot of great fortune, and that's not a small thing. So, just want to acknowledge that at the outset before we share what it is we're learning.

Conor (02:34):
And we all know how important it is, like you said, to be in person if you can, and I know that's really valuable for a lot of families and that's been a huge issue nationally, but I think it's great to acknowledge that and talk about that. And, I'm just curious—what have you learned?

Emma (02:51):
Well, we have learned a lot of things about hand sanitizer and about temperature checks and about logistics, but we are actually not here to talk about any of those things, as thrilling an episode as that would no doubt make.

I want to start by just sharing that we are learning, kind of relearning, how capable children are. They're maybe even more capable than we knew before, and it turns out that kids can live, and sometimes thrive, even in a pandemic. And sometimes they can do that even better than the grown-ups can, in my experience. Kids can cope with changes from what grown-ups think of as normal so long as those changes are pretty consistent. And so that's a lot of the focus for us at school is trying to build that consistency. And I want to acknowledge that we are hearing and learning that there's an increase in younger children, from five to eleven years old, who are needing support with respect to mental health issues. And there are a lot of reasons for that. And while we are not inoculated against those effects at Rowland Hall, I think there are some things that we are doing or that we're not doing that are helping. And in particular, I think the fact that we do get to be on campus with so many of our learners every day is really a big piece of that. And again, just trying to build in that consistency and to be connected with students so that they have the best chance to show us their high capability, I think is really a big piece of that.

In the summer, just like a concrete thing about how amazing little children are, we were very worried, especially in the Beginning School where we have preschool and kindergartners, that the youngest kiddos would not be able to wear a mask all day. We have people who are, like, just three when they come in, and they're like these little creatures wandering around still learning to use the bathroom independently, frankly, and we were going to ask them to wear masks all day long. We thought it might be really hard, and we learned very quickly, within the first week, it was totally no big thing. The teachers are wearing masks. The kids are wearing masks. It's just what we do. And lots of the older students, in the Lower School especially but even our kindergartners, can follow distancing protocols, which we weren't sure they'd really be able to keep track of that and kind of inhibit their natural inclination to be hugging each other and wrestling around, and, in fact, they can manage it really remarkably well. They are so capable, and if we set that expectation and normalize it for them, it can be no big deal.

Conor (05:31):
So what you're saying is the preschoolers should be setting examples for adults who are going to the grocery store, and it seems like they're handling it better, maybe, than some adults are.

Emma (05:44):
Totally. I mean, we keep hearing all this stuff about how terrible it is to have to wear masks for people and I am here to say if a three-year-old person can do it while they have something really exciting to tell you and they urgently need to go to the bathroom, anybody can do it. Like for sure it's a manageable request.

Conor (06:03):
Well, that's good because I get very excited about things, so that's good for me to know.

Emma (06:08):
Yes. Excitability sometimes can be an issue for me too.

Another thing that we've noticed that's been pretty amazing and totally unexpected is that often at the beginning of the year, but all the time, we would see in the Beginning and in the Lower School, I think, some trouble that children would have separating from their grown-ups at the beginning of the school day. Sometimes children would get a little worried or a little tearful and it would be kind of a stressful moment of separation. And of course, this year we have some protocols which don't allow grown-ups who are not employees to come into the building, so we've built all these other, you know, logistics for drop-off and pick-up. And we've seen that those behaviors and the sort of tumult and anxiety around separating has really diminished. Kids are, like, marching into school very confidently and getting started on their school routines in the mornings. They are really excited to run in and see friends, and it's just been a remarkable shift. Big smiles on their faces, and it's also so comforting, I'll say, for all the grown-ups who are doing the drop off because we carry our own worries in those moments of separation, and especially in a moment like this one in the world. And so getting to see these little people going off to just do school and feel great about it is, I think, a confidence booster for all the grown-ups who are then going on to do whatever they need to do for their day.

Jij (07:31):
Yeah, and I will add, you know, of all people, I think Emma and I both firmly believe in the capacity of young children and even I underestimated what kids would be able to do. Right? When we were reimagining the elaborate pick-up and drop-off procedures in the Lower School, for drop-offs we actually had a plan in place to have our social-emotional counselor, Chuck White, available at a drive-up station because we thought there was going to be an increase of need around supporting separation at the start of the day. And we did not need—not that we don't need Chuck, we always need Chuck White support. We didn't need it in that way because kids are capable and, again, like Emma said, more capable than we knew or even predicted.

Emma (08:22):
Yeah. So that's one of our big learnings this year that I think, again, as I said, it's kind of a relearning, but it's so affirming and we can take our cues as grown-ups from these little people sometimes, I think.

Conor (08:36):
That's huge to see. I mean, I think that's one thing that I know I've struggled with, and I think a lot of adults have struggled with is, you know, things are different and how do we cope with those? But I think you're right. Seeing small children able to deal with some of the strange things that are now required in the world is great to see and it's really, I think, that's—just hearing those stories makes me feel better about the fact that we can do this if we really put our thought into it and try to care about the greater good and the sense of doing things for other people.

Jij (09:16):
Well, and I'll say that, you know, these new procedures and new ways of doing school aren't actually that strange for our students at this point. Right? And I think that leads to another thing that we've learned in doing school in the midst of a pandemic, which is: good teaching is still good teaching. And if we think about all of the new routines, expectations, procedures that our students are able to demonstrate each day to keep themselves and each other safe at school, that's a result of great teaching and that's a result of our teachers being really good at what they do. Right? So our teachers help children understand the why behind positive behaviors. They model positive expectations and routines for our students and give kids lots of opportunities to practice and master new skills and use reminding and reinforcing language to make sure that kids know that they're on the right track. And with all of that, again, we think back to June, when we didn't think a three-year-old could wear a mask, and now we know that they can because they understand why, they know exactly what to do, and they get lots of support from the grown-ups who care about them here at school.

So, you know, this idea of good teaching still being good teaching, you know, plays out in lots of ways. We're seeing the engaging academics that happen throughout the day. Right? And we always think of engaging academics as this vehicle to help kids become better people. And now there's this added dimension of: engaging academics are serving as this sort of anchor of stability for our children in the midst of a really uncertain moment. So when we think about the impact of great teaching, the pandemic is really heightening the, you know, that positive impact, a positive experience for children at school. I think, just as I've had the chance to walk around the campus in the Lower School and the Beginning School, you know, the fact that school even feels like school is the result of great teaching. Right? It's a result of centering what kids need. It's a result of giving children voice and choice in their learning. It's a result of connecting with students, building classroom communities, creating academic activities that are really engaging, that push kids to think and learn and work with each other and apply what they've learned. These are all the hallmarks of great teaching and, again, we're seeing the results.

Conor (12:02):
I'm just wondering if it's creating opportunities to talk and learn about different things. You know, the pandemic has changed things, but is it offering, you know, sort of those teachable moments that we talk about a lot and things that maybe students and teachers wouldn't necessarily have addressed, but it's creating opportunities to learn and grow around new topics and new things that maybe weren't part of the curriculum or wouldn't have been a part of the curriculum if not for the pandemic?

Emma (12:37):
I mean, certainly in the Beginning School there's been a focus on, at the beginning of the year, you know, a lot of folks spent a lot of time talking about masks, and our stuffed animals got masks, and teachers would be silly and not have their mask up over their nose and then the kids would give them friendly reminders and we would sort of practice that. We read books about people who wear masks and are helping other people like superheroes and that kind of thing, and that's definitely not any curriculum that I've ever seen before this year. There's also a lot of conversation about keeping each other safe and taking care of one another, which has always been part of what we do at Rowland Hall in our social-emotional support curriculum and also when we're having conversations around social justice in developmentally appropriate ways with our students. But this year, because it's like front and center for everybody in, like, a concrete way, I think that's fostered, that’s sort of sparked a number of conversations about how we want to all be people who take care of each other. And so we wear masks and we wash hands and we, you know, make different choices about what to do in our personal lives, that kind of thing.

What do you see, Jij? Does that line up with what you see in the Lower School?

Jij (13:51):
For sure. And, you know, we've had a range of fifth graders who designed Chapel services, virtual Chapel services, to share with Lower School students how they can take care of each other and themselves in this very different sort of moment. We've had Lower School students create songs and posters that they wanted to share. And these were not things that we told students to do. Right? These are things that kids recognize at the moment. They knew that taking care of one another and being part of a strong community are just values that we hold as a school. And they saw an opportunity, self-identified an opportunity, to share those out in different ways. And that, to me, that's great teaching because kids are taking ideas and applying them in new and novel ways.

Emma (14:48):
Oh, you know, another thing I'm thinking about when I think about great teaching being great teaching is we had a lot of questions as a Beginning School team, as a faculty, about whether kids would be sort of ready to come back and do school. You know, these are pretty young kids. Many of them went to distance learning for, you know, the back half of the school year, which represented a pretty good chunk of their experience in school at all, and so we were not sure. You know, and that went in lots of different kinds of ways for different families. It was a lot to manage and juggle. And what we found is that these kids were so ready to come to school and learn stuff and be with one another and connect with their teachers. And so it was, I think, a comforting fact for teachers and really affirming that they could just use their same teaching skills that they always know to use and that are going to be effective with young students in that way again. It's sort of business as usual.

Jij (15:54):
There was also a lot of worry about what curriculum or what academics kids would miss and if kids would show up and come back to on-campus school with these big academic gaps and, you know, again, great teaching is great teaching. Our teachers used some assessments early on to just see where everyone is upon return back to campus and have the ability, and have had the ability, to tailor their instruction and their support based on where kids came back. And, you know, what we're seeing is there weren't these massive gaps. Certainly some areas where kids needed targeted support because their experiences they had in the spring were just different than in previous years.

Emma (16:40):
Another thing that we are learning—and again, this is one where we're kind of relearning it, but it's even more true in this moment—is that community is key. And you know, at Rowland Hall we talk a lot about community as being something that defines our school, and I know it defines lots of school communities as well. And whether you're new to the school or you've been around for 35 years, I think that's something that people value and really resonates for them. And we would not be on campus doing what we're doing were it not for the strength of our community. We have so many people who have bought into this project of having kids on campus learning with their teachers safely and all the work that goes into that. And it requires lots of hard work and some sacrifices for folks, too, and we are appreciative of that. And it's worth it in my view.

You know, this virus spreads when we are close to one another, when we are physically close. And what we're learning is that, at this time of year anyway, it seems to be spreading amongst people who are emotionally close with one another too: friends, families, neighbors who are getting together indoors and wanting to connect and be together in this moment. And so it's really painful, frankly, that that's actually some of the riskiest behavior right now. It can be a challenge. And so a question for us at school early in the year, and an ongoing project for us, is how do we build community when we need to be farther apart? How do we keep people connected emotionally when we can't be together physically? And so we make a distinction at school often between physical distancing and social distancing, like we can be social creatures who are holding each other and connected and having fun while being physically, you know, staying six feet away from each other. And that's something that we're trying to do creative thinking about in terms of virtual events for our grown-ups and, similarly, kind of virtual events for our kiddos. One thing that we notice globally right now is that there can be a tendency for people, and also just like the reality of life right now, can make you feel kind of lonely and isolated.

Jij (19:01):
So interestingly enough, Emma, there's some research done by this professor at UC Berkeley, his name's Dacher Keltner, and he studies the science of happiness. And essentially happiness is inextricably linked to having strong social connections and contributing to something bigger than yourself, contributing to the greater good. In this moment when community is key, I think that research explains why. Right? That being connected, contributing something that's bigger than ourselves is really important to avoid this sense of loneliness or isolation or, sometimes, despair that can, you know, that we can sometimes experience in the midst of this pandemic.

Conor (19:47):
Well, I would say to that, because I personally am a very social person and I've struggled with that a lot because it is hard, people want to get together and do things that they've always done. And I think that this is the component for me that has been the most difficult, is trying to be creative about how to still socialize with people, but adhere to the protocols that we need to have in place to keep people safe.

Emma (20:14):
That's like a really good segue into the homework, but before we go into the homework, my educator brain tells me we better review the big ideas. So I'm just going to say them again to make sure people remember them. So the first one is, you know: kids are really capable, even more capable than we knew before. And: good teaching is still good teaching. And: community is key.

Conor (20:39):
Like any typical princiPALS podcast, we have to have some homework, and even though we're virtual, we can still do homework virtually.

Emma (20:48):
Oh sure. So, as always, we have a few different homework opportunities for our many, many listeners. The first is an invitation to attend to your attention. And this is really kind of a reframing opportunity for folks, and I know it's something that I am always working on. And so I'm not saying, I'm not sharing this homework because it's something that I claim to have mastered yet, but it's at least something that I know is valuable for the work I do with young children. I think it'll be valuable for parents and caregivers too. So just thinking about what you're spending your time thinking about, noticing what you're reading, being mindful of how many minutes a day you are doomscrolling. I would strongly advocate that you try to really not do very much doomscrolling at all, though I understand that happens to me too. You know, with the pandemic and the election and heightened urgency around work we need to do with respect to racial justice in this country and the post-election now, too, there is a lot to feel down about and challenged by and overwhelmed by. And that's all real; I'm not saying it's not real, for sure. And there’s stuff that we can do when we think about it to try to right-size it and to direct our attention and energy in a more positive light. It can be really easy in a moment like this one to center feelings like worry and loss and uncertainty and to to tell ourselves over and over again, like, “This is so hard. This is so hard.” And I think, again, while that's real, it’s also really effective to tell yourself that you can do it. I have a, one of our veteran 4PreK teachers who is regularly quoted because she says, “This is hard, and we can do hard things.” And usually she says that to people who are four about, like, tying their shoes or putting on a glove independently, but these days she often says it to her colleagues, you know, about all the different things that we're trying to do as grown-ups to support our little learners. And it's really true: spending time monitoring your own thoughts and driving them toward some more positivity and senses of empowerment where you can, I think is really effective.

Jij (23:06):
And I'll just chime in—and this is from my parent perspective—it’s been beneficial for me to pay attention to what my kids are paying attention to because that can help me center the right sorts of things. So, you know, my kids, my children at home, are not centering things like worry and difficulty and frustration and fatigue all the time. Right? They're thinking about puzzles and our pandemic pet, our guinea pig, Sasha. And they're thinking about the game Sushi Go! and rubber band braiding. These are things, you know, if I center positive things, then it’s helpful for me and, in turn, helpful for my children or people I'm working with.

I think the next bit of homework is, you know, thinking about this idea that great teaching is great teaching, I think there are things that we do as parents and caregivers that are good for kids, and we've been doing them for a long time. So I think the next bit of homework is just to keep doing the same things that you've always done that are good for your kids. Right? And I would encourage parents and caregivers and listeners to start with what kids need. And kids have, I think, three basic needs: their needs around significance, belonging, and fun. And if we think about those, then, you know, then we can really set them up for success and we can create things that help them feel secure, like building in routines and structures and predictability.

Emma (24:43):
You know, you're right, Jij, and I think that's true for grown-ups, for everybody right now. Finding opportunities for belonging is so important. And that leads me to the third bit of homework, which is to actively seek opportunities for community. And as I said a few minutes ago, like, this is a time when community is super extra important and it's super extra hard to find it and to feel connected to folks. And so this one does take some work, but it wouldn't be homework if it didn't take some effort. And I have a couple of, again, strategies that I'm trying to use in my own life as well. One of them is to really find ways to help other people. It's easy in this moment to get bogged down with, like, all the stuff that feels hard about my life and the things that I need to do that are different or the worries that I have for my family members or for my colleagues and friends. And so one way to channel that in a helpful and productive way, but also to kind of put it on the back burner, is to think of things that I can do to help other people and to busy myself with those things. Because even though it feels like I'm super stretched and I'm busy, sometimes it can be like a balm on that unsettled feeling to go do something nice for someone else. It makes me feel good, it makes them feel good, and I also feel like I've done something in the world that's made a difference, which can be really important in times like these.

Conor (26:11):
I did something like that early on in the pandemic. I was kind of feeling cut off and I just took a Friday morning off from work and I delivered donuts to some friends and just went around and stopped and dropped them off and said hi from a safe distance. And they were really happy to have a donut and hopefully to see me, and I was really happy to see them and get out of the house because I think it's hard. It's, you know, we are doing things differently. But I like to think of it, too, as, you know, I mow the lawn in the summertime on Wednesdays, and then I don't mow the lawn when it's not nice out and in the wintertime. And so, that's different, but it's not necessarily bad, it's just different. I don't do it all year-round. And the same thing with some of these things that we're doing during the pandemic, we don't, necessarily, are going to do them forever, but we're doing them right now because we have to.

Emma (27:03):
Yeah, that's really true and that reminds me of the sort of the reframing piece, too, and like all of these homework opportunities kind of go together. I mean, I think it's about, like, intentionally making choices rather than just letting the world wash over you in the moments when you can make a choice towards something, then I think that's helpful. The other thing I'll just point out in terms of opportunities for community is that, you know, there are so many ways to connect with other people, you know, because we're lucky to be doing a pandemic when we also have the Internet. And so even though it might seem tricky because it's sort of different and it's not automatic, like I can't just walk outside my door and hang out with people necessarily, there are plenty of ways to get involved and get connected with other people. And, in fact, in some ways it's easier to get connected with people all around the world. A quick example is that we just had an evening, like parent/caregiver education event on Zoom, and there were folks who were able to participate in that event from all across the country who normally would never have been able to be there because we would have done it in person. So there are definitely opportunities to connect that aren't normally there.

Conor (28:27):
So let's just quickly review what the homework is, just in case people need a quick refresher before we go.

Jij (28:33):
So, yes, let's review our homework. So we encourage you to reframe your perspective and attend to your attention. Don't just pay attention to all of the difficulty and challenge; find those moments and opportunities to see joy and opportunity in this moment. Next is, as parents and caregivers, do the same things you've always done to benefit your children. Right? And again, starting with what your kids need, those needs of significance, belonging, and fun. And then, finally, seek opportunities for community. And we know it can be harder to do so in these times and, with a little effort, those opportunities exist and they're out there. So if we do those things for homework, I think we're going to be set up well for moving forward, regardless of what's going on in the world.

Conor (29:31):
Well, for more information and resources from this podcast, as well as the other episodes of princiPALS, you can go to rowlandhall.org/podcast. You can download the podcast at Apple Podcasts or on Stitcher.

And until next time, I'm Conor Bentley.

Jij (29:50):
I'm Jij de Jesus.

Emma (29:51):
I’m Emma Wellman.

Conor (29:53):
And they're the princiPALS.


About Jij de Jesus
Jij de Jesus is the Lower School principal at Rowland Hall, an independent private school in Salt Lake City, Utah. Prior to Rowland Hall, Jij worked at Town School for Boys in San Francisco, where he held a number of leadership positions, most notably as director of the Exploration of New Ideas program, and was a fourth-grade teacher. He began his career in experiential education by leading wilderness trips. Jij holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Northwestern University and a master’s of education in private school leadership from the University of Hawaii.

About Emma Wellman
Emma Wellman is the Beginning School principal at Rowland Hall. Emma joined Rowland Hall in July 2018 after working as a teacher and administrator at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Emma has also been an adjunct instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago and the owner of a childcare business, Banana Mashers. She holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of Michigan and a master’s in child development from the Erikson Institute.

About Conor Bentley ’01
Conor Bentley is a graduate of Rowland Hall’s class of 2001. He holds a master’s degree in education, works in higher education, and has produced several podcasts, including the public-radio parody
Consider Our Knowledge.

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