Relationship Centered Learning in the Remote Learning Era
Special Guest Column by Horizon Principal Dr. Faye Britt
Kicking off the 2019-20 school year with 700 of our Ferndale staff in the same place at the same time was designed to unify all of our district employees and allow all members of our team to hear and experience the mission of our district, together. At the heart of the kick-off of the 2019-20 school year, which admittedly feels like a very long time ago, was the overarching theme: “FerndaleCARES”. The premise of FerndaleCARES has been the guide that has kept us focused on our true north for many years. We know that students don’t want to learn from someone they don’t like. As James Comer, famous child psychologist, once said, “no significant learning can occur without a significant relationship”. Rather, it’s the result of human relationships and individual connections.
When we think about education, we tend to think about the importance of academic success and learning, and yet, all academic learning is truly centered around relationships and social-emotional learning. An absence of social-emotional skills hinders the act of learning itself. As a district, we have long recognized the value of incorporating social and emotional learning into our daily lives. We invested in elementary counselors to provide support to our youngest learners as they navigate the transition to school and the intricacies of learning collaboratively, and a social-emotional coordinator to oversee both the counseling programs and the social-emotional education throughout the district.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Patti Hoelzle, our district social-emotional coordinator, to talk about the importance of teaching foundational social-emotional skills and how that teaching has helped, and will help, our students throughout the pandemic. Follow our narrative below as we share the importance of this work in Ferndale for all of our Ferndale students.
Patti’s love of Ferndale runs particularly deep as she was raised here and is a proud alum of Skyline Elementary, Vista Middle School, and graduated a Ferndale Golden Eagle, where she let her wings take her to the East Side of our state and graduated as a Cougar, before returning to WWU to earn her Masters in School Counseling. Patti is entering her 14th year as our Head Volleyball coach and resides around the corner from her childhood home here in Ferndale. Patti cares deeply about the pride that we continue to build and foster in our town, our children, and our collective future TOGETHER.
Beginning in September 2019, all of our K-8 students participated in Second Step lessons, taught by either their classroom teacher (K-5) or their advisor (6-8), supported by our school counseling and para-educator staff. These lessons are 30-minutes, research- and evidence-based, and follow a curriculum that builds upon itself, both throughout the year as well as from year-to-year, with developmentally appropriate content. As Patti Hoelzle shared, Second Step is “more than just a half hour of lessons”. Patti continued that because all of our teachers and support staff teach the Second Step content, the use of social-emotional language has become the norm in classrooms and school buildings. At Ferndale High School, the staff has used OSPI’s social-emotional learning modules to strengthen their understanding of social-emotional learning and threaded the standards into their school improvement plan. Using the Character Strong premise, FHS has focused on monthly character traits, as well as weekly Character Dares with all students, while also reaching out and including families in this process.
Teaching and reinforcing social-emotional skills is the responsibility of all educators in the Ferndale School District, and by teaching these skills our students are in a place where they are better able to, as Patti shared, “adapt and respond in a healthy way alongside what their families are already teaching and reinforcing at home”. When we continue to reinforce the use of social-emotional skills in our academic lessons, our students have multiple opportunities to learn and grow.
In hindsight, while prioritizing the teaching of social-emotional learning skills is the right thing to do, it has also created a healthy foundation for our students to navigate and manage the current pandemic. Patti explained how their understanding of the need for these skills, as well as their ability to apply them in trying situations is exactly what will help them transition back from this very difficult time. Teaching all students the skills necessary to cope in stressful situations, how to problem-solve through conflict, and how to shift negative mindsets in a proactive way is the best possible way to prevent mental health struggles throughout one’s life. We also know that while employers are looking for talent in their field, in order to be successful in a career, our students need to master, demonstrate, and be able to use flexibly their interpersonal conflict and social skills. Without these skills, too, our students will struggle to maintain healthy and positive friendships and relationships.
Mindfulness practice is a powerful tool to use to reduce anxiety, strengthen our attention to the present, and reduce our level of stress to allow us to handle challenges, conflicts, and difficult situations. When we get stressed, our minds will tend toward distraction as they search for the danger in a situation, Patti explained. When we take the time to intentionally practice mindfulness each day, Patti shared that it gives us a chance to help rewire our brains, keep ourselves calm, and ground ourselves in the present. Mindfulness also allows us to increase our focus and attention throughout the day, making us more productive and efficient in our work.
Once our school buildings closed, Patti immediately acknowledged that the level of stress our staff were, or would, experience had the potential of being immense. She recognized that just like the oxygen mask analogy where we put it on before helping someone else, we needed to take care of ourselves, before we would be able to take care of each other and our students and families. Consequently, Patti figured out before many of us, how to use Zoom and scheduled a time each day to lead and provide a mindfulness practice for all of our district staff, which gives people a chance to come together to decompress, breathe, and release stress. Patti shared that she perceives the daily mindfulness to be a “gift of gratitude for the hard work and amazing ways our staff is showing up for our students and families throughout the pandemic”.
As time has progressed, Patti and her counseling team, noticed the need to support parents, grandparents, and families through the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order, not just students, because families may lack the opportunity to reach out and connect with their support networks.
Stephen Wallinger, one of our elementary counselors, explained that the counseling team understands the various levels at which the pandemic is having an impact on all of us, and they want to use their skills and experiences to help families and students navigate this very trying time. Patti’s team problem-solved and became creative in the ways that they could support our families and established weekly SOS coffee meetings (save our sanity) for both elementary and secondary families, as often each group has slightly different needs and concerns. The counseling team is also offering to connect 1:1 with families who would rather have more of a private conversation. If you are interested in any of these supports, please visit our webpage to learn more: SOS.
As a district, FerndaleCARES about our students and about you. Stephen shared that the common themes our families are experiencing during this time include a sense of worry for the health and safety of family members and loved ones. We want to make sure that we take care of each other and support each other through this crisis. If our counseling team, principals, or teachers can help in any way, please don’t hesitate to reach out; we are here to support the social and emotional needs of our community as we navigate this unprecedented time that no one has prepared us for. Please take care of yourselves, stay healthy, and let us know if we can help.
Faye Britt has been an educator for 24-years, and has been Principal of Horizon Middle School since July, 2015. Faye holds a doctoral degree in education, loves to write, and truly believes in the importance and power of lifelong learning. Faye lives in Ferndale with her husband, Michael and their three cats. Faye is an avid marathon runner and can often be seen running on the Whatcom County roads and trails in preparation for her next race – she currently has her sights set on her 12th consecutive Boston Marathon, which has been rescheduled for September 14th.
This guest column is part of a blog series documenting life in the Ferndale School District during the 2020 School Closure. Watch for more coming soon.