S1: Jen, Marcus Morris is exactly the person you want your tween to have as a school counselor.
S2: I love middle school students. There’s so warped, there’s so warped.
S1: I just love a warped. Warped. Yes, they’re warped and all the best ways.
S3: It’s funny because I have such strong memories of middle school, like, I think I could smell my middle school right now if I wanted to, like at that school lunch smells and like adolescent sweat or acts. Oh my gosh. I think I to be banned from the that. Jan works in Elkhart County, Indiana. We are the RV capital of the world, lot of RV industries and lots of manufacturing in our county. Usually this time of year, Jen’s kids are getting ready for the big eighth grade dance. I hate this, but it’s like the mini prom this year, though, no one’s reserving limousine’s covid took care of that, and we always have that in February.
S4: And so there isn’t that right now.
S1: Jan’s district has tried doing school just about every way school is possible. They’ve done it virtually. Then they brought the kids back first at four days a week, then just too around the holidays. They went back to Zoom. Then they opened the buildings up for younger kids.
S2: And so our 7th through 12th graders just came back last Tuesday. And what a roller coaster. Oh, it has been a roller coaster.
S1: I haven’t been allowed into my kid’s school building since last year. As I spoke to Jan, it was hard not to feel nostalgic for what I could overhear. The bell, the Pledge of Allegiance, the way a kid’s voice can bounce off linoleum.
S5: You described how the kids are coming back like the school must feel pretty full. Do you feel like you’re back to normal?
S2: No, we’re not back to normal. We do have kids in the building, which is wonderful, but nothing is normal about this year.
S6: Today on the show, the president is pushing for all kids to get back to school and the CDC is saying it can be safe. I called up Jan because I wanted to know what kids are going to find once they get there. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.
S5: Do you have like a metric you use for measuring how your kids are doing? I mean, like when when I go to the grocery store, like I have a couple of items, I always check the price and it’s like my temperature check for the store. I wonder if you have the same thing for your kids, either on an individual level or a global level.
S2: Well, I went in to the classrooms into my sixth grade classrooms prior to Christmas because my superintendent said, can you just help prepare teachers to talk with students about what’s coming up and give them the sense of hope that things are going to get better? That’s a tall order. Yeah, I said I will prepare my teachers to do that and how to, you know, to work with my students. But I want to go in the classroom and I want to talk with my kids and I want to take that temperature that you’re talking about. So I went into the classroom and I did my little talking about different things that were going on and and how we feel about that. And then I said, I want you to do something for me. And I made them sit so that their bodies were straight in their chair and facing me. And I said this. I’m going to ask you to do something. And I don’t want you to look at anybody else when I ask you to do this, because I want you to respect the privacy of everybody else said, but I want you to put your hand on your chest. And so, you know, everybody puts their hand on their chest. And I said, I want you to show me with one through five by showing on your fingers, one through five, how you are feeling right now emotionally. Are you stressed? You know, where are you right now? And I said, one means it’s the pits. You feel terrible. And five is you’re feeling pretty good. And I was the first time I did it, I did it on a whim. I hadn’t planned to do it. And and it was so powerful. I had to do it every single time. I just didn’t know what the kids would give me. And I had I had a few zeros and and I had a number of ones and twos. And I would I would say the majority of kids would give me a three and then some fourth and fives. And so then I would talk about I would tell them this is what I saw in your classroom and what I would say to the people who are feeling like a four and a five is I am so glad that things are feeling better for you and calm for you and whatever. And I say, but I want you to think about the fact that in your class there are your peers who feel that life is not as as a four to five and they’re feeling ones and twos. And I want you to be aware that not everybody feels the same way you feel right now. And so let’s give compassion and kindness and to our to our classmates in a very difficult time. And then to the I would say and if you showed a zero or a one or two, I want to tell you that I am here for you. Your school counselors are here for you. Your teachers are here for you. And if you want to talk about anything that’s going on for you, we we would love to to hear what you know and listen. And I would say I can’t solve all the things going on, all the problems, the difficulties for you. I can’t solve that, but I sure can.
S5: Listen, what’s interesting to me about that story is that. I feel like we’re in this moment where there’s a lot of focus on just getting the kids back to school because so many school districts aren’t like yours, the kids are home. They’re learning virtually. And that’s seen as an end point, like a good unto itself, which you can argue it is. But listening to that story. You realize it’s just really the first step, right?
S2: There’s so much going on, they haven’t put anything else behind them. There’s still you know, they’re still students struggling with anxiety. Anxiety has been off the chart. There’s still students who have those traumas going on within the home that they can’t even escape from. You have kids who are still battling traumatic past history. Right. Or just not being able to to get out and do anything or they’re just sucked into this vortex of the Internet that they can’t escape from. So it’s good on one hand, but it’s so not on the other.
S1: As a school counselor, Jan is used to dealing with trauma. She helps kids individually and in groups to deal with whatever it is that they’re going through, family changes, self-esteem problems. covid has been something else. In some sense. Her kids were lucky. The school already provides laptops and iPads for each kid. So when they went remote last year, at least they had access to technology, but they were still dealing with all the challenges. Everyone else was families who didn’t have Internet or not enough Internet families too overwhelmed to get their kids online.
S2: That’s when Jan and some colleagues started going door to door, some of our families, I will just say that I believe our families, our parents always do the best they can with the tools they have. One family I went to had like there are six children, seven children in the home that need to be on their devices at the same time. And their Wi-Fi is not working to handle the demands of all that. And then some.
S5: No one’s wi fi could handle that, I feel like.
S2: Yeah, exactly. We never want to scold a family because we want to embrace them. If we scold, then that’s just going to push them further away from us. Right. So we have to find ways to connect with them and whatever way possible. And so going and knocking on the doors would find us. Would help find what what what do families need? And then we would have other families that would just continue. They would not answer the door. They would not be receptive to us because they just for whatever reason, needed to continue to get to maintain that barrier. Right. So we would just have to keep trying. You have to keep trying because you can’t give up. You can’t say we’re going to write them off because it’s getting too hard to work with. We’ll know. These are these are human beings we’re talking about. These are kids we’re talking about. And we have to keep trying and keep leaving the door open.
S5: That’s such an empathetic way to see it that just they needed to have that door closed and. You don’t want them to have the door closed, but you understand it’s so complicated.
S2: It just is. Our families are dealing with a lot.
S5: You know, you’re used to meeting in the middle ground of the school. It’s like the neutral territory. Everyone goes there. No one lives there. But some school opened up this whole new way of seeing each other and seeing your students.
S2: Right. You see into their lives. You see pieces. You see you’re you’re invading someone’s private space. And you you get you get a different, you know, just a fuller picture of what’s going on for our students, which in some ways is a good thing for our teachers because it just helps them understand what our kids are dealing with that you may not pick up on in the school setting.
S5: Is there any way that you look at this pandemic time and this window into the kids’ worlds? And think it’ll make you a more perceptive counselor moving forward or make the teachers see the students differently. In the years ahead?
S2: Gosh, I hope so. I have one teacher who she has driven by the home of every single one of her students because she wants to have a window into their world. And it was she it just gave her she just understands her kids better. She just has a better picture of them. And through the pandemic and through the online class structure, there’s an awakening and an awareness of the importance of doing something that helps connect our students in that social emotional piece of of just having fun. Oh, my gosh. We’ve lost the ability to have fun at school. And I think when we come back into the normal life of school, that that piece, I hope that piece does not go away because that I just think makes all the difference, all the difference. No matter what school is like, it makes all the difference.
S6: When we come back, why the new normal in Jans school isn’t normal at all.
S1: Jan’s sixth grade students have been back in the building for a few weeks now. The older kids just join them, so the building’s pretty full, but her school is working a little differently. The kids have to wash their hands and use sanitizer on their way in and out of classrooms. And the teachers have to wipe everything down every time classes change.
S2: When I have a student in my office, as soon as they leave, I have to spray down all the the space that they’ve been in. And so I have to make sure that they’re sitting in a chair that can be sprayed so my kids can’t sit in a cloth chair. They have to sit in a plastic chair. They’re there at my cushy chair, no cushy chair. I have them, but they can’t sit in them, you know? And so it’s it’s very not normal when I go into the classroom to teach and I have to think about how I design my lesson, because normally we would try to do a lot of interactions with students and lots of movement and getting get them in small group. Right. And so now I have to adjust my thinking. And how can you keep students engaged and how can you still have that interaction but design things so that they feel safe to the students and they feel safe? If a parent were to ask or feel safe to me in presenting it and so that I feel like I’m not doing a disservice to my kids, but they also just want to be middle schoolers. So you, you know, you can bet that as well. And you want them to be able to have that. It’s kind of hard to how some of the things that you normally would want to put a stop to you just you kind of ignore because you want kids to have that normal kind of experience. I don’t know how to explain that, but it’s it’s tough.
S5: Yeah. I mean, I think about middle schoolers. They, like, touch each other all the time. All the time. Like, all the time. Yeah.
S1: But as kids come back to the school building, they are bringing new anxieties with them.
S2: With our seventh and eighth graders coming back in, we had some kids who were the anxiety level was really, really high in my seventh and eighth grade colleagues were because they were worried that there would be more kids in the school and would be more dangerous, more kids in the school, more exposure, and then the anxiety of having been isolated for so long and coming back in with large groups of people and like being surrounded by people that upped the anxiety level as well. So my colleagues have been it’s been a revolving door in their office with the seventh and eighth graders coming back, some due to anxiety, some due to I had one colleague who said, OK, first student in my office today, he has never access to school counselor in his life. And he just had to talk to somebody because he just had to talk to somebody. He hasn’t talked to anybody for the longest time and he needed an adult who could just listen to him. That’s heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking. It is so many things we we forget about and we take for granted. And then there are other kids who don’t really want a hands off. Don’t, don’t, don’t even talk to me, just like leave me alone. But other students who are just hungry, hungry for that human connection, human that hungry to be in the same room with a caring adult as opposed to having a computer between you.
S1: This anxiety isn’t limited to students. The teachers are worried, too. Jen got a hint of what was coming when her district got ready to open its doors. She got groups of teachers together and ran some of the same exercises she does with the kids, took their emotional temperature.
S2: So one of the things that happened in the group that I was in is when when they talked about their fears, they talked about, you know, I, I, I’m afraid people aren’t going to mask up. I’m afraid kids aren’t going to mask up. I’m afraid of getting sick. And and then we would have another teacher say when she would hear she had her mask below her nose during this meeting for part of it. And then when people were sharing how afraid they were and how scared they were of people not wearing their masks and not respecting other people’s emotions, she put her milk up over her nose and she said, I have to apologize to you because she she had been her family. It’s like I don’t know if they’re farming family or whatever, but they just haven’t been worried about it. They think masking was kind of not needed and they very nonchalant about it and didn’t didn’t see the importance of it. And while she was listening to these teachers and hearing the fears that they had, she began to understand that not everybody feels the same way you do. She began to understand how afraid her colleagues were, and it shifted the way she was prepared to come into the school and and maneuver. Right. So she gained a newfound respect for the struggles that other people were having.
S5: Well, it’s interesting to hear that story because it’s a story from the beginning of the year. And I feel like, you know, I have a kid in middle school. And I can see the cracks a little bit now in the teachers now that we’re almost halfway through the year. I wonder if you’re seeing that, too, and you’re thinking. Like, how are we going to keep doing this, how is this how are we going to sustain this sort of state of emergency that we’ve been in?
S2: I have seen the cracks very early on because it’s been very hard for our teachers. And and when they were doing the dance of on a regular basis of having half of your class in front of you and half of your class at home and teaching them at the same time as so doggone hard and having teachers in tears and thinking, I don’t know if I can continue. I don’t know if I can finish out the year. I don’t know if I’m coming back next year. I don’t know if teaching is for me, you know, and then having their kids fall apart online right before Christmas. Some of our eighth grade teachers are like, what are we going to do for our kids and what are we going to do for our staff when we come back from from winter break? Because our kids I had, you know, three kids who broke down on our swim class today and what are we going to do? And so they’re carrying that weight. So that’s been something that’s been on my mind constantly because, you know, normally we take care of the kids, but we also have to be aware of what’s going on with our staff, because if our staff fall apart, we have nothing. I mean, we have nothing.
S5: It sounds like there’s so much focus on going back to school for the kids. But you’re wondering a little bit like who’s going to be there for them when all these kids come back, will there be enough of them? Will they be in OK shape?
S2: Exactly. Will they be in OK shape? That’s my greatest concern, because how how can you function if you’re not in OK shape and kids are falling apart in front of you and you just want to fall apart inside?
S7: It’s funny because I think of middle school as being this time of tremendous change when kids are kind of pupils again and their environment is so important and their environment is school. And I wonder if you think at all about how this year, this point, more than one year probably. How it’s going to change. The teachers and the kids, but mostly the kids, because they’re at such a tender age, how it could change them permanently, they’re missing out on some very key developmental opportunities.
S2: Things that help them grow into the human beings are going to be eventually. And there are all these trials and errors that you’re supposed to experience that they’re not exposed to just in the balancing of relationships and and, you know, the conflicts that arise and how to how to work out those conflicts face to face or, you know, with people that are in your presence and the fact that our students are so isolated, will they become so comfortable with being isolated that they don’t even know the importance of of community because they’ve never experienced it?
S5: I’ve been having this debate with a friend of mine about school and when it will be back to normal. Like I you I feel the goalposts keep moving. And so I’m going to ask you. Do you think in the fall school’s going to open up the way it used to?
S2: I hope so. I hope so. Do I think it will?
S8: I think we’re going to get to a point where we can’t we can’t hold off any longer from bringing students back into schools and trying to have life as normal. I think there’s going to come a time where we just have to say we have to we have to keep moving forward. The dam will break. The dam will break. I think we you know, they there’s only there’s only so long that we can continue to do it the way we’re doing it right now.
S2: I was thinking about I don’t know if this story will connect at all or not, but a long time ago I heard a story about a polar bear and the polar bear was in a zoo, some kind of confined setting. And they were worried about the polar bear because it had started to have some very erratic behavior where it would just swim in a figure eight pattern. That’s all it was doing. It was just swimming in this figure eight pattern. And they didn’t know what was happening because it was it was different behavior and it was prolonged behavior. And they were basically worried about the mental health of this polar bear. And what what they what they ended up doing was they would allow the polar bear to hunt. And it changed everything for the polar bear, like like it was it was manic when it was doing the figure eights. It was manic. It was it was going crazy.
S5: So you’re seeing your middle schoolers swimming figurines right now.
S2: I, I feel that we are getting to the point where they will be swimming and figure eights. They’re not there yet. But I feel like if we keep if we keep isolating our kids, if we keep isolating human beings, they’re all going to be figured. You know, swimming invigorates.
S8: And I feel like at some point we’re going to have to get back into school to preempt that. And I say that knowing that there are people and friends that I have who do not want to go back to school because they are afraid and maybe they’re at high risk and I am not going to tell them that that’s how they should feel. But I just feel like at some point it’s going to come to it’s going to critical mass. We’re going to have to do something and we’re not going to like it. We’re just going to have to push through it.
S2: Jandamarra Morris, thank you for joining me. Thank you, Mary. It’s been a pleasure.
S1: Jandamarra Morse is a school counselor in Goshen, Indiana. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Davis Land, Mary Wilson, Alaina Schwartz and Danielle Hewett. We are led each and every day by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. If you’re wondering why everyone keeps talking about GameStop and the stock market, keep your eyes peeled for tomorrow’s episode of What Next? TBD with Lizzie O’Leary. I’ll be listening. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll catch you back here Monday.