The Importance of Ritual and Community During COVID-19

Andrew C. McMillan
Andrew C. McMillan
High School Principal; Ed.D. in Educational Administration

Educators often remark when dealing with a unique situation or challenge, “They didn’t teach us that in college,” or “You won’t learn that from a book.” If you stay in the education profession long enough, you might find yourself uttering the same phrase or reflecting back on a situation that was new or unprecedented. Since early March, schools nationally have been gripped by the pandemic known as COVID-19. Educators have experienced massive upheaval as traditional classroom instruction moved to online formats in an effort to help stop the spread of the virus. As millions of students across the world learn through multiple virtual formats, the importance of building community and keeping rituals and routines alive is more meaningful than ever.

Why Students Need Ritual and Community

Successful and engaging classrooms are those which have clear and established routines, rituals, and procedures. Students thrive on consistency, and master teachers utilize creative ways to build these routines and procedures, oftentimes without students even realizing the fun or unique model the teacher has created is subconsciously providing them with the necessary support structure to be successful. Routines and rituals help reduce anxiety and stress and establish norms for success.

Moreover, great classrooms have a sense of community, in which students have assigned roles, feel welcomed and comfortable, and take ownership in the success of the classroom. During COVID-19, traditional methods of building community and keeping rituals and routines alive have caused teachers to become more innovative, reflective, and creative than ever. Millions of teachers around the world have resorted to utilizing multiple strategies to try and keep a sense of community alive as students learn from home.

Strategies to Promote Ritual and Community

As school leaders cope with building closures, students have lost the great equalizer in education: the schoolhouse. 21st-century schools are so much more than institutions of learning. Schools provide necessary resources for students, parents, faculty, staff, and community members. Specifically, community schools in rural areas all across the nation have now been turned into meal providers, wireless internet providers, and staging areas for community healthcare services.

As teachers take all this into account, they constantly amaze me at their levels of ingenuity. Teachers are innovators, and at no time is this more apparent than now. Over the last nine weeks, I have witnessed awe-inspiring teaching displays of educators who simply love their students and are devastated by the fact their school year ended abruptly. To counteract this, there are several strategies to continue to promote the sense of community and rituals in the virtual setting.

Establish Office Hours, Schedule Lesson Times, and Encourage Student Routines

To keep students in a familiar pattern, encourage them to set and keep a routine, which includes waking up at a certain time, scheduling time in the day to work on different subjects, spending time outdoors, and taking time for themselves. In conjunction, teachers should set clear “office hours” in which they are available to students to answer emails, video chat, or conference with them. Teachers should offer themselves multiple times per day, all based on students’ needs. As educational leaders, understand the power of giving teachers the flexibility to choose what works for them.

Understand Technology (Or Lack Thereof)

COVID-19 has made the lack of technology around our nation painfully obvious. As schools and districts move to online learning, the glaring omission of technology in our rural areas has proved problematic. Teachers must be aware of the limitations their students have and utilize other strategies. Google Voice calls, hand-written notes, and appropriate social-distancing home visits are all great ways to encourage and motivate students who may not be able to participate in Google Meets or Hangouts because of their physical location.

Keep Community Alive

Great classrooms showcase student empowerment and promote student safety, well-being, and comfort. Although the physical school building has been removed, teachers must continue to build community in new ways. Recently, my school’s Theatre Director organized a birthday drive-thru, where members of the school’s performing cast sang an excerpt from an upcoming show at another cast member’s house on his birthday. I was invited to attend and sat in awe from my car, watching as teenagers, (who often get little to no credit for being extraordinary human beings) joined in song with this young man, and then broke into a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”

As I watched the young man cry tears of joy, it struck me how difficult this process has been for our students. I hope that when this pandemic ends, we all realize how much we took for granted. Keeping alive the tradition of celebrations and other rituals will only help to ease the social and emotional learning challenges many students face daily, now magnified by the fear and unknown of COVID-19.

Communicate Clearly

Great teachers make student-centered decisions, putting students first at all times. During these difficult times, it is critically important to communicate clearly, often, and truthfully. Being honest with students and admitting that we don’t have all the answers, while remembering compassion and empathy for all those involved, will only further solidify the continued commitment to community.

Although the physical buildings are closed, remembering and keeping important routines, rituals, and a sense of community alive can help students get through the fear, anxiety, and uncertainty which COVID-19 brings. We are all in this together, and only together will we be able to move past these unprecedented times.

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