MARIO Learning Letter

Aug 12 2022

“Don’t offer a lecture to a person who needs a hug” – Funmi Iyanda

Dear fellow educators,

As I write, it is nearing the end of the much-needed summer break after our third COVID teaching year. This pandemic has brought about so much hand-wringing stress and disorienting change to those in our line of work; I’ve ceased to think in terms of ‘years AD’ and am now measuring the passage of time in ‘years PP’ (post-pandemic). As in, “Maybe in 4 PP we’ll be teaching face-to-face for the whole year.” Or, “I wonder if I’ll be able to visit my friends in Tasmania/Beijing/Romania by 5 PP.” It would be comical if this were the plot of a new dystopian Netflix show and all the characters were shuffling around in hazmat suits; as it is, I can’t watch those shows anymore, because they all hit too close to home. 

There have been moments in the last three years where all of my international teaching experience, parenting experience, life experience pre-Covid seemed to mean very little in the face of the volatility, instability, and ambiguity of the lives we were now forced to lead. Students have melted down in my office and refused to return to school for weeks. Colleagues have suffered distressing outbursts in staff meetings. My own mental well-being and that of my children is something I have to keep in careful balance every day, lest we all spiral into a Very. Bad. Place. A lot of the time it feels like I’m walking on a tightrope with my feet in flippers.

So, as I look toward the start of the new academic year, what can I carry forward in my teaching practice in ‘4 PP’? 

Meticulously planned provocations, an exciting array of extracurricular activities, rigorous assessments designed with three levels of differentiation—all of these things mean nothing if we don’t first recognize that our learners are still in a state of chronic trauma. We need to stop and address their traumatized brains first; only then can we expect them to be ready for academic learning.   

Our autonomic nervous systems have evolved to respond to stress in three different ways. On the less adaptive end of the continuum are the fight/flight and freeze responses. The extreme pressures that have come from lengthy isolation and the constant threat of loss—loss of income, loss of freedoms, loss of loved ones—has made many of us more likely to resort to these more primitive responses, through no choice of our own.

The third, more evolved response to stress is our ability to lean on those close to us for support and security. This is known as our social engagement system, which is developed through consistent empathic treatment from humans around us, and the single most important factor in soothing a brain that has become susceptible to fight/flight or freeze is human-to-human connection. The act of having someone listen to us, validate our feelings, and work with us to solve problems has proved to be highly effective in activating this type of response and forms the basis of many existing therapeutic approaches.  

Of course, every student deals with trauma differently—some to a greater or lesser degree than others. Learners whose brains have become more prone, over prolonged hardship, to default to fight/flight or freeze tend to demonstrate the most maladaptive classroom behaviors. This can be incredibly challenging, especially when our own autonomic nervous systems are overburdened. But here’s the bottom line; knowing where the behavior is coming from is hugely consequential. When we handle our students’ emotional dysregulation in a way that is compassionate and solutions-oriented, we also soothe ourselves, because it allows us to be more consistent in our interactions and promotes positive relationships between us and our learners. 

This is why I strongly believe that my training in The MARIO Framework could not have come at a more opportune time. I already knew from experience that children and young people need meaningful connections in order to learn, but MARIO has shown me how to operationalize this concept in the classroom through one-to-one learning in a way that is both flexible and powerful. 

When you start having structured, intentional one-to-one sessions with students, one thing is absolutely guaranteed; your relationships with each of them will be deepened. Once I began to truly listen to my learners, they opened up in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated and told me things about their lives that I never would have known otherwise. Some of this can certainly be intense. There have been disclosures that made me run to our child protection officer as soon as class was over. With that said, there is a real comfort in knowing that I am able to forge connections with a child or young person that contributes, in a tangible way, to their long-term well-being.  

My students’ post-pandemic mental health has been, and continues to be, a significant worry. As with all things in special education, there is no quick fix for this. And as a school year wears on and anxiety over IEP goals mounts, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to muscle through academic skill-building to the detriment of my learners’ emotional needs. Nevertheless, being able to implement The MARIO Approach in my classroom and understanding why those high-impact strategies work has been my port in the storm these past couple of years. I know that as long as I stay focused on my one-to-one relationships with my students, we’ll be able to get each other through.

With affection and gratitude,

Akane 

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