January 26, 2021


Teaching Through Tough Times

With the COVID-19 pandemic, political unrest and long-needed reckonings on race, 2020 presented many challenges for teachers and principals. To help educators, students and parents during these times, Donna Kiel, director of DePaul’s Office of Innovative Professional Learning and a College of Education professor, joins the podcast to outline DePaul’s programs and efforts that helped local teachers and principals transition to remote learning. She also shares strategies on how to be an anti-racist educator and ways to help students become more resilient during tough times.



​LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I'm your host, Linda Blakley, Vice President of University Marketing and Communications.

On today's episode, I am joined by Dr. Donna Kiel, director of the Office of Innovative, Professional Learning and a DePaul College of Education professor.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Donna and her team quickly recognized the impact it would have on education for students of all ages, from kindergarten through college. That's why they took action to support local Chicago educators as they navigated the new learning landscape.

As we near the pandemic's one year anniversary, Donna is here to share more about her team's efforts and offer tips on how parents and teachers can help students continue to cope during these times. Thank you, Donna, for joining me today.

DONNA KIEL: Well thank you, Linda. I'm so happy to be here with you.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Last spring, educators had to deal with an unprecedented amount of pressure, quickly transitioning from in-person to classes online. How did DePaul's College of Education and specifically your office, step up to help local educators make this drastic change?

DONNA KIEL: Such an important question, Linda. I think the answer to that also needs some context setting about what our office does which is really to support K through 12 teachers with the expertise of our faculty, realizing the challenge it is to teach in this very complex world that we have and that was pre-pandemic.

So, when the pandemic – and we do professional development and we do coaching and mentoring – but when the pandemic hit, one of the keys for myself as the leader of the office and our teams was to really look deeply at what's happening to the teachers and the principals who are leading those schools?

That level and depth of uncertainty and of being – trauma that was being pulled out of your classrooms we knew had to be having an impact and that that impact then would be transferred to students which has really been one of the calling passions of my career which is to look at how consistently principals and teachers impact students by the burdens that we carry ourselves.

So, what we did in the College of Education and in the Office of Innovative Professional Learning is immediately support our partner schools with resources and strategies for teachers to take care of themselves first.

Now, that sounds odd because everybody was searching for “hey, how do I do this about teaching?" “How do I teach online?" But what we realized is none of that would matter if a teacher was showing up online filled with their own fear and angst and their own sorrow which of course is what they were feeling.

So, what we did was reach out to our partner schools and our partner schools quickly responded with professional development, coaching and mentoring online that really looked at how can we support you, the teacher.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What is your approach to helping teachers navigate professional development changes, in this case for remote or online learning?

DONNA KIEL: So, Linda, our approach is really unique and probably pretty revolutionary considering the situation. I think what many organizations that provide professional learning do - they immediately respond to how do you teach remotely? How do you teach online? What are the tools?

Instead, what we did was to really focus on how are the teachers and principals doing? And so, I created a strategy that combines decades of my work around the significance and the importance of a teacher's and principal's emotional wellbeing and how it impacts the students.

So, what we knew immediately is kind of that old adage of put your oxygen mask on first before you take care of that child next to you. They needed that oxygen mask on. I wanted – I also know teachers' lives, having been a teacher and having been a principal myself, I thought, okay, this is way too much. We need to make it simple, concrete, practical to use.

So, the four-step strategy that teachers could use every day, that they could have right on their desks next to their computer screen, I named CALM, with each letter of CALM standing for an action that they could do before they met with their students and what they needed to do each day to give them an anchor of something to hold onto, something that would help them to acknowledge how they were feeling and never disregard that but really pay attention to it and move beyond it.

And very simply, CALM stands for the C is for centering yourself. Before you meet with your students, take a moment to center yourself, take a couple of deep breaths and name every feeling that you're having.

There's some great work that informed that strategy by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor who is a neuroscientist and wrote this brilliant book called My Stroke of Insight.

What she talks about is that if we can stay with our feelings for 90 seconds, they move from a place of disturbance to a place of ease. And so what I encouraged and trained the teachers in is for 90 seconds, give your feelings all the names that they can be. “I'm scared, I'm afraid, I'm angry, I'm mad, I'm ticked off." All those names, just stay with it and it will move. It will move because you've named it and you realize that you're still okay. That's the technique.

The A stands for awareness. So, it's creating in yourself that awareness of what you're bringing and where you're at in your day and to do that with mindfulness exercises. We give teachers some real practical tools of self-awareness, you know, asking yourself those key questions of where have I been strong in my life, how have I gotten through that? How do I face challenges? So that you can see that you have the resources. There are a lot of awareness tools in the CALM strategy. 

I wanted to create enough tools that teachers could have a menu but not too much where they're like, oh my God, that's too many.

And then the L which is one of my favorites, is learn something new each day. It's that great thing of we put our interests and our passions, our hobbies kind of on the backburner when we're in the midst of a pandemic or anything else, yet if in the midst of teaching and if you take a break, which I encourage teachers to do every hour as they can, you have a table where you draw, you paint, you write, you do those create things, you pot plants.

I had a teacher saying, “what I really like to do is to read trashy novels." I said, “so leave one open so that you can just do that." Learn something new about yourself, about what you do. Deal with something that is not related to your field, that doesn't give you that emotional exhausting, that just gives you fun and joy and is frivolous.

And then the last M stands for move. We often neglect our bodies when we're in emotional crisis, yet our bodies hold the truth of what we're going through and our bodies are so – such great healers. There's an interesting fact of you know, our minds process 40 bits – million bits of information a second but our bodies process 200 billion. So, it's this incredible thing that if we pay attention to our bodies and move our bodies, we can move towards that kind of ease.

So, I would ask teachers to get up and stand up every hour and move around, walk throughout your house, go outside if you can, move your body and check in with your body. What hurts? What do I feel differently? You know, where in my body am I tense? And then relax that.

During my workshops with the teachers, what we would do consistently is ask them to drop their shoulders. If you right now drop your shoulders, you will feel a little more calm. If you are sitting in a chair and you happen to have your legs crossed, uncross your legs at this moment and put your feet firmly on the ground and your back firmly against a chair and you will feel calmer. Lots of neuroscience behind that which also informs a lot of my work.

So, that's what we did. We responded and we took care of the teachers. We gave them a strategy that is CALM, C-A-L-M.

LINDA BLAKLEY: CALM. You just gave me a gift.

DONNA KIEL: Glad to give it to you, Linda.

Many other national events, from the country's reckoning with racism to the political unrest leading up to Joe Biden's Presidential Inauguration, also added significant stress to students' lives. As an educator yourself in DePaul's College of Education, how have you helped DePaul students who are learning to be teachers during this very difficult year?

DONNA KIEL: You know, I have to say our College of Education, my colleagues and I, especially our dean, really immediately responded to this new heightened awareness to the racism that has existed in our country for centuries in very practical ways.

Much like I talked about putting your oxygen mask on first, is to first check our own racism. Learn and listen and grow ourselves. And so we in the College of Education formed some committees to really train ourselves and get deeply connected ourselves to what racism existed within the college, how could we really look at the systems and structures we have.

Myself, for me, it is a very personal commitment against – to be an anti-racist ally that began early in my career when I was an assistant principal at a school that endured a pretty heinous racial incident. And I was part of the founding of Catholic Schools Opposing Racism.

But I realized, especially this summer, that none of that work really had the impact that I had hoped it would have, and so there needed to be a serious look at what would be – “what could I do differently? What did I need to check in myself?"

So, the college did their own strategic work. We in the Office of Innovative Professional Learning reached out again to our schools and our partners and they reached out to us actually very deliberately.

I was overwhelmed by all of the schools that reached out to us to help. And again, in the midst of a pandemic when teachers are stressed and burdened, now we're saying we also need to shift and to really look at what's happening to our Black and our Brown children. And in many of our schools, there's a definite disconnect where teachers were predominantly White and the children were predominantly of color.

So, what did those teachers need in order to support those students who are traumatized now and in pain?

And again, what we realized is that the teachers needed time to work on themselves, on their own fears and their own beliefs about what was happening in our country. And so again, trying to be the very practical educator, we created a program of these four strategic steps to first personally look at your own racism regardless of your color and then to be able to extend yourself to becoming an anti-racist ally.

The program is called RISE and we entitled it RISE really intentionally, that we needed to rise up as educators to fight racism intentionally and consistently and not just sporadically. And the RISE stands for four key steps reflection, inquiry, self-awareness, and what's been the driver of my career for decades, empathy. Based – long, long ago, I read the research of Dr. Kenneth Clark who originated the Black and white baby doll experiment, and then he and his wife continued that research for decades later.

And what he discovered and what has always resonated with me is, that the key to racial equity is empathy, that when we can feel what another feels at the level of empathy that results in compassion, we'll take action.

And so through RISE, we did workshops again with teachers where we allowed them to – we allowed? We encouraged them to talk about those feelings but beyond listening, what do you need to work on?

I would say they were the most challenging and personally difficult workshops I ever led but also the most important. And the most humbling for me in many incidences and many a time where I needed to really check myself and my own white supremacy and my own white privilege.

The thing that we did too intentionally with RISE is that I am not the leader of those workshops, nor am I the key facilitator. I am the person supporting two African American women who are brilliant and DePaul adjuncts and one of our DePaul professors who are the leaders because it's the people of color whose voices need to be heard and whose voices need to be elevated.

So, I think – and within the College of Education, even as a matter of fact today, we continue our work as a college, as a faculty, and as staff around anti-racism. The interesting part of that work is that it has united the administrative staff with the faculty in a unique, new way where we work together collectively on committee and on research and on ways that we can actively support our students. We've had listening sessions with our students.

In my own graduate class, during the spring and then again this fall, I intentionally shifted the text and what we were studying to really have the focus at how do we really promote – and I teach in the leadership program – how do I help to build anti-racist, very well-informed educational leaders? How do I do that? How do I help students to unpack that?

And it's such a deep, personal journey. That's why RISE begins with reflection and inquiry. We have to ask ourselves what's my history? What do I need to heal? What do I need to acknowledge about you know, for me as a white woman growing up in the South Side of the city of Chicago? What biases are so deeply hidden that I don't even realize that they're there? So, we continue as a college to do that work.

So, we're coming through a very tumultuous year but looking ahead, what's on your mind for the upcoming school year?

Yeah. We've been traumatized.

So, when I think of next year, I think of what will this post-COVID world with a new political presence, what will that look like? And the immediate response that comes to me is all of the healing that needs to take place both for our children, and for our teachers and our principals.

You know, getting to work with K through 12 teachers is certainly the honor of my life from this vantage point, having been one and what I see are exhausted, stressed and also very dedicated people. And so, my work for next year will be around how do we heal that trauma and how do we setup the systems and the methods that will take what we've learned from the pandemic and the endemic of racism and change our world so it is again – and I've created something that I've used for years now called an empathy framework.

That empathy framework gives the very practical strategies for educators, leaders and teachers to restructure what is happening in our schools and the empathy framework which consists of three Es. We call it E3 for short. It is empathy, equity and equanimity, and the equanimity being key.

We need that equanimity and balance within ourselves. We need the acceptance of each other as humans and the dignity we can give to all people in order to then really kick in equity actions and to always operate out of empathy. So, I see my work and our work collectively is helping schools and teachers to heal that trauma, to have trauma-informed teaching practices as well as trauma-informed care and trauma-informed systems and structures.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So, what are some of the constructive ways that parents can show appreciation for their kids' teachers?

DONNA KIEL: Oh, such a great question.

Talk to them. I say the same to teachers. It's that one of the things that I learned as a principal is that if you believe someone is disengaged, they will become disengaged. If you believe someone doesn't like you, they will not like you.

So, what I always say to parents around supporting teachers is that teachers love to hear from you and like to, you know, other than platitudes, they would love to be in dialogue. Make the time to just be in dialogue. They have the same interests.

I used to say to my teachers because the teachers would get really nervous. When I was principal, they would get panicked before parent teacher conferences. I would say, “you're on the same team. If you begin a parent teacher conference" – it's my one quick hint for teachers – “If you begin a parent teacher conference saying, 'I have the same goal you have; I want your son or daughter to succeed and reach their highest and truest potential; how can we do that together?' Everything else flows."

Parent engagement in the learning process is key and crucial and poor parents have had to be teachers through the pandemic, so I think our teachers also need to support parents. They've learned a great deal about the complexity of teaching. You know, even the complexity of just getting a Chromebook started. Parents have had to show up in new ways. So, I think part of it is listening and learning from each other.

I go back to the empathy work I've done. When parents can give teachers empathy and teachers can give parents empathy, you have a stronger, a more dedicated team for that young person.

LINDA BLAKLEY: One final question. How can teachers and parents help students process what happened this past year so they can emerge more resilient?

DONNA KIEL: Great question.

So, I love to put on the hat of parent and teacher completely. I think our students need to tell their own hero story. There is a great resource I use by Dr. Shefali Tsabary that's called Superpowered that guides students through finding their own superpower.

I have always been a long proponent of Joseph Campbell's work, that we each have a hero's journey inside of us. What we really need to do is not just keep moving forward that we in America tend to do. We just keep going to the next thing. But really to take a moment, pause and reflect back and allow kids especially to document their hero's journey through the pandemic, through the endemic of racism, through everything. What did I do? What were the moments of challenge that maybe I didn't rise up to but what were the ones I did?

I often have people look back and say, “what was that moment when you really conquered a fear, you really conquered something that you were thinking you could not do?"

There is an exercise I do even pre-pandemic which we call Winters, which I ask folks to remember their very first fear in their life. What was the very first time you remember being afraid as a child? Once you remember it, give it a title as if it were a movie. Now look back and find in that movie all of the ways you became the hero of that very first time that you were afraid.

What I often find – it's interesting when I've done this with teachers. Even last week I was doing this. They have the exact same feeling again and they're brought to tears because we become that little person who didn't have the capacity to deal with whatever they were afraid of.

But I think that's what we need to do with our kids going forward. We need them to document their hero's journey, to be able to not be Pollyannaish or you know, too positive, but to say what was hard? How did you get through it? So they have the data. People need data to trust themselves.

I need the data that says I can face that fear. I need my own personal data that I, as a fifth grader, know how to navigate when I have to wear a mask and it's uncomfortable, you know? I need the data that I did it because that will be the thing that I can hang onto when I face the next fear.

I think we also have to let kids know there's going to be other things. But look what you've gone through. Look at that journey. Name it. I think people are really – the reason we do the titles of your very first fear is that we can give it a title and kids can title their own hero's journey so they remember it, so it's not just an exercise in futility but it's this constant reminder of the superpower that you have that's uniquely yours.

I believe this for adults too. Adults need to look back and say what – you know, what superpower did you surface? You know, for me it was figuring out Panopto. It was like, “wow, look at that. I figured that thing out!" Or whatever it might be. It's that you've got to find those moments of superpower that are uniquely yours to prepare yourself for the next moment and to know that you have that self-compassion and that empathy toward yourself that can carry you through.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Thank you, Donna, for joining me today and for everything you've done to help improve remote learning during this challenging time.

DONNA KIEL: Thank you, Linda. It's been an honor to be here today and it's always such a joy for me to be at DePaul and to do this important work and to be part of this great mission.

LINDA BLAKLEY: For more information on the resources Dr. Kiel mentioned during today's discussion, please visit the DePaul Download website.

I'm Linda Blakley. Thank you for listening to another episode of DePaul Download, presented by DePaul's Division of University Marketing and Communications.