All Posts by: Staff Author

Education During the Pandemic: Getting Creative with Learning During Chaos

Education during the pandemic hasn’t been a walk in the park or a picnic. However, these adverse circumstances have helped U Prep educators engage their creativity and innovation to keep our scholars engaged with learning.

Pandemic! Virtual school! Distance learning…Oh my!

I was overjoyed to be asked to give my perspective on how the pandemic has forever changed me and my teaching practice. Although I’m an optimist at heart, and not very easily discouraged, the drastic shutdown when COVID first hit gave me pause. I believe that the apprehension simply came from the unknown. Soon after taking a deeper dive into the ever-changing tenets of pandemic teaching and learning, I reset and forged ahead into this new creative and innovative space. 

When I first heard that we would be teaching virtually, I was both relieved and nervous. Relieved because my children and I would be safe from COVID but nervous because I had never delivered online instruction before. I coached myself through a new lens of “this glass is half full, not half empty” and I moved forward. I knew that if I approached this unfamiliar space with negativity at the helm, I would never reach the levels of flexibility and adaptability required for success during this tumultuous stage.

Beginning a new style of education during the pandemic

The first thing I did was brainstorm with my math partners, as I was sure of two things: I wanted to develop a structure using programs for accountability. And the infusion of interactive instruction would be key to holding my scholar’s attention and offering the space for their feedback while challenging their curiosity.  

I thoroughly researched best practices and how to maintain motivation and engagement with scholars during our distance learning period. One of the websites that I frequented regularly offered five ways to motivate students in the virtual space.  

These five became my north star as I guided each scholar (and myself) through this new space and opportunity. Some of the most effective strategies were:

  • Motivate with goal setting
  • Motivate with rewards and praise
  • Motivate with meaningful feedback
  • Work with parents to motivate students at home
  • Stay connected as a class and motivate each other

Motivating the students also meant creativity, a cheerful disposition, and presence online. I had to be prepared to provide additional support to every scholar. I was up for the challenge, and I began each day of virtual/distance learning in good spirits, and with the determination that “this” would be a great year! I even received feedback from parents who shared that they “loved the fact that I seemed excited every day while teaching.”  What an honor and humbling feeling to know that my parents appreciated my unique style of teaching by leading with enthusiasm. Nothing, however, compared to the accomplished feeling of having 95% attendance rates in my classes throughout the duration of the distance learning. 

In-person learning during the pandemic

As we transitioned back to our building, and back to in-person learning, my enthusiasm remained and creativity increased. My innovative mindset and that of my scholars are here to stay. This pandemic, if nothing else, stretched our thinking, evolved our practice, and forced us into a new, freer space that challenged what we thought was creative and innovative instruction.

We will continue to expand and develop through that lens of challenge and freedom while keeping the school community safe. Our scholars have proven to be resilient in adversity, and our entire school community truly executed the concept of partnership and trust in the process and each other. 

Our Author: Erica Wade

Erica Wade is a Math Teacher at University Prep Science & Math Middle School. She has been an educator for over ten years, with the majority of her teaching experience in middle school instruction. Erica is a long-term educator at U Prep Schools Network. She told us, “This is my 6th year in the district and I have enjoyed every minute of it.”

Erica Wade

Restorative Practices in Education

Relationships—Not Rules, Not Policies, Not Procedures Drive Human Development

Restorative Justice in Education is an invitation to create educational cultures that emphasize social engagement rather than social control. This does not imply that rules, policies, evaluation, telling, and success are irrelevant; it simply means that these serve the needs of people living within the community, not the other way around. Restorative Practices in education hold the possibility for changing learning factories into gardens where seeds are planted and growth is nurtured.

Context, Culture, and Relationships

I want to tell you a story from the book Running on Empty by Jonice Webb Ph.D. A young lady named Sarah came home from school and soon after, got a call that a boy in her class committed suicide. She was overwhelmed by a wave of shock, confusion, and grief, a “whirl of emotions she had not felt before”  (Webb, 2015, 40:53). She raced home hoping to talk with her mother and was a bit surprised to learn that her mom had already heard the news. Sarah was still hoping to talk through the complexity of her new compound emotion. Before she could say anything her mother said, “I heard about Johnny, I’m not surprised, I think the young man was on drugs”, and that was the extent of the conversation. Her mother didn’t ask her how she felt and never brought up the topic again, and as a result, Sarah pivoted emotionally – she masked her emotion and tried not to think about it. She was caught off guard by how easily she cried at odd times or when left alone with her own thoughts. She attended the funeral and focused on her friends, their grief, her school work and simply, moved on. 

To Sarah’s dismay, two more students in her school committed suicide. She attended those funerals as well, focused on her friends, just as she did when John died. Different however from before, in neither of these instances, did she bother to speak to her mother. She also never acknowledged or spoke about how grief-stricken and disturbed she was by the suicides. Eventually, Sarah started to lose her ability to focus in class. Her grades started to slip, she struggled and even began feeling a sense of anger that she could not shake. Her parents became angry and indignant with her asking “what’s wrong with you?” rhetorically, not really looking to engage her because they genuinely didn’t have the emotional awareness to do so. Consequently, Sarah thought the same thing, “what’s wrong with me?” She started to believe that she was weak, stupid, and uncooperative, and she felt this way well into adulthood. She would describe herself as “numb.” She had learned to cut herself off from her emotions so that they would not bother her. She would also feel weak and ashamed any time she felt emotion. Sarah had an amazing childhood, loving parents, but despite all of that, adult Sarah wanted to die.

After listening to the story—just being vulnerable here—I was in tears. I can remember a time when I was a kid, probably 6 years old. I watched the movie Boyz n the Hood with my mom and brother. When I saw Ricky turn and run for his life down that alley only to be gunned down, I lost a sense of safety and security. Questions flooded my mind “Could that happen to me? Why were they so mad that they had to kill him? Why didn’t anyone help him? He didn’t do anything to them, so if someone is mad at me will they just kill me?” This might sound dramatic but something in the 6-year-old me was assaulted during that family time. “Moms” didn’t ask me how the movie impacted me. We just went to bed and moved on with life. In my household, we were not allowed to be afraid or show fear. “Don’t be soft” was a phrase that was often used against any kid who showed a hint of fear. I knew while watching that movie that I couldn’t show that I was terrified by what I saw. So I did what Sarah did, I masked my emotion. As a result, however, I was always anxious, I never felt safe or protected. I also struggled to feel like I could be a “real man”—whatever that means. I never spoke to anyone about that experience until I started therapy some 15 years later.

Child Interpretation + Caregiver Attunement = Healthy Development

Relationships—not rules, not policies, not procedures—drive human development. The quality of those relationships, the adults’ attunement to the child, and the child’s ability to interpret emotions and thoughts from lived experiences, which is facilitated by the quality of their connectedness to their caregiver, either leads to positive and healthy development or negative and unhealthy development. According to Osher et al (2020) human development occurs through reciprocal co-actions between the individual and their contexts and culture, with relationships as the key drivers. Relationships and contexts, along with how children appraise and interpret them, can be risks and assets for healthy learning and development, and their influence can be seen across generations and can produce intra- as well as intergenerational assets and risks. 

What does this have to do with restorative practices in education?

Restorative practices in education

Restorative Practices (RP) in education are primarily about nurturing relational interconnectedness. Here at University Prep Schools we have adopted the Restorative Justice in Education framework as the structure for establishing, cultivating, and sustaining a restorative community. At the heart of the framework are two core beliefs—all people are worthy and relationally connected. 

Osher’s findings essentially justify any “child-serving system,” for adopting and prioritizing a relationship first philosophy because development is driven by the integration of neural malleability and plasticity with the dynamic relational interconnectedness of children and the adults with whom they interact in their social, cultural, and physical contexts. In other words, the quality of a person’s sense of worth is proportional to their sense of connectedness to the primary caregivers in their lives. This matters because just as you read in both Sarah’s and my own story, when children are left to respond to and interpret life events on their own, especially potentially traumatic events, they can be overwhelmed by their thoughts and emotions accompanied by that experience. If the adults or caregivers in their lives are not attuned to the child, attentive to and noticing the impact of such events, dismissing the impact, or chastising the child for responding emotionally the child most likely will begin to think of themselves as “fatally flawed.” This kind of thinking has a direct impact on their learning outcomes. It is my responsibility to add to the foundation that was laid by building our attunement and response skills. The goal is to increase one’s ability to respond to the contextual factors and experiences that influence a student’s behavior and perhaps reach restoration. 

Restorative Practices In Instruction

In addition to proactively establishing relationships through focusing on attunement and responsiveness, another dimension of my role is to develop capacity around intentionally leveraging relationships to support students through moments of academic struggle, the moment when they recognize what they can do on their own and what they cannot do unless supported or guided. This is formally referred to as the zone of proximal development or ZPD. Zaretta Hammond encourages us to cultivate relationships that support dependent learners in taking intellectual risks and stretch into the ZPD. That’s the point of nurturing healthy relationships, supporting dependent learners in avoiding stress and anxiety, and earning the right to push students to be excellent and put forth the effort. She goes on further summarizing that the ultimate goal is to help the dependent learner become active in making decisions about their learning moves. She offers these tools:

  • Kid friendly vocabulary for talking about their learning moves
  • Checklists to help hone their decision making skills during learning and their attention during data analysis
  • Tools for tracking their own progress towards learning targets
  • Easily accessible space to store their data
  • Regular time to process their data
  • Practice engaging in metacognitive conversations
  • A clear process for reflecting on and acting on teacher or peer feedback.

Restoring the U Campaign 

By definition, the word restore means to bring back to its original state or form. This is often thought to be the case in the context of restorative practices, specifically when responding to and repairing harm. Restore the relationship to the pre-conflict status quo. Well, what if the pre-conflict nature of the relationship was less than ideal? What if communication was toxic? Controlling behavior? Threats? Restorative justice does not imply returning to past circumstances especially when there is a history of abuse or trauma or a long pattern of wrongdoing. In this case, the relationship instead needs to be transformed.

In the same way, here at University Prep Schools, we are not interested in overlooking the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the racial injustice, and the tension between community members that feels to be at an all-time high. Incidents at the beginning of the school year mirrored similar behavior of the disruptive chaos that had been reported at major league sporting events. We recognized that these isolated incidents were all the cries of relational brokenness that needed to be intentionally addressed and remedied. Our answer was the Restoring U Campaign. It was important to us that we as a school community found a new way of being and doing with one another that fostered a will to good, a protective concern,  and conviction to restore our community. 

In closing, “Restorative Justice in Education is an invitation to create educational cultures that emphasize social engagement rather than social control. The starting point in ‘how we are when we are together’ is relationships rather than rules, people rather than policies, honoring capacity rather than evaluating ability, creating meaning rather than imposing knowledge, asking rather than telling, and well-being rather than merit-based success. This does not imply that rules, policies, evaluation, telling, and success are irrelevant; it simply means that these serve the needs of people living within the community, not the other way around. Restorative Practices holds the possibility for changing learning factories into gardens where seeds are planted and growth is nurtured.” (Citation: Zehr, Howard. The Little Book of Restorative Justice. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2002.)


Brandon Lane is a Philadelphia native with over 10 years of experience as an educator in the Philadelphia and Detroit public and charter school systems. He is a graduate of Morehouse College and a member of the cohort of Philadelphia Teaching Fellows. Brandon joined the U Prep Community in 2017 as a high school Science teacher, and advanced to the Senior Director of K-12 Science Instruction. He currently serves as the Director of Restorative Practices for the U Prep Schools network. 

Brandon Lane, Director of Restorative Practices, U Prep Schools

COVID Anxiety: Overcoming Back to School Challenges

The Context

Learning communities experienced incredible challenges this year due to COVID-19 and the ever-present social unrest in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. While schools continued to be a place of growth and expansion, they also performed as mental and emotional health centers, basic needs shelters, and places of safety and security in recent years. Indeed, many educators would argue such demands were not new to schools—a trend over the last 40 years. Schools have now become a hub for holistic support for students, families, and the community.

Learning communities, a place where students experience exposure to new ideas, diverse perspectives, material that encourages reflection, dynamic experiences, and opportunities to expand and engage in critical thinking.

The situation was further exacerbated by the pandemic, with increasing pressure for educators and staff to shift to the demands of hybrid and online instruction. We supported the emotional, psychological, and physical safety and well-being of students and families; albeit with limited resources and access to do so well. 

In the face of a global pandemic, schools across the country, the Midwest, and the state of Michigan confronted unprecedented challenges during the previous year (2020) and the confrontation continues. Indeed, the year was a difficult experience for the field of education, educators, students, and families; a fact that cannot be overstated.

Beyond COVID Anxiety to Mental Health Stressors

Direct and vicarious trauma, chronic stress, grief and loss, hypervigilance to protect, overwhelming emotionality, heightened levels of anxiety, and increased depression and suicidal ideation are just a few of the many residual effects of the pandemic.

For educators, feelings of loss (both personally and professionally), uncertainty, anxiety, and moral guilt about the educational experience of students and their ability to cope with the increasing demands were palpable. From hybrid instruction to learning virtual platforms to an additional 4 to 7 hours of work each day, educators and students bore the brunt with resilience. Altogether, these stressors, despite resiliency, can cause significant mental health challenges.

Today’s Challenge

As educators, we now stand in the face of a new challenge—returning to in-person school to create a new normal—amidst the delta variant and other variants recently speculated. We’re in the midst of a continuing national increase in COVID cases. In response to this present challenge, Boards of Education, central office leaders, and educators work tirelessly to prepare to educate students in a safe learning environment while continuing to exercise grace and dynamic flexibility to respond to the moment.

However, the fact is that students and staff are struggling to manage their emotional and psychological health and safety. Students and adults report heightened levels of stress, reduced self-management skills, and increased needs for support in schools, especially emotionally. This point is certainly not unique to schools [we know schools are microcosms of broader society and situated within communities]. Still, educators and school leaders must be mindful of the stress within the bodies of the students [and staff] daily entering the school doors. 

Symptoms of COVID Anxiety

As students and staff return to in-person school, studies show one of the most common reactions is anxiety. 

According to Psycom, “Anxiety can have a constellation of symptoms, and no two people experience anxiety in the same way. Some symptoms you might experience can include:

  1. Sleep problems – Are you having trouble falling or staying asleep?
  2. Restlessness
  3. Difficulty with concentration
  4. Constant worrying or intrusive thoughts
  5. Irritability with no obvious cause
  6. Muscle tension
  7. Recurring stomach upset or headaches
  8. Overwhelming fatigue

But what more can schools do to respond to student and staff needs? This is a question with which many educators and leaders grapple. Our capacity to support, protect, and intervene is challenged, but our moral obligation and heart for students, staff, and community prompt us to act—but with what tools? 

Strategies and Solutions for COVID Anxiety

Anxiety can manifest behaviorally, physically, and emotionally in adults and students. Sometimes, anxiety may manifest in aggressive and hypersensitive behavior. Anxiety is normal and common when we face unknown realities, especially in spaces where we feel vulnerable. Research about anxiety in schools provides several coping skills including deep breathing, stress management techniques, positive self-talk, planning, and creating a routine.

These strategies promote self-awareness and self-regulation, increasing an individual’s ability to effectively engage with others and the material they’re studying in the classroom. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, Emotional Learning (CASEL), a national resource for schools interested in best practices for social-emotional learning (SEL) implementation, provides specific competencies for students. These skills are beneficial to students, but also to staff. 

Understanding COVID Anxiety and Coping Strategies

In collaboration with our team, U Prep has provided the network with a resource to better understand anxiety and identify strategies for self-care and working with students using SEL principles. 

Indeed, this past year has been an exercise in understanding, developing, and implementing coping strategies reflective of social-emotional competencies (i.e., mindset, critical thinking, self-awareness, social awareness, and regulation) and increased awareness of social-emotional health. These skills are important buffers when dealing with increased stressors and will prove useful in this next chapter; this new normal. 

One primary antidote to anxiety [newness] is connectedness. Let’s practice our norms of collaboration and connection to create conditions for teaching and learning that are responsive to the human experience—normalizing the reactions of our colleagues and students and leaning in together to reduce the anxiety we all may feel.

Reaching Out for Help for COVID Anxiety

We encourage you to seek out help if you require support. Please understand that you are not alone and exercise patience with yourself and with your students, but more importantly, be consistent, flexible, and validating.

As a mental health clinician, raising awareness of these tools and strategies has become a strong goal of mine. While most adults think of the end-user for all resources as the students, I tend to think about conditions for teaching and learning, which opens the door for a focus on the people who help the people.

The adults in the schools require an intentional support mechanism that acknowledges their struggles and challenges as human beings and how this might manifest in the workplace. The current trend is wellness, but for people like me, the trend is not what sets the tone. It is the fundamental belief that promoting holistic and well-balanced wellness is a life’s work.

Without wellness, one cannot fully become the best version of themselves. It is with this belief and the alignment between my values and the mission and vision of U Prep that our collaboration makes sense. I am excited to partner with U Prep Schools and the mission and vision of the leadership to create conditions for learning that integrates restorative practices and wellness/SEL to support outcomes for adults and students. 1) Educator wellness, 2) adult competencies, and 3) student outcomes—creating holistic wellness for all.

Let’s get to work! 

Our Author

Dr. Karlin Tichenor, Founder, and CEO of Karlin J & Associates, LLC is the lead consultant for Educator Wellness and Social-Emotional Learning for U Prep Schools. He is an expert clinical scholar and practitioner. He is an adjunct professor at Butler University and Abilene Christian University (Dallas), the Co-Owner and Senior Partner of Family Links, LLC, a statewide social services agency, and a graduate of Denison University and Michigan State University with degrees in Communications and Psychology, Marriage and Family Therapy, and Human Development and Family Studies. He is also the previous Associate Superintendent of School Culture in the Lansing School District (MI).