For those who attend small school districts, including those in the Kaysinger Conference, the bonds created among classmates are deep, according to Smithton R-VI High School Principal Jonathan Petersen.
“I think one of the perceived benefits of going to a small school is relationships,” Petersen said. “Interestingly, most educators would agree that is the foundation of long-lasting education.
“We hear it preached all the time and for good reason — teachers building relationships with students is certainly not just a small school thing but there is probably a reason some large schools implemented Small Learning Communities. They are trying to simulate something we have naturally.”
According to Petersen, students who attend small schools like Smithton almost have to try to not connect with at least one adult in the building.
“There is no place throughout the day they can hide,” Petersen noted. “Every teacher sees them in the morning, in the hallway, at lunch, in the halls again, and after school.”
If the student participates in an after-school activity or club, the same adults who assigned the math homework or English paper are serving as coaches and sponsors in extracurricular activities.
The Smithton School District is pre-kindergarten through 12th grade operating in one primary building. Many students are in the district for multiple years, some even for all 13 years if they attend preschool. Petersen said that multiplies the family feeling.
“It is not uncommon for teachers to know entire family trees including family friends and at times even names of pets because the relationship continues to be built year after year,” Petersen continued. “It is because of this that when teachers are kept from students for an extended period of time, like what is happening now, there is just this feeling that something isn't right.”
Petersen said it is as if there is a piece of normal life that is missing and replacing it is only done through intentionality.
“On a normal day if a teacher needed to tell a student something, no problem, opportunities just happened — catch them in the hall, meet them at their next class, get one of their friends to deliver the message, or worst case just wait until the end of school and meet them at their locker. Easy,” Petersen commented. “Now there is only communication if both sides are intentional and that takes more work than we realized.
“We took for granted the little conversations and the comments that may or may not directly involve academics,” he added. “Now we are stuck in a world where email is king, but simple text void of emotion can never replace face-to-face interaction.”
As Petersen noted, so much of communication is non-verbal and that part of the message is difficult to convey with words alone. If a student has a question even if just to clarify something simple, no longer can they easily raise their hand or casually have a discussion with a friend or the teacher. Instead, they have to go out of their way to type it out and make sure the meaning of their message doesn't get lost.
“Some of our teachers have a daily check-in where we are trying to continue that relationship and help students think about something other than academics,” Petersen explained. “From the first time we started thinking about this possibility of distance learning, our Superintendent Mr. (David) Bray has been focused on “how can we keep our students engaged” in not only their academics but more importantly in their education family. How can we continue a sense of group pride when right now we feel like a bunch of individuals?”
As with other districts across the state and nation, the district and its staff have sought a number of ways to communicate with students and parents.
“Teachers are now working harder than ever and many still feel like it is not enough,” Petersen said. “I think their attitudes show the dedication of our staff and commitment to keep kids engaged and learning even though our methods have had to change.
“As a group, from a social/emotional standpoint our students’ need for school cannot be overstated,” he continued. “Humans are naturally social creatures, which is what makes the social distancing concept feel unnatural for us.”
He said he has been amazed that despite all the challenges, educators, students and parents have responded well. In just a week or two, teachers had to completely change their plans and Petersen said when school resumes in person he believes there will be a change in what is seen as “common methodology” and the “typical classroom.”
“We have been forced to embrace technology en mass and have become proficient at techniques that maybe we have always wanted to try but never found the time,” he noted. “When the dust settles students and teachers both are going to have made a giant leap in abilities that weren't originally in the curriculum.”