How to Bring Back the Joy and Humanity in Our Schools

Watching her community endure immense losses from COVID-19, one school leader is working to restore the humanity of teaching and learning for her students, teachers, families, and herself.
Clariza DominicciClariza Dominicci
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“Just about everyone in our school knows someone who has had severe impacts from COVID-19 or has died because of it,” reflects New Leaders alum and principal Clariza Dominicci. “Many members of our community have experienced trauma as a result of the pandemic.”

Dominicci’s school, Marvin Camras Children’s Engineering School (PreK-8), is located in Chicago in one of the hardest hit zip codes when the pandemic first began. Serving a predominantly Latino community, Dominicci is quick to point out resiliency as an inherent strength.

“Many of our families come from countries that have experienced natural disasters or had governments that are not able to protect all their people. They have it in them to move forward and achieve better things. As a Latina, I think there is power in our community.”

Faced with the latest omicron surge, after reopening her school this fall amid heightened fears, Dominicci understands the need to get back to some kind of normal. “Where we are now with omicron is so different from where we were in December.” Her staff is working hard to restore the humanity of teaching and learning for their students, teachers, and families.

We met via Zoom to learn more about how she is keeping her school moving forward. Here are her top five recommendations for what education leaders can do right now:

Remember our shared humanity

The pandemic has impacted all our lives. It’s been such a dehumanizing experience. We are social beings. We’ve had to isolate ourselves. We’ve had to socially distance ourselves. We can’t hug or touch or high-five each other. And the omicron surge is only making it harder.

How many times have we asked our teachers: What is the best part of teaching? They tell us it’s that moment when a child suddenly gets it, and they see that big smile. But we can’t see those smiles under the masks.

We’ve done so much disconnecting during the pandemic, it’s time for us to do more connecting. To celebrate, to dance, to fist bump.

Right now, it’s important that we remember the humanity of those we serve and understand the complexities of our communities. We’ve got to get back to that humanness. Even small nuances help us to see our shared humanity—like teachers walking outside to greet students at the beginning of the day which allows our parents to see the teachers and wave hello.

Identify emotions

At Camras, we emphasize social-emotional learning and support. I’ve been working to name emotions with students as well as adults. I use an emotions chart as a starting place for the conversation.

For example, when there is a conflict, we ask both parties to pick three emotions from the chart: three that they were feeling and three that they think the other person was feeling. Then they explain why they felt the way they did.

Hearing a student say they felt abandoned and helpless changes the whole dynamic and helps bring everyone down after a conflict or heightened sense of trauma. It’s really given our students more words to describe their feelings and express what is really happening.

The pandemic isn't going by any plan. Sometimes all I can say is: I don’t know, but we are going to try and be safe.

Be vulnerable and create space

In times of uncertainty, like right now, I remember our adaptive leadership training, and Brendan O’Day telling us that it’s okay to say you don’t know. As a leader, you want to tell your people: “Here is the plan. It’s a really nice plan. And don’t worry, it’s all going to go like this.”  

Only the pandemic isn’t going by a plan. Not last year and certainly not now. Sometimes all I can say is: I don’t know, but we are going to try and be safe.

My teachers and staff are also really grateful that we allow space for them to share their experiences and how they are feeling. Sometimes, I have one plan for a meeting and as I am listening to everyone, I decide to pivot. I put my ego aside and say: “You tell us. We don’t know. And we’re okay with that.” It’s been really powerful to lean into that vulnerability.

Refocus on why we are here

We can’t take away what has happened and continues to happen with COVID. But we try to focus on what we are able to control. And, why we are here. As a staff, we talk about things like standards-based grading, bias, and institutionalized racism. They’re great conversations and it makes things feel a bit more normal again.

Before omicron, we were feeling hopeful. I remember the relief we experienced this fall when we weren’t worrying nonstop about contact tracing or rapidly changing sanitation protocols. One day, we’ll get to stop worrying about student identification numbers on COVID tests.

But even now, or maybe especially now as omicron surges, we want to stay focused on the work and why we do what we do. And our shared humanity.

Find the joy

I found so much joy in teaching. So much joy. We need to bring joy back into our schools and into our classrooms again. We need to bring back those smiles. To make happiness an integral part of our school cultures.

We’ve done so much disconnecting during the pandemic, it’s time for us to do more connecting. To celebrate, to dance, to fist bump.

I know it’s a bumpy road ahead, but as school leaders, we need to find and celebrate the joy in our work. It’s what makes us human. And even more resilient. We are all in this together.

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Clariza Dominicci

Clariza Dominicci

Clariza Dominicci began her career in education over 20 years ago in Chicago Public Schools. She is currently the principal of Marvin Camras Children’s Engineering School where she was one of the founding administrators 13 years ago. A New Leaders alum (cohort 9), she is passionate about ensuring all students have equitable access to a well-rounded education.

Clariza Dominicci

Clariza Dominicci

Clariza Dominicci

Clariza Dominicci

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