At the close of the first marking period, I checked in with teachers and central office folks who support them, in districts of different sizes. I wanted the real skinny on what things were like in the trenches - where the unit of change for improved learning and achievement happens - where the future is built one student at a time. It was clear that they wanted to talk. Some of them remarked that being able to “unload” was somewhat “therapeutic.” In summary, as much as we wish it were true, this is not a normal school year. In fact, one teacher said it best, “This is the third year of a COVID-19 disruption for all of us and especially for students, the cost continues to be high.”
By now, teachers know a lot about how the pandemic experience affected their students, citing example after example of stories placing students on a continuum of fragile to resilient and everything in between. The lived experiences and the current state of teachers and students came through - up close, personal, loud, and clear.
Over and over I heard stories about how students were “presenting differently” when compared to students of the past attending a particular grade level or course. One teacher remarked that it seems that many seventh graders who exited school in March 2020 as fifth-grade students are very much on a fifth-grade level socially and emotionally (and for some academically). Similar stories emerged about how some second-grade students who exited school in March 2020 as kindergarten students could not hold a pencil and were in need of occupational therapy. Teachers remarked about older students' reluctance to write, tying this phenomenon to the interactive online engagement that relied mostly on the visual and auditory strengths requiring less writing in comparison to the in-person setting. Yet, teachers also remarked about students who seemed to have returned with little impact on their learning relating those instances to the home supports that were likely in place during the shutdowns. The usual range of skills and abilities observed among students in a course or classroom is now wider than it has ever been.
Social media conflicts are observed to be at an all-time high, creating hardships in the work toward building classroom and school communities. These conflicts are part of the observed increases in discipline referrals and the need for social and mental health workers beyond what schools currently staff. Several teachers remarked about the inability of students and teachers alike to relate to each other, yet there was an overwhelming desire to be together in school hallways leading to excessive tardiness, missed classes, and altercations. Students who engaged with their phones in an “unchecked” manner during the height of COVID-19 shutdowns while at home seem to expect to do the same in school, again resulting in disruptions.
Several teachers remarked about a genuine concern for their colleagues, and quite frankly, themselves. All too often, and very concerning, sentiments were shared such as: If I could retire, I would - I love the students and the job, but I don’t know if I have it in me to keep this pace - I am one person with a part-time paraprofessional and there are so many needs!
Many teachers remarked about the current teacher shortage requiring that they cover classes, miss their individual and PLC planning sessions with colleagues, and in some cases leave their coaching or intervention role to serve as a long-term substitute for 6-8 weeks. This results in intervention support being left unaddressed, further exacerbating the potential for a larger performance gap for students who need intensive help the most. The need to care for teachers was recognized by ASCD in a publication entitled, “Three Things Leaders Need to do for Teachers this Year” highlighting the “unsteadiness” of teachers as they, themselves, have experienced trauma at a time when “they met every challenge and change with gusto, operating on fumes but maintaining a brave face for their students.”
All eyes are on how recovery is unfolding in classrooms and schools. The evidence shared with me bears out the need for shared responsibility in the search for solutions and innovation. This is a time when the teachers’ remarkable toolbox of energy and strategy simply does not have the reach some students need. It is too much for the teacher alone, in a space compounded by teacher shortages, substitute teacher shortages, and the overwhelming amount of needs that have been uncovered. TNTP estimates that it will take 3-5 years for the full effect of the recovery efforts to restore unfinished learning and get students back on track to be college and career-ready. Just as COVID-19 victims with recurrent symptoms are referred to as “long haulers,” the task ahead for educators takes the form of a long haul with its own social, emotional, and academic symptoms to be addressed.
I took this opportunity to talk to teachers about solutions - what they see would help. One district leader referred to “just in time” intervention as what students need the most: intervention connected to true need, not just homework help. What emerged in the discussions was removing time barriers by providing in-school and out-of-school opportunities to engage with the curriculum beyond the classroom block. Curriculum-focused, small group attention guided by proof of what students need and the ability to know that no time has been wasted. Ideas and strategies are everywhere, but the Real Deal will only be addressed successfully with intentionality. A spray and pray approach to implementing strategies will simply extend the long haul. The learner deserves that we choose our paths to this intentionality wisely.