We are reaching the time of year when the end will soon be in sight. Meanwhile, for many students this a time of transition back to in-person learning after many months, or even a year, of remote learning. These factors and others will add complexity to lives and learning in the coming weeks. We need to be conscious of how the experiences of students may influence their perceptions and behavior in the transition back and respond with sensitivity and patience.
We also may feel pressure to “catch students up” in the weeks that remain, wanting to avoid feelings of guilt if students have not been exposed to the full grade level or course curriculum. Time may feel short and pressure may be intense to make full use of what remains of the year. We need to use the time wisely, but we also need to realize that learning is what matters most. Our priorities need to reflect what we can do with the time and resources available so we don’t become overwhelmed and panic.
To help us think about how we can negotiate our way through the coming weeks, here are some do’s and don’ts to consider.
- Ignore the emotional and psychological injuries and scars experienced by students. Just because students are happy to be back in classrooms does not mean the pain and distraction of family members they have lost, family conflict they experienced, and other myriad issues now are gone. They may be pushed down or set aside for now, but the feelings will resurface and need to be addressed eventually. We need to stay alert for signs of trauma and the needs of some students for attention and support.
- Assume that everything remaining in the curriculum must be covered. In a normal year we may be able to engage students with the full scope of the curriculum. However, this is not a normal year. We may feel as though we must “cover” the full curriculum if we are to meet expectations of us, but what matters most is not coverage. It is learning. In the weeks remaining, our time and the time of our students will best be spent focusing on what they know and what is essential for them to learn.
- Underestimate your role in helping students find their way in learning and life. Students need to feel stability, support, and care, especially now. When we provide a calm, engaging, and purposeful environment, we give students assurance that they can focus on learning. When we give students opportunities to explore, investigate, problem-solve, set goals, and take risks, we offer the autonomy and ownership students need to grow toward independence and “way finding.”
- Give in to resentment or resort to blaming. Like our students, our lives were disrupted, we experienced loss, and we were deprived of celebrations and connectedness. This could be a time when our emotions turn dark, and we look for who to blame for our loss and resent the sadness we experienced. However, our energy and attention will benefit us far more if allocated toward what we can do going forward. How can we make the future better? What have we learned that we can take with us? What can we do to improve the lives of others?
- Assume that life will return to the “old normal.” We and our students have experienced much in the past months. Our students are not the same and neither are we. Expecting life to be what it was prior to the pandemic will likely lead to disappointment. Now is the time to focus on what we can create. We can build on what we have learned, retain what is valuable from the past, and create a future that is worthy of becoming our normal.
- Share your confidence in your students and their ability to thrive beyond the pandemic. Students need to know that we are there for them, especially now. So much has happened that brought uncertainty and confusion into their lives. They need to feel our belief in them, our reassurance and support, and the stability it creates in their lives.
- Focus on purposeful content and useful skills. We can connect what students are asked to learn with the purpose their learning will serve. We can give students opportunities to apply their learning where practical and support them to use their new learning to develop new insights. Where possible we can encourage and support students to use what they learn to create and share with others. Learning is most fun and satisfying when it leads to something meaningful and opens doors to creativity.
- Reinforce with students the value and importance of what they have learned, including what is not in the curriculum and will not be on a formal test. Our students learned many skills and developed an array of habits that helped them to survive, and even thrive, during the pandemic. However, many of the most crucial things they learned will not show up on a test or be included in an academic grade. Organization, prioritizing, managing time, solving resource problems, and mastering technology tools are just a few examples. We need to honor and reinforce these skills and habits as key tools for future success.
- Take time to build community and nurture a culture of inclusion, connectedness, and acceptance. It has been said that “we all have experienced the same storm, but we were not all in the same boat.” Some students will need more time and space to deal with their experiences and feelings of loss. Others may be ready to move forward with less support. We need to be there to respond and support and to marshal the support of peers to help everyone succeed.
- Give students time to make the transition. Some of our students may resist too much direction and close supervision. They have experienced levels of flexibility and autonomy that they value and may not want to give up without reason. Other students may struggle with non-stop school for the entire day, when they have been free to move around and take breaks in other learning settings. We need to be thoughtful about expectations, restrictions, routines, and consequences as students return to learning in the physical presence of others.