For many students, Fall 2021 marks the return to normal. Parents can take pictures of their kids leaving for the first day of school and teachers can work with full classrooms of students again. However, some students may have forgotten basic classroom behavior and etiquette over the past year. Small acts like hand raising and waiting to speak might have been lost in the remote classroom.
You can take steps to guide your students back to their healthy habits. Follow these steps to reestablish your classroom operations.
Help Students Get on a Schedule
In Spring 2020, teachers spent the last weeks of the school year creating schedules for remote learning. Now it is time to re-develop routines for the in-person experience.
“As with the start of any new school year, but especially in the case of a post-COVID-19 fall, schools should also devote substantial time to the community-building activities central to a healthy, functioning student and staff culture,” writes the team at tech services provider in the K-12 education sector Charter Technology Solutions. “Re-emphasizing the bonds between students and their peers, as well as between teachers, can ease the transition from remote to in-person instruction and create space for members of the school community to support one another in uncertain times.”
Create a set of rules and guidelines for students to follow in the classroom. Practice following these best practices each day until they become habits for your students.
Michael Linsin, founder of Smart Classroom Management, says it’s not too late to implement a classroom management plan even if your students are already in the classroom. Have your students pretend it’s the first day of school, then go over how you expect them to enter the classroom, hang up their backpacks, and participate in person.
If students are having a hard time adjusting, set aside time to understand where they are emotionally. Younger students, in particular, may have a harder time returning to school and not having their parents with them all day.
“When life tampers with schedules and routines, even ultimately for the child’s benefit, transitions are seldom without potholes and steep hills,” says Kathryn Welby, director of teacher preparation programs and assistant professor of practice at Merrimack College.
Take Steps to Minimize Disruptions
As you return to the in-person classroom, you may notice that some younger students are eager to talk with others and share ideas with you. A big part of returning to the classroom will likely focus on minimizing disruptions. Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” solution to this problem.
“Each situation is very different, just like each child is very different,” says elementary teacher Rebecca Lewis-Zarkos. “Strategies that I use with my Grade 4s wouldn’t necessarily be as effective with younger or older grades.”
Lewis-Zarkos will pull a student aside if they are being disruptive and let them know that their behavior is affecting the whole class. For the most part, she finds that being honest and serious allows her to convey the importance of the message.
Look for ways for students to communicate with you without disrupting the entire class. When she taught second grade, Becky Mansfield used laminated “Excuse Me” cards. If she was busy with another student or other teacher, the child could write what they needed on the card and slip it to her.
Students who are used to raising their hands on Zoom or staying muted throughout the day might experience a little “culture shock” when returning to in-person learning.
Teach Independent Learning In-Person
Remote learning wasn’t all bad for students. In fact, you may decide to keep some aspects of your remote lesson plans as students return to the classroom.
“One thing that virtual learning has taught us is that being able to work independently is an incredibly important skill,” writes former elementary school teacher Elizabeth Mulvahill at We Are Teachers. “Now that we’re back to in-person learning, we want our students to hold on to that feeling of being in charge of their own learning.”
There are many ways to foster independent study in a classroom of 30-plus students. Kim Voge, a fifth-grade teacher, says she fosters a love of writing and independent learning by allowing her students to choose what they want to write about. This makes the material engaging and keeps the attention of the kids.
She also focuses on the trust factor. “The No. 1 thing is absolutely building relationships with your kids,” she says. “When they know that you are there for them and they are there for each other, there is a magical interdependence that happens because of that.”
This process of independent study can be used in any subject, including math and science. When chemistry teacher Annabel Jenner gives her students an assignment that includes calculations, she gives them answers (without workings). If the student sees their own answer is incorrect, they can attempt to problem solve before asking for help. This way students can demonstrate that they know how to solve a problem.
Reintroduce Group Work
One of the biggest differences between the remote and in-person classroom is group work. It’s easier for teachers to monitor different groups and to let students collaborate together on projects when everyone is in the same room. However, you may need to reteach students how to work together effectively.
Kristina Zeiser, a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, says teachers can’t just assign students to group work and expect them to figure it out. They need to be taught how to work in groups: how to divide up work, how to lead their peers, how to build checks into the project so everyone stays on task. These are all learned skills.
Teacher Becca Fannuci at Science Lessons That Rock, recommends dividing projects into different roles. This is especially important for younger students who are still learning how to divide up tasks. Each job will have its own rubric to ensure that part of the project was completed. “Naturally, not every group role will have the exact same amount of work, so they need to learn how to help each other,” she writes.
Group size is another consideration. You may want to limit groups to four or five students; otherwise you risk some slipping under the radar. “When there is less room to hide, nonparticipation is more difficult,” says Mary Burns, a professional development specialist at the Education Development Center. Another instructor recommends group sizes of only two or three, where it’s clear when one student isn’t pulling their weight.
Finally, use group work to reinforce materials that students recently learned. “It is recommended that when introducing new activities, new content isn’t introduced at the same time,” says teacher Jill Kester. “This will allow students to focus on the procedures while reviewing previously learned content.”
Post-Pandemic: Should You Bring Back Hand-Raising?
As you return to the classroom, you may want to create “new norms” and habits for students in the new year. There is a growing movement to remove hand-raising from the classroom — or at least to limit how often it is used.
“How many times have you called on a child who has his or her hand raised only to have the child start talking about something that has nothing to do with the topic at hand,” asks preschool teacher Deborah Stewart. “This happens to me all the time.”
Young students in particular will bring up tangential topics or completely unrelated subjects that derail the conversation. Stewart says some students raise their hands without having anything to say just because they want attention.
Former teacher and cofounder of Attentive Teacher Cindy Schwartz says there are alternatives to raising hands while simultaneously encouraging students to ask questions. For example, you can use index cards on which students write their questions during a lesson, which method can benefit shy students. You can also host debates, in which you serve as moderator.
Older students benefit from less reliance on hand-raising by learning how to have discussions with their peers, similar to those they would have in a workplace meeting.
“I believe that how we teach it is what matters most,” says teacher Julie Mason. “How to have a discussion becomes much more important than whether we should read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Romeo and Juliet.’”
Mason had her class watch videos of conversations to find out what a meaningful discussion looks like. Then she used a tennis ball. “The student who was speaking had the ball, and then they had to ‘read the room’ and their classmates’ body language before they tossed the ball to someone else,” she explains.
Not only did this create a more natural discussion, but it also taught students the emotional skill of reading others.