For many teachers, change seems to be the only consistent part of this school year. Whenever they get into a comfortable groove, new policies or student options require them to adjust their teaching style and develop new lesson plans.
The latest hurdle facing instructors is the return to in-person teaching as previously remote students head back to the classroom. Some students plan to return in January at the start of the spring semester, while others trickle in every few months.
These returning students can create challenges for teachers who want to keep everyone in their classrooms on the same page. Keep reading to learn how you can help these students both academically and in terms of social-emotional development.
Be Prepared to Help Your Students Navigate Change
Both you and your students have become experts in handling last-minute decisions by parents, administrators, and state officials this year. However, there may be a few changes that catch your students off guard as they try to re-enter the classroom.
For example, growing COVID-19 cases are causing some districts to reverse their plans for in-person learning. In one Virginia district, 6,800 students were supposed to return to in-person learning in November, but that decision was pushed back as coronavirus cases spiked.
“The current health metrics for COVID-19 cases in our community now exceed the threshold to expand our in-person learning,” Scott Brabrand, superintendent of Fairfax County schools in Virginia, said in a statement. “We made this decision as soon as new health metrics were released…We always anticipated the need to potentially adjust our return to school plans as necessary during this ongoing pandemic.”
Schools that move forward with in-person instruction also need to determine best practices for enforcing CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus. In some cases, educators are taking a softer approach to make these guidelines positive habits that will be practiced in the long term.
“Discipline is the last option for COVID non-compliance,” Brad Hatch, assistant superintendent of secondary education at the Altoona School District in Pennsylvania, says. “We are hoping that everyone accepts individual responsibility when it comes to social distancing and masking.”
As students return to the classroom, teachers need to step in as public health advocates, encouraging parents and their kids to take the pandemic seriously in order to protect everyone.
“In-person learning is crucial for students to thrive,” the team at Public Health Insider for Seattle and King County writes. “Returning to in-classroom education will require all of us to keep rates of community spread as low as possible…Together all of us – caregivers, students, school staff and community partners – can be an active part of keeping everyone healthy and learning together.”
If everyone works together to keep the spread of COVID-19 low, then in-person teaching can resume for more students and schools can stay open.
Your Role as a Counselor and Adult In Your Students’ Lives
Along with stepping in as a public health guide this year, many teachers are also tapping into their training as counselors and advocates for students who are returning to in-person learning.
In a guide created for the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Debra Reicher, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine, encourages teachers to understand the situations students have experienced outside of the school environment.
“While some children are grieving the loss of a parent, others may be enjoying increased quality time at home,” she writes. “Some children are experiencing and suffering great financial loss and may be hungry and lacking in school supplies.”
Research has found a rise in domestic violence rates this year, she adds, and some students are lacking supervision as their parents take on extra work to pay the bills. Knowing what each of your students is going through can guide you to help them in the best ways possible.
Additionally, there is a right and a wrong way to help students cope with the rise of COVID-19 cases and their anxiety about returning to school. For example, the mental health professionals at Anxiety Canada want teachers to be encouraging but caution against using blanket reassurance statements, like “everything will be fine,” or “there is nothing to be worried about.”
While you mean well, these phrases can invalidate concerns students have, lack substance, and can actually “create doubt and uncertainty that may drive a need for further reassurance.”
Instead, be honest about the situation. Talk openly with your students to help them better understand their fears and the steps schools are taking to protect them.
Consider How Your Students Have Changed This Year
The students you teach this year are going to be different from the kids who normally enter your classroom. Their development path has changed because of the pandemic — but this can be a good thing.
“The unprecedented level of responsibility that school students of all ages have had to embrace is worth both celebrating and harnessing,” Dr. Carl Leonard and Dr. Gail Brown write at Teacher Magazine. “Building on these new levels of confidence and autonomy is another way for teachers to show they genuinely care for their students, creating a safe and supportive learning environment where students are challenged to strive for success.”
You may find that your students are more autonomous this year or work better on their own than in previous years. You can take steps to create lessons that reward this and encourage these positive traits.
In fact, the learned responsibilities of this year’s students might help you keep your classroom safer from COVID-19.
“It can be exasperating, as a child, to hear your parents remind you of something you think you already know,” Katherine Cusumano writes at The New York Times. The same can be said for students listening to teachers give instructions they are already aware of. “Instead, whether regarding hand hygiene or social distancing, ask kids what they should do and let them lead the conversation. This helps reinforce habits and allows them to take ownership of the process.”
This gives students ownership over the tasks, rather than feeling they need to unquestioningly do what they are told.
Don’t Pressure Students to Immediately Catch Up
Returning students (and their parents) are likely nervous enough about heading back to in-person learning. As an educator, you don’t want to immediately overwhelm them — especially if they are behind in areas they can’t easily catch up in.
“If a student didn’t get speech therapy for two months, it’s not like you can start the school year and just cram in two months of speech therapy in a month’s time,” Lauren Morando Rhim, Ph.D., cofounder and executive director at the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, says. “You might be able to offer extra hours or weekend services, but I’m guessing it’s going to be a long, slower progress.”
The team at Lexia Learning encourages educators to develop lesson plans with a focus on social-emotional learning, incorporating collaboration, communication, teamwork and self-awareness into the lessons. These will help students better understand their own mental state after nine months of living during a pandemic. The students will build lifelong skills while at the same time help them feel more comfortable in the classroom, which in turn can give them the confidence to catch up on knowledge gaps.
“There’s this idea that kids are behind, or that there’s this catching up to do,” Kathleen Osta, managing director at the National Equity Project, tells the American Psychological Association. “We would argue that rather than focus on learning loss, we need to help our young people process what they have learned and experienced during this tumultuous time—and nothing could be more important than their social and emotional wellness.”
That said, there are ways to help your formerly-remote students keep up with their peers, or at least take on a few extra tasks if they want to fill in any holes in their education.
“Break standards into smaller, manageable units,” writes special education teacher Kathryn Nieves. “Shortened time frames mean that objectives will take longer to teach, practice, and master, so segmenting lessons can help with planning and teaching.”
With this segmentation, you won’t have to use a full lesson to review the material, but rather a smaller unit or idea that your students can briefly review.
It’s Okay to Rebuild Your Lesson Plans from the Ground Up
While this year has been challenging — and it’s only the fall semester — there are some benefits to the pandemic and the upheaval in teaching. As educators are looking for ways to “make do” during this time, many teachers are using the pandemic to throw out old lesson plans that weren’t working and develop new ideas with new tools to engage students.
“Everyone has to rethink their teaching,” Jenn Wolfe, New York State’s 2021 Teacher of the Year, says. “Old lesson plans are out the window. There is much more talk about instruction, and teacher-to-teacher collaboration has become the norm in the faculty room.”
These new lessons not only engage students, but teach educators new ways of thinking about lesson planning. Innovation has become mainstream as teachers at all levels and budgets have tried different approaches this year.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has forced education innovation into the heart of almost every education system around the globe,” write Emiliana Vegas and Rebecca Winthrop, co-directors and senior fellows at the Center for Universal Education at The Brookings Institution. “The question is no longer how to scale innovations from the margin to the center of education systems but how to transform education systems so that they will source, support, and sustain those innovations.”
Essentially, how can school districts support educators so innovative learning isn’t a luxury that only teachers in well-funded schools can take advantage of? How can their engaging lesson plans and new ways of thinking reduce inequality in learning and reach students from all backgrounds?
As students head back to school for in-person learning, teachers are also looking to add more meaning to the lesson plans again, something that might have gotten lost as educators rushed to online learning last spring.
“There was a lot of, watch this video, fill in this worksheet,” says Jana Beth Francis, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning at Daviess County Public Schools. “Kids weren’t thinking about their work. So that’s the first step we’re taking in planning for the fall.”
It speaks volumes about the drive and passion that educators have when a global crisis is viewed as an opportunity to create something amazing from the ashes of a chaotic school year.
“Our teachers are just resilient,” Matthew Gutierrez, Ed.D., superintendent of the Seguin Independent School District in Texas, says. “They give 100 percent to everything and rise up to every challenge.”
There will likely be more challenges related to COVID-19 as we approach the one-year mark of the pandemic, but educators, students and parents can all work together to overcome issues and learn in the best ways possible.