Students Are Struggling. They’re Asking Us to Slow Down and Focus on Relationships.

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A little more than a year ago, I remember sitting in meetings trying to figure out how we might do remote learning for a week or so to contain the novel coronavirus. I cringe now realizing that we were so incredibly short-sighted.

Of course, hindsight is often crystal clear. That extended spring break ultimately was lengthened, then stretched out again, to the point that our district was learning from home for the remainder of the year.

When August arrived and it was clear we probably should still not be gathering in large groups, we started the year learning remotely. Most teachers had continued to gather ideas and process how to better engage kids through a computer screen, and while meeting one’s class through a computer is not ideal, it did have the added benefit of no masks.

But this year has been anything but smooth. I don’t mean that as disrespect to my district leadership at all. I am grateful not to be in their shoes, making those tough decisions. But we have had a hard time getting traction.

Over the past few months, we’ve navigated just about every combination of in-person and virtual learning: all students learning from home, a hybrid model, most students learning in person, and a year-long online academy for families who decided that learning from home was their best option. In the fall, it felt like we had dozens of “First Day of School” moments as different groups came back to learning in the building.

Along the way, we also had families shifting individual kids back to in-person learning. And plenty of classrooms that had to quarantine and learn from home when the rest of us are still plugging along in the building.

Again, it’s not anyone’s fault, but this year has felt incredibly disjointed. There has been little opportunity to build relationships. It’s tough to build a community when the members continue to shift due to quarantine and schedule adjustments. And don’t get me started on the masks (absolutely necessary—but not seeing a face makes connection tough)!

It feels like the gap just continues to widen.

So what do we do about that? More than one (well-intentioned) person has said to me that we need more rigor, more nose to the grindstone, more lessons, and that there’s no time for fun. They insist that we need interventions and remediation and more testing. They push for less art, less music, less PE, less recess. They insist that the library is something they don’t have much time for. They want more time at the learning table.

And then I look at the kids sitting in front of me. Most of them are struggling to rebuild the stamina for learning they had a year ago. Lots of the little ones have “forgotten” how to share, and the structure of a school day is overwhelming for a good number of them.

In looking at myself, I clearly recognize that my connections with kids are nowhere near where they usually are by this point in the year. Book talks sometimes fall flat, in part because I’m rushed (library times have been shortened to accommodate between class cleaning procedures). But it’s also because I have randomly selected the titles for a class rather than intentionally choosing books I know that particular class will gravitate to. Why? Because I’m not tuned into their interests like I usually am.

I feel regret at so many missed opportunities to connect with kids. Twenty minutes is hardly enough for book selection. Sometimes students who want a recommendation often don’t get one because time runs out. And there’s absolutely no time for talking with groups of kids about books they’ve enjoyed, which used to lead to a flurry of recommendations between them.

All in all, it’s been a tough year.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the 30 years I’ve spent in public education classrooms, It’s this: Kids will do anything for a teacher they are connected to. They will push themselves harder, take on greater challenges, and find the grit to get through the tough stuff.

Before we plow on, dig into remediation and push through with a focus solely on academics, we must stop, take a breath and spend time rebuilding relationships. We need to establish communities and learn how to reconnect with one another.

While my connections with kids have been fewer and farther between this year, there have definitely been a few moments that remind me of the power of connection.

  • When I discovered Julio’s passion for all things World War II, I was able to guide him to the “I Survived” series by Lauren Tarshis. It’s a bit above his reading level, but his background knowledge buoyed him, and he later raved, “It’s the best book I ever read!”
  • A casual conversation during checkout led to a breakthrough with Keegan—a bona fide DC/Marvel superhero expert. When I showed him the DC and Marvel-based graphic novels in the collection, he begged to take more than the two we’re limiting kids to this year (I’m definitely tired of quarantining books!). He’s now read them all, and I’ve been able to nudge him toward the DC and Marvel chapter books as a next step.
  • Taking a few extra minutes with a second grade teacher, I learned that Molly, who has truly struggled to see herself as a reader, had been working with the reading specialist and was ready for something just a bit more advanced. When I showed her two whole shelves of books that would be a great fit, her eyes lit up like “I can read those?” Every time I see her in the hallway, she tells me which one she’s tackled next.

There’s an adage I cling to: go slow to go fast. If we do not take the time to create those communities and strengthen those relationships, we will struggle to have any academic remediation or rigor make an impact.

We have to take time to reconnect. We have to relearn how to be together in a classroom. That takes time. If we don’t slow down, get to know one another, and build a community that cares for each other, because we’re in such a hurry to “catch everyone up” I fear that we will leave more behind.

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