This essay was also published in the Oak Park newspaper Wednesday Journal.
Every year, parents, educators, and community members worry about “summer learning loss”. During the pandemic, these worries have taken on new dimensions: what can we do about all the knowledge and skills that students have supposedly lost over the past year and a half? How will we structure classrooms and schools to make up for this lost learning? And what will be the impacts of this learning loss on students’ eventual careers and our economic prospects as a society?
This fall, we need to set aside these worries, which are ultimately detrimental to young people. They will learn what they need to learn if we teach how we should teach. Instead, we must focus on a different kind of learning loss — the prospect that we adults will forget the lessons we learned from the pandemic. In some ways, this forgetfulness would feel natural. We are all eager to put this experience behind us, to get back to the lives we were living before March 2020. And teachers are eager to get back to the way they were teaching. But we know that the ways that teachers and schools were teaching were not working for many, many students — in particular for Black, Latinx, and poor students, whose identities and experiences do not match those of most of their teachers.
The pandemic took the endemic crises of schooling and made them visible. Classrooms that don’t engage students? Teachers who don’t spend enough time building relationships? Schools that expect students to ignore their personal challenges and just focus? In person, teachers and schools can use a mix of disciplinary policies, rewards, and the pressure of proximity to push many students to do the work anyway. In virtual learning, students simply don’t log on, or they log on and don’t interact. Teachers in every district where virtual learning was tried faced these lessons.
It is vital that we internalize the lessons of the pandemic, so that we can reshape schools as communities that foster the brilliance of our students, as spaces that breed enthusiasm for learning, rather than simply using the tried-and-true pressures of school to make students do what we want.
First and foremost, teachers and administrators must recognize that they are both responsible for creating engaging classroom and schoolwide environments and capable of doing so. Educators have the agency to shape spaces where students recognize themselves, their identities, and their interests. Teachers can create classes and lessons that are both interesting and vital for students. This is neither simple nor easy work, but it is the vital work that teacher teams need to collaborate on each week. I won’t and can’t possibly summarize the resources that can guide teachers teams in this work, but I’ll mention some: Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Cultivating Genius, and Grading for Equity, to name a few.
Second, and in service of the first lesson, educators must place relationships at the center of their classrooms, their curricula, and their schools. As educator Rita Pierson said, “Students don’t learn from teachers they don’t like.” This is absolutely true, and it goes even further than that. Education is at its heart about relationships. The teacher must always hold the relationship as their primary concern. This does not mean that the teacher must try to be liked at each moment. As in any healthy relationship, sometimes students and their teacher will relate smoothly, and there will be rocky times as well. But the relationship must never take second place to the curriculum, to the textbook, to the perceived needs of the school or district. The relationship has value in and of itself, and it is also the connection along which the learning process occurs.
Finally, educators must draw on and create new reserves of empathy for their students and for one another. Schools must be environments that generate empathy between all the members of the school community, and that empathy must be extended first and foremost from adults to children. Educators must create opportunities for everyone in the school community to hear about one another’s experiences and develop empathy for one another. Now, empathy should look different at different times. Empathy is not just about giving grace — it is about helping another person access what they need, given what we understand about their experiences. Sometimes it might mean extending a deadline for a student to complete an assignment. It might also mean reaching out to that student and asking them to stay after school, ensuring that they complete the assignment. Empathy grounds and empowers the relationships and curriculum, as well as the connections between them.
I want to add an important disclaimer to all of these lessons. No individual educator can do it all. If you are a teacher and are running yourself ragged trying to do everything, you need to extend empathy to yourself. Maybe you can pick one small change that you can make to your classroom to build enthusiasm, relationships, or empathy. What if you are a teacher who is already doing much of this in your classroom? Maybe you can reach out to one colleague who is struggling. What if you are an administrator who had no summer break because you have been creating and retooling your school’s COVID protocols? Maybe you can apply just one of these lessons to your staff development this school year. No one person can do it all. But we each can do something.
This is our responsibility as educators: to create classroom and school environments that draw students into learning, joy, and wholeness. The pandemic showed us that we need to shift our practices. Let’s pay attention to these lessons, and address the kind of learning loss that really matters — our adult desire to return to how things used to be. Instead, let’s make small, important shifts that move us towards something new: schools and classrooms that lift up each of our students.
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