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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11 thoughts on “The real learning loss

  1. As we see, the pandemic gave many parents, and the students, time to realize the propaganda that has been going on for a very long time, and that they can do far better at home, or anywhere else, provided they are responsible and follow understanding. The parents don’t have to be great teachers, just honest, and the children will be far better in growing up. All the best.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. Could you say a little more about what you mean by propaganda? I would agree that some students would learn better at home with their parents. Others would not. Many parents do not have the choice to educate their children at home because of work and other reasons. I don’t think any of that is an indictment of either parents or of teachers.

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  2. I will try, because of the readers. My experience has show 99/100, if the person doesn’t get me the first time, they won’t. But I’ll try. The example I’ll give is outside the arena, but if one is listening, they’ll be able to extend to public propaganda camps. It’s like this. Back in the 80’s, seat belt laws began. I told my friend then, we’re going to lose all of our freedoms. He, like many, thought seat belt laws were good if they saved lives. But I explained, that’s not what this is. Of course wearing seat belts could save lives, but I’ve also known of those who’ve died wearing seat belts because they couldn’t get out of the car in time, but more importantly, was each drive can make their own choice, because that’s what freedom is: thinking and deciding for yourself, but also facing the consequences on your own.
    But I saw the propaganda: If people don’t wear, are allowed to think for themselves, more people will die, hospital costs will increase, and insurance prices will rise. Also, what you do could affect others. Those words all cause me to see “controlling” people and their minds.
    Now, no one propagandized, unable to think for themselves, or is a believer in socialism/communism/Marxism will understand me. They simply don’t believe in Constitutional Freedoms.

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    1. It sounds like you believe that any who doesn’t believe what you believe is a victim of propaganda. I don’t agree with that. Some views are out of bounds, but there is a wide range of views that reasonable people can hold. I believe that many schools support learning for their students. There are some that mis-serve their students, but many others that do wonderful things. And I believe that, rather than criticizing and withdrawing from them, we should support more and more schools to do those great things.

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      1. I knew when you asked the question you weren’t really serious about understanding what I shared. Over the years, I’ve learned to see these things coming a mile away, but one never knows. I was actually writing more for readers for one never knows if one’s on the fence and just needs a nudge to start thinking for themselves. **I’ll leave it here: There’s a far cry difference between thinking that you’re thinking for yourself and really thinking for yourself.

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      2. You wrote that there’s a far cry between thinking that you’re thinking for yourself and really thinking for yourself. I would imagine that most or all of us believe we are thinking for ourselves, but we would do well to question that from time to time. You would do well to question that about yourself just as much as I would.

        Finally, you wrote that you don’t believe I’m honest. I’m not sure what cause I gave you to descend into personal attacks, but I think I’ll close our dialogue here. Thanks again for reading — I wish we could have had a more productive discussion.

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  3. As a HS teacher, I agree with you. The relationships with students is what I remember the most. However, the problem where I’m at coming off the pandemic is that the administrators who run my building and district do not care about me. Through myriad ways they have communicated their disregard for my well being and, more importantly, our students’ well being. The lack of empathy looks different in each case but it still exists. It is incredibly hard to be empathetic in a vacuum. I know students struggle and are still struggling but I can’t do it alone, a point you made well in your piece.

    On another note, I think sometimes we mistake empathy with the tyranny of low expectations. I’ve seen that happen in my largely Latinx, immigrant, low income school. Teachers bend policies and expectations with the rationalization that they are being empathetic because of a student’s personal situation but in reality, they are passing the responsibility and the hard work of raising a student’s skill level on to the next teacher. I believe it is possible to be empathetic and demanding enough to help the student gain new skills and improve those they already possess. Yes, the pandemic exposed everything that is wrong with our system. It’s been broken for a long time and, unfortunately, I’ve grown to be a pessimist on its ability to be fixed.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading and responding. I am so sorry that your administrators don’t convey that they care about you or others in your school. I agree — being in a relationship with others who don’t care, or who don’t show that they care, makes it exponentially harder for you to demonstrate your own empathy.

      I also agree that empathy can be confused with low expectations, or letting things slide by. I love the framing of “warm demander” used by Zaretta Hammond and others, which emphasizes empathy for someone else, the conviction that that person can achieve, and the supports you will provide to help them achieve.

      I really hope that you can find a renewed faith in our ability to transform the system. I find it difficult to believe at times myself, and I’m not sure where that faith will come from in this environment. But I hope you can take some hope from the small things that people around you do to push back and make the system better in small ways.

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