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Back to school in 2021: Three tensions leaders must address

The Newsela Team
Oct 5, 2021

Since the beginning of the pandemic, everyone has known that returning to full-time in-person learning would come with special challenges. Now, six weeks into the new academic year, educators are getting a handle on the obstacles and opportunities they’ll face moving forward. To learn more, Newsela’s Chief Academic Officer, Dan Cogan-Drew, shared the webinar stage with Carla Neely, Carolyn Kim, and Lekena Ackerman, three K-12 teachers from around the US. Their wide-ranging conversation touched on three tensions—none of which are new, but all of which are underscored in this era of disrupted schooling.

  • Lekena Ackerman, 8th grade social studies teacher, South Carolina

  • Carolyn Kim, 4th grade teacher, California

  • Carla Neely, 5th and 6th grade science teacher, Ohio

  • Dan Cogan-Drew, Co-Founder and Chief Academic Officer, Newsela

Covering curriculum with the need to establish connection

The struggle to balance curricular standards with other aspects of teaching, from classroom management to social-emotional learning, predated Covid. But connecting with students in 2021 requires more effort than ever before, and those efforts may come at the cost of keeping pace with standards. Kim explained that in the past year and a half, students have had to “unlearn and relearn” what is expected in a classroom setting. Building culture and connection to teach these expectations has superseded the curriculum, and it slows her down. 

Ackerman highlighted similar challenges: As she put it, “I’ve resolved to the fact that I had to throw pacing out the window a long time ago.” All three teachers acknowledged that rules and norms simply look different now, and building a great classroom environment might mean going back to basics more often. Neely shared strategies she’s used to achieve that, including etiquette instruction and “train[ing students on] how to be flexible, because at any given moment, we may be remote again.” Establishing these preconditions for learning needs to be educators’ top priority now… and doing so means shifting the focus away from the “learning loss” that has occupied so much attention in the K-12 education space. 

Recovering learning aligned to standards with the agency to motivate students

The balancing act goes beyond connection: Many teachers are equally concerned with building motivation. But when this enterprise takes up instructional time, some may see it as being at odds with learning recovery. Cogan-Drew and the panelists pushed back against this and showed that agency and motivation in the classroom are essential to academic recovery.

Effective instruction always includes consideration of a child’s context. Cogan-Drew discussed research from the Learning Policy Institute that shows that even discrete skills, like solving algebra word problems, are supported when educators consider the whole child—and agency and motivation are crucial parts of that. Before the pandemic, learning was often “done to” students. Pandemic-era teaching and learning forced educators to let go of students and let them fly. 

Cogan-Drew recommended that educators see what they have gone through during the pandemic, and now bring to the classroom, as assets and not merely deficiencies. Deprived of community for over a year in many cases, many students are now bringing a new level of excitement and motivation to their learning. If educators recognize this for the asset it is, they can harness it to leave their students more empowered than they were before Covid. 

Neely shared how she came to terms with her own students’ agency. Though she’d once taken a control-oriented approach, being forced to turn the reins over to students during remote learning wasn’t a bad thing: She saw that self-direction “teaches them to respect their own learning, it teaches them to respect you, and the learning lasts longer.” She’s now incorporating that same self-direction into the classroom, and even continuing some remote learning strategies—particularly for students who excelled more in the virtual environment than they previously had in the classroom. 

Prioritizing teacher wellness and student wellness 

The balancing act between academic standards, social-emotional learning, and whole-child instruction is demanding… but teachers must be well for students to be well. “We have to normalize taking care of ourselves. Ask for help,” Ackerman said. “A mental health day if you need to take one. … There’s tons and tons and tons of resources out there.” She added that administrators have a role to play. At her school, “I’m blessed in the standpoint that I have an admin team in the trenches with us. … They take care of us. They listen. Keep that open door available” for venting, she advised.

Kim agreed, and she noted that the importance of social support extends to other teachers. “It’s been tough,” she said, emphasizing the difficulty of teaching in this time. “Being able to say that to somebody else and to have it received as, ‘You know what? Me too’” is what most helped her in staying strong and pulling through this unprecedented professional challenge.

What administrators can do

Students can’t learn discrete skills from the standards without a positive developmental environment. To support educators in that project, administrators need to support their wellness — and also understand that effective teaching in 2021 may mean adjustments in pacing, but in the long term, these adjustments will shape learners who are more motivated and resilient than ever before. 

Watch the recorded webinar here.

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