As students and teachers return to school, the traumas from the past year have made their way into the classroom as well. The pandemic has left everyone with their own thoughts, worries and experiences, and for many students, the transition back into a “normal” school day will not happen seamlessly, as quickly diving back into academics may be overwhelming.
Before focusing on catching students up on unfinished learning, we need to address the elephant in the room.
After nearly eighteen months out of the classroom for some students, returning to an environment that has changed from the one they once knew has been a difficult adjustment. Mask wearing, hand sanitizing and sharing a space with other students again is affecting each student differently. Some of my students are motivated and excited to be back in the classroom with their friends and peers, while others are introverted and not yet ready to open themselves up again. If we do not take the time to ease them back into learning, allowing all students to readjust and get on the same page, we are putting them at a learning disadvantage.
Social-emotional well-being and academic success are undeniably interconnected. Social-emotional learning (SEL) leads to trusting relationships between teachers and students, as well as a feeling of security within the classroom. This helps students feel safe discussing their worries and concerns, and stops their personal feelings from interfering with their academic performance. If we are expecting students to make up for learning loss and keep up with the new school year’s curriculum, we need to reassure them that they are not alone, and that school is a safe place for them to learn and grow.
In my classroom, we focus on community building and getting to know one another again. Additionally, my school focuses on being mindful of the language we use with our students to allow us to get to the root of their problems, rather than assume or accuse. In building these positive relationships with students, teachers aim to reassure our students that when they come to school, they have adults who care about them, who will know when something is wrong and who will help them address the problem at hand.
While SEL practices are vital to our classroom success, how can teachers lead conversations and provide safe spaces for our students if we don’t have the resources to improve and build our own social-emotional skillset? According to a 2020 Edweek survey, only 29 percent of teachers said they have received ongoing training in social-emotional learning throughout the school year, and a fifth of teachers say they never receive opportunities in their job to reflect upon and improve their own social-emotional skills. We need professional development and SEL training to help us lead these conversations and provide restorative practices within our classrooms. While school has already started for most of us, it is not too late to invest in educators and provide them with ongoing support to continue addressing students’ traumas and build positive and trusting relationships in our classrooms.
I know from personal experience that the past nearly two years of distance learning has made it challenging to connect with students. There was no way to force students to reach out and talk or participate through a screen, but luckily we are now able to see our students face-to-face, pick up on social cues, and check in with them regularly. This allows us to address problems as we see them, providing our students with a holistic classroom environment.
We all must continue to hold districts accountable and call on our leaders to provide us with the necessary resources on restorative classroom practices and the incorporation of social-emotional learning. Additionally, we should use school funding to hire more social workers, school psychologists and counselors so our students receive the care and attention that they need.
If social-emotional needs are not met, academic progress can be more challenging. If students don’t feel good mentally or physically, no matter how impactful, animated or excellent a teacher may be, learning will still be difficult. Academics and social-emotional well-being go hand-in-hand. Many students simply cannot succeed in one without the other.
Perez is an 8th grade English teacher/MTSS Intervention Specialist at Classical Magnet School in Hartford.