At C.W. Ruckel Middle School in Niceville, Fla., so many kids were using their cell phones in class—a violation of the school’s rules—that administrators loosened up their policy of confiscating them. It had become impractical to enforce. Students had become heavily dependent on devices to help find answers quickly—a side effect of months of remote learning—and were expressing frustration when they had to wrestle with a question or problem on their own, said Steve Chambers, a social studies teacher.
In a New York high school, one teacher has students who stressed out over their parents losing jobs. And at another school, teachers must help their older students re-learn classroom rules.
The individual anecdotes of frustration, stress, distraction, and anxiety students are experiencing this school year add up to a large, complicated reality of social-emotional and mental health needs that teachers must acknowledge and help address—at the same time that they must move children forward academically. It’s a difficult balance to strike.
“At the end of the day, if kids are dealing with mental health issues or families’ basic needs being met, that is going to hinder and has continued to hinder growth in the academic areas, and in academic skills,” said Katrina Miles, an English and drama teacher at Temecula Middle School in Temecula, Calif.
Getting students interested and excited about learning—a challenge that predates the pandemic—is harder than ever, according to a December EdWeek Research Center survey of 630 teachers across the country. Low student engagement is the most widespread problem teachers pointed to as an impediment to helping students reach grade level, with 68 percent of respondents citing it. Large percentages of teachers cited four other major barriers as well: behavioral problems (59 percent), student quarantines (55 percent), and student mental health needs (54 percent).
Teachers, counselors, and district leaders alike acknowledge that a lot of these challenges existed prior to the pandemic’s start. But moving between remote, hybrid, and in-person learning and adjusting to frequently changing COVID-19 protocols, have intensified and affected more students. While some educators have found ways to navigate the balancing act, they also recognize it won’t be an easy journey.
“We’re still in a pandemic,” said Stephanie Andrews, executive director of student and family support services for the Tulsa Public Schools. “This is not going to be a fast fix.”
Old challenges have worsened
At C.W. Ruckel Middle, the front office had been filling up every day with too many students waiting to pick up their confiscated phones, said Chambers. The principal, in a faculty meeting last fall, told teachers to stop taking phones away.
Though Chambers had seen students get more frustrated at not being able to use phones to help them with schoolwork, he now worries about building up his 8th graders’ drive to formulate answers rather than regurgitate them as they prepare for high school. The endurance kids need to complete their work has eroded in a larger number of students, he said.
“You just have to continue pushing along and teaching the kids and taking the kids from where they are to where they need to be,” he said. “It’s difficult sometimes, because the kids want to quit on you.”
Julie Capossere, an English teacher at Brighton High School in Rochester, N.Y., said more of her students are going to see counselors.
Students are experiencing stress at home, stress from all the political turmoil they’re witnessing, stress from the fear of getting sick or their parents getting sick, and initially they lacked the daily in-person structure of school where they knew what to expect and where to be, she said.
And in Tulsa, Andrews said teachers and school staff had to re-teach behavioral expectations in middle and high school students, something that hadn’t been necessary before. Traditional things like classroom procedures and how to go in and out of the cafeteria had to be reset as a result of the pandemic’s disruption, she said.
Immediate strategies exist but plan for a new normal
Yvonne Alexander, a science teacher at Hopkins Junior High School in Fremont, Calif., said her students don’t want to sit still in their seats. We’ve been locked in our bedroom and we want to be with our friends, they’ve told her.
So she’s let students move their desks. They’re welcome to step out if needed to alleviate anxiety. She’s leading more classroom activities where students work together.
“We want to be productive,” Alexander said. “I have faith that humans are resilient, but we have to give them a space to be safely resilient in and fall apart, literally just go ahead, and let’s just fall apart.”
Miles, the teacher in Temecula, has seen how isolation during remote learning impacted her 12-year-old son. His confidence in his ability to learn took a dip.
She was initially more lenient with him as with her students in giving the space and time needed to socialize and get re-adjusted to in-person learning. But now she’s stepping up to say, “I don’t care about the grade, but I do want your best.”
She’s encouraging other parents to join her. She calls her students’ parents after school and on weekends to learn more about what challenges they are facing outside of the classroom and to let parents know what the students need to do to stay on track or catch-up and how she can help. She frames school work as a positive distraction from the stressors that are out of her students’ control.
Districts are weighing in with strategies as well.
In the Dallas Independent School District , schools were able to choose from three different calendars this school year that would allow for more time for instruction or professional development, time for additional academic support for students and more, said Juany Valdespino-Gaytan, the district’s executive director of engagement services. The district has hired more than 50 new mental health clinicians for students and required morning meetings and advisory periods, along with providing teachers with SEL lessons to use during that time.
Tulsa public schools have wellness teams in schools where a group of teachers, counselors, and administrators get together to figure out the students who seem to be in greater need for wellness, and determine how best to support them, said Andrews.
In the long-run, there’s no returning to what schooling was like prior to the pandemic, Andrews and others said. Even now with sporadic school closures, quarantines, and staff shortages, schools are struggling to offer consistency students need to progress both academically and socially-emotionally, Andrews said.
Her hope is that more educators work toward imagining what a new normal can look like that can benefit students and teachers alike.
“I think that this is a year for us to kind of be thinking about and dreaming in different ways and designing our lessons differently than we did in the past,” Andrews said.
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as A Tenuous Balance: Supporting Students While Pushing Their Learning Recovery