By the time you read this, many American schools will be open with some form of in-person learning. Few schools are truly back to the normal environment we have been missing for the last 14 months, of course, but it is impossible not to see that the momentum of public opinion has shifted. Already, more than half of all adults in the United States have received at least partial vaccination for COVID-19. Pressure is mounting on all sides for schools to open their doors to students. Every moment, we come closer to the day when our classrooms and hallways will once again be crowded and bustling with masses of children.
It won’t be what you expect.
The problem may be with our expectations. For while research on what our students are thinking about their return to class remains rare, we do know that reunions tend to be very hard on people. In fact, we see that prolonged separation can lead to conflict when families and friends come together again. We are creatures of habit. And it’s been a long time since we exercised the routines that will be filling our days again very soon. Here are five things you can expect as we return to traditional, in-person instruction.
You won’t have the same rapport right away
I know. You love your students. Deeply. You educated yourself and spent your life preparing to teach them. Most of us can’t wait to see “our kids” again. And they will be coming in with as many expectations as you have. Both of you will have your expectations crushed at the door. It is inevitable. But it is also OK.
Remember, everyone will be looking forward to all of their favorite things about school, and so will you. But we won’t be able to fit all those wonderful things into the first minute, or the first day, or even the first week or month. Patience in both children and adults will be tried. Relationships will be strained. Even if they are the same kids—you are no longer the same people. They are a year older! You are a year older, too! And you haven’t really been together doing the things you are all the best at in a long time. Be gentle with each other. Which brings us to the second thing …
There will be behavior and classroom-management issues
Our youngest scholars have been going absolutely bonkers about seeing each other again. How hard is it going to be to make them stay 3 feet, or 5 feet, or 6 feet apart from each other when their tiny hearts are aching for a hug? And not to hit the point too hard, but our older students have missed each other, too. They will be craving meaningful and rich interaction with friends, and perhaps even their teachers. But they will also have become used to independent learning, and the traditional classroom may feel confining.
Oh, yes. Our students’ basic human needs will be in immediate conflict with our rules.
Human beings learn best from well-modeled behaviors, especially when the person modeling those behaviors expresses genuine caring and warmth that we can feel (Bandura, 1977). All the behavioral patterns and routines that you taught your students (and yourself) must be remodeled, retaught and relearned.
This is true for everyone. All of the adults in the schoolhouse must understand that when they feel stress, the students probably are as well. If you are feeling “strange” or “out of your element,” imagine how your students feel. (Imagine how your teachers and staff feel, principals).
Bandura (1977) says that most behaviors are not fully thought out—they are reactions that have been learned. But the kids have been out of your routine for a year and are not in tune with you yet. Model, involve them in solutions—help them to be mindful of behavior so they can engage mindful control of it. Be gentle with each other.
There will be learning loss
Well, duh. You have probably felt that the media is beating you up about this personally. Our students will have forgotten some of what they knew. Just like they do after summer break.
This is not a time to judge yourself or the students too harshly. Maybe they could have been more present for distance learning. But have you every procrastinated with online learning or turned off your camera in a meeting, though? (I’m talking to myself here.)
This is a time to be patient, to collectively take a breath and focus on the hard climb back. It is not time for blame. There is no use ignoring the collective trauma of our past year. Let’s show our students how to heal and come back strong. And let’s not neglect to be kind to each other.
There will be tension with adult relationships
This we know from research. Trust me. My fellow veterans can testify that returning from a deployment is often harder on a relationship than leaving for one. Again—it’s been a while, and you have all changed. You are different people. It may take time to “fall in love” with our colleagues again after the first rush of our reunion. Don’t neglect the fact that some of us have experienced great loss in this pandemic. Spend time getting to know each other again and pause judgment. Yes, there is a theme here. Be gentle and kind.
It will get better
- Things may never be exactly the same. Some of us lost members of the team.
- If COVID-19 had never happened, the changes in our culture would still have happened, but we would have experienced it all together. In normal times, the world changes, and we observe it as part of a community. The last year put us in isolation, and we are not meant to live that way.
- It is 100 years since the last great pandemic in North America. And while the impacts of influenza may be hard to see these days, they are with us still. Give it time.
- Enjoy being back to doing to the work you gave your life and energy to before COVID-19.
- Find your way back to your first loves. All of them. And add to your life the new loves you gained in the past year. Bake your best sourdough for your colleagues. Knit someone a scarf. Just remember to be gentle and kind with others … and yourself. You’re worth it.
Bandura, A., & McClelland, D. C. (1977). Social learning theory (Vol. 1). Prentice Hall: Englewood cliffs.
Matt Fleming is a public school administrator in California. He splits his time between his family, his work, and completing his Ph.D. in psychology with an emphasis in cognitive psychology and instruction.
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.