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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

11 Strategies for Facing This Year’s Classroom Challenges

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 03, 2021 12 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

What do you think will be some of the challenges for teachers who might be returning to the physical classroom for the first time in a year and a half, and what are your ideas for how they can best handle them?

The new school year has already begun for some and will soon kick off for the rest of us.

Today’s post offers some advice for all of us on how to face it ...

Today, Meg Tegerdine, Robert S. Harvey, Lauren Nifong, and Julia Stearns Cloat offer their best suggestions.

You might also be interested in Ten Ways I’ll Be Teaching Differently Next Year, where I previously shared my own plans, along with A Beginning List Of Resources On Supporting Our Students As We Make Baby Steps Towards Returning To A Post-Pandemic Classroom.

Giving ‘Grace’

Meg Tegerdine is a nine-year veteran special educator teaching in a self-contained setting in north St. Louis County, Mo. Three words she uses to describe her classroom culture are leadership, community, and voice. Meg was recognized as a 2021 Extraordinary Educator by Curriculum Associates:

For many kids, learning virtually meant having limited access to peers and, therefore, limited access to social interactions. For my kids, this was even more difficult because they are in my self-contained classroom in order to improve their academic progress and their social/emotional/behavioral skills. Not only were they out of practice in social interactions by the time we returned to in-person learning in late 2020, but we also suddenly changed the rules on them. We had to social distance, wear face masks that were uncomfortable and made it hard to understand one another, and could no longer high-five or give a side hug.

These barriers and many more led to a lot of frustration for my students, my staff, and myself. My classroom has always felt like a community, but we had to relearn how to be one. Here are some things that helped us:

  1. Explicitly communicate expectations, routines, procedures, and consequences: Be clear and concise and make sure to give reasoning when possible. Make consequences of positive and negative behavior clear so that no one is surprised. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. This may seem like going overboard, but be sure that your students are consistently hearing about, observing, and practicing these skills.
  2. Build in time to get to know each other better: We all spent months teaching through screens. Now that the kids are back in person, you may feel that you need to focus 100 percent of your attention on academics. Yes, academics are essential and the BIG reason we come to school, but we’re not just teaching academic skills. Keep in mind that you are teaching an entire human being who needs to learn how to positively engage with others. Build time to create positive relationships. This may seem like a small piece of the puzzle, but without positive relationships and community, your teaching will not have as much of an impact.
  3. Combine learning modalities and give kids voice in your class: None of us had a choice in how we were learning during the pandemic. Most of us were told we had to stay home and reach our students through a computer screen. That was tough for adults, but think how much more difficult it was for students who don’t have the coping or problem-solving skills that we do. Our students’ lives were drastically changed over the pandemic, and they had little to no say in their own learning.

    Give students voice in your classroom. This can be as simple as combining learning modalities by allowing students to choose to complete assignments with paper and pencil or through their computer. When possible, give them ownership over classroom problem-solving and management. Encourage your students to be leaders in their classroom and school community and to use their voice to advocate for themselves and others.

  4. Give one another (and yourself) grace: I imagine that like me, many of you felt like you just weren’t doing enough. That you were working 24/7 and that there still weren’t enough hours in the day. Take a breath. Maybe two. And give yourself grace. This is not going to be easy. Teaching changes constantly, but over the last year, you have done incredible things to support your students. Coming back in person is not going to be picture perfect, but it will be classroom perfect. Your kids will be exactly where they are meant to be with the exact person who was meant to teach them.
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‘Naming Emotions’

Robert S. Harvey is the superintendent of East Harlem Scholars Academies, a community-based network of public charter schools in New York City, and chief academic officer of East Harlem Tutorial Program, where he manages an out-of-school-time program and teaching residency. He is visiting professor in public leadership at the Memphis Theological Seminary. And he is the author of Abolitionist Leadership in Schools: Undoing Systemic Injustice through Communally Conscious Education:

As teachers prepare to return to physical classrooms, the challenges facing them [as humans, first, then as pedagogues] are expansive, particularly because it will demand balancing the personal and the pedagogical. From internalized loss and social isolation to increased anxiety to exacerbated housing, economic, food, and health disparities, teachers will inevitably have to hold the impact of these challenges on a young person’s lived reality, and therefore, on a young person’s pedagogical engagement.

Against that backdrop, emotional ambiguity from the joy of being reconnected and yet the angst of that connection occurring within close proximity will require teachers to radically humanize the emotional as consequential for the pedagogical. In effect, returning to the physical classroom will inescapably yield an experience of emotions that many of us have never experienced.

Thus, a strategy to employ is communal emotional labeling, which is the practice of making space [within community, which is classroom] for naming emotions with granularity—an act that seems simple but can be incredibly transformative. It transcends, “I’m fine,” and invites, “I feel worried and closed-in.” Or, instead of “I’m OK,” it allows, “I feel confused, just here, lost.” Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, writes: “We need a more nuanced vocabulary for emotions, not just for the sake of being more precise, but because incorrectly diagnosing our emotions makes us respond incorrectly.”

Think about how often we as educators, and the students we support, barrel through our days and weeks completely unmindful of what we are feeling? Now, take that unawareness and compound it by the last year and a half and imagine the pedagogical possibilities by ensuring that before we give of ourselves in teaching and learning, we check in with ourselves in mind and spirit.

In marginalized communities full of Black, brown, and economically vulnerable students, correctly labeling [or what we can call, self-diagnosing] emotions is the beginning of utilizing agency to set an expectation of what students need to be supported within the classroom.

For instance, when one of our upper-elementary students told me that she felt frustrated with coming to school, we explored it more. Did she feel nervous about entering into a building because she had experienced loss at the height of the pandemic? Did she have anxieties from previous years about her academic performance, which clouded her experience with school prepandemic until now? Was their perceived embarrassment because her friends’ families selected for them to be virtual, yet her family selected otherwise?

As students, and as teachers [modeling the expectation], become aware of the intricacies of what we are feeling and can communicate effectively with those around us within community, we can then free ourselves to become present in meaningful and whole ways, which creates the conditions for information internalization and emotional transformation.

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‘Consistency’

Lauren Nifong is an instructional coach in Greenville, S.C. She holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, a master’s degree in administration and supervision, and is currently a member of South Carolina ASCD’s 2021 Class of Emerging Leaders. You can connect with Lauren at @Lnifong0320 on Twitter:

As schools begin to reopen and welcome young people back into their buildings, teachers and students alike are now faced with the challenge of returning to “normal” (or as close to “normal” as possible). What obstacles will teachers face, and how will they overcome them to best serve their students in this new era?

One of the greatest challenges that teachers will most likely face will be helping students acclimate back into classroom expectations and procedures. For over a year, students have participated in virtual learning without a classroom full of their peers to collaborate with in person. After being self-paced in their own homes, students will now have to adjust to coming back into an academic setting. The structure that is normally implemented throughout a school day will have to be relearned.

Teachers may also need to address social-anxiety issues that arise for students who are entering back into society after quarantine. With mask mandates and social-distancing guidelines perhaps lifted, students will now be able to be in close contact with many people throughout the school day. Some students may be apprehensive about collaborating closely with others. Families have approached this pandemic in various ways. Students will enter our schools with differing opinions and understandings of what the world has experienced in the last year. It will be crucial for teachers to be compassionate, understanding, and supportive.

The variables that face educators in this new school year may seem daunting, but like any other obstacle, teachers seem to always find a way to meet the needs of their students. Building relationships will be key to fostering environments that are supportive and conducive to learning. By being intentional about connecting with students and their unique circumstances, teachers can build a bridge of trust that will help to ensure expectations and procedures are respected and followed.

Consistency will also be essential to the fidelity of classroom routines. Educators will need to spend even more time than usual explicitly teaching and modeling classroom expectations so that students can adjust back into the academic setting. The road to recovering from a global pandemic may be rocky, but if anyone can persevere and ensure students are educated, loved, and protected—it’s a teacher.

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‘Unfinished Learning & Stamina’

Julia Stearns Cloat, Ph.D., has spent the past 25 years working in unit school districts in roles including literacy specialist, instructional coach, and curriculum director and has earned awards for her work in student services. Julia currently works as executive director of curriculum and instruction in Freeport, Ill., and as an adjunct professor at Northern Illinois University:

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, most students have experienced disruption and/or a lack of continuity in their formal learning. Students who have been learning from home for the past year will face challenges as they adjust to being back in the physical classroom. It is likely that the biggest challenges to students and teachers as they return to a fully in-person environment are unfinished learning and stamina.

Data from the 2020-21 school year shows a trend among students of unfinished learning, especially in math. Students who return to in-person learning after having been learning at home for the past 18 months will return with a greater range in their progress toward grade-level proficiencies than teachers typically see at the beginning of the school year.

In the coming year, differentiated instruction will have greater importance than ever. In order to accommodate for the increased need for remediation, teachers and administrators should consider how to adjust the systems, such as MTSS or RTI, that support students. With the increased need for academic and behavior supports, tier 1 core instruction should focus on grade-level standards that were identified by the state or district as being high priority. Teachers who are in districts and/or states that have not identified priority standards can work together to identify the high-leverage standards. In the coming year, tiered interventions should be pushed into the classroom when possible. It will be important for teachers to not give into the temptation to spend every instructional minute on the remediation of skills. Instead, teachers should continue to teach grade-level skills and standards, adding the remediation as a differentiated layer on top of the core instruction.

When learning remotely, it is much easier to take mental breaks than it is while in the physical classroom. Students who are returning to in-person learning for the first time in a year and a half will need to build back the stamina that it takes to be in school and learning all day, five days a week. Students will need to readjust to the routines and structure of school.

Establishing and communicating clear routines will be crucial at the beginning of the year. Teachers should work toward building learning stamina by reducing the amount of time that students are required to sit and listen, increasing the number of physical breaks, and by slowly increasing time spent on cognitively demanding tasks (e.g., independent reading, independent work).

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Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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