As the nation's population is (slowly) vaccinated and a new President assumes office, most educators (our profession, unfortunately, was represented among the Capitol insurrectionists) have begun to imagine school and the rest of their lives freed from the grotesqueries of the pandemic and from the daily assaults on truth that President Trump promoted. We've had enough head space to begin to imagine what lingering effects we'll have before us and what educators will be called to do in the next several years. Here are some of the challenges that await educators next year once our students return in person.
The pandemic brought isolation, fear and anxiety, and in some cases, emergent trauma. Teachers spent the year putting on a brave face for their students and supporting them as best they could. I worry that many educators will collapse on the other side of the finish line this June and need more than just the fresh winds of summer to recuperate. The rising incidence of suicidal behavior among teens and tweens is the most salient indicator that schools should plan to redouble efforts to support student and faculty mental health next year. The lessons from trauma-informed teaching practice are clear: people cannot learn when they are traumatized.
By late spring last year, we began worrying publicly about lost learning for students during the pandemic. Those concerns grew this school year particularly for elementary age students for whom even the growing ingenuity of remote instruction made little difference. Teachers will need to be acutely aware of how anxious parents will be about this matter, and schools must be proactive in helping set expectations for how they'll go about making up this lost ground and the time it might take.
Social Skills and Stamina
It will be particularly important for schools to communicate how they'll help kids rebuild social/emotional skills and how important it is that kids feel safe individually and collectively before they can learn effectively. Even kids who were fortunate enough to have near-age siblings or pandemic social bubbles for social practice will still struggle with the sheer social effort it takes to negotiate the many relationships and expectations inherent in a typical classroom, as will the adults at school. It will take time for all of us to recapture social stamina.
For better and worse, school and work at home dissolved many of the boundaries of time and space that had structured our lives pre-pandemic. Some parents gained a very frank and healthy awareness of their children's learning and independence and had the time and wherewithal to help them continue to grow. Others became over-invested in their children's learning and will need coaching from teachers and others at school to give their children the necessary latitude that connotes trust. Still other parents, whose personal and professional lives left little room to serve as "learning concierges" or who are simply done with it will have to be drawn back in to partnerships with the school.
For the next year or more, families will be reorganizing their daily schedules and life patterns. If the pundits have it right, many parents will continue working from home for the foreseeable future, perhaps forever. Some will look for new schools for their kids having lost faith throughout the pandemic in their children's current schools. Some parents will struggle to re-set the family climate bar to "strong and thriving" after having down-shifted to "vaguely dissatisfied-to-bickering" during the pandemic. Educators will be doing the same readjusting within their own families even as they patiently help their students' families re-establish healthy family dynamics.
A New Standard for Digital Learning
Kids and parents have had a close look at some inspired distance teaching with creative uses of digital tools. Next year, they'll expect a much higher standard of teacher facility with these tools across the board than they would have had we not had a pandemic. It will be very important to help those teachers who have struggled with these tools to get caught up.
I'm convinced that honesty and compassion are the key ingredients in all of this work next year, and I'm pretty optimistic on that front. We've always been good at compassion in independent schools. Even better, truth is making a comeback. Teachers will be working in a national climate less saturated with moral and ethical equivocation, an environment in which sources of genuine authority, like schools, will be readier to declare firmly what we see, what we can and cannot do to help, and why we believe it is the right thing to do.