This school year has been mostly postpandemic. We have few masks and limited virtual learning in most schools. But are we back to where we were before 2020? Many teachers agree that we are not. The talk in my staff lounge (and I suspect many staff lounges across the country) is frequently about how kids have changed. Emotional fragility, lower motivation, and shorter attention spans are the most noted differences.
What happened? What or whom is to blame? And will we ever get back to the way things were in 2019? These are intriguing questions, but I doubt we will ever answer them. They also lead us away from more important ones: If this is the new normal, how can teachers adjust? And how do we meet kids where they are now and move them forward?
1. Start with research
Understanding how students have changed since the pandemic starts with objective analysis. I think of myself as an anthropologist studying student evolution. Does this seem drastic? Perhaps, but we can’t move forward unless we understand our students inside and out.
Make a list of changes you’ve noticed. Are kids struggling with social skills? Do they lack organization? Are they less willing to take risks or to go for a bonus assignment? The changes will vary depending on your grade level and other circumstances. The important thing is to be thorough in identifying new behaviors and in thinking about how they affect our teaching and our classrooms. Then, we must brainstorm solutions and implement them.
2. Bend your own rules if it helps kids
Many of us have long-held beliefs about how classrooms should look and run. We have rules and routines to maximize efficiency and increase performance. But maybe we need to get out of the way if what has worked in the past no longer works. I like to put all kinds of groupings together to give kids practice working with various personality types and ability levels. This is still an important skill, but it’s taking a back seat this year.
Early in the year, my groupings were causing conflict. Students were shutting down or squabbling with one another. I started tinkering with groups and finding pods of students who communicated well together. Now, when I find groups that work well, I often use them multiple times. When my kids are comfortable, they learn more, so I’ve bent my previous thinking to accommodate what I’m seeing in my classes.
This doesn’t mean we throw out everything from the past. I start with identifying the problem, and then I make small modifications until I work toward a solution. Recently, my students have struggled to turn in online assignments. In most cases, the assignments are complete, but never submitted.
Obviously, we still want students to take responsibility for their work. But I found that instead of penalizing them with bad grades (as I did in the past), I can simply make a list on the board of the students who have missing assignments. We take a few minutes at the start of class for students to submit, while I make bad teacher jokes about imaginary consequences, like receiving a dreaded “F Triple Minus Vomit Face” the next time this happens. Students receive a short grace period to complete the assignments and submit if necessary.
The work gets submitted with little extra effort on my end, and kids avoid the mental anguish of a grade book zero.
3. Make Connecting a Clear Focus
Many of us felt disconnected and pushed off course by the pandemic. I sense kids struggling to connect with one another and with me, compared with past years. It took me a while to realize that this wasn’t my fault, but rather a change that could be addressed with new tactics.
For example, my fifth graders enjoy creating things, especially in a low-stakes environment where they can attach silly names or strange personal details to their creations. We started drawing contests on the app Procreate to accompany our science units. When studying outer space, we drew aliens, and for life science, new animal species. We declare winners and I give out small prizes, but the real purpose is for kids to express themselves and communicate their ideas. This takes time away from our lessons, but it helps kids understand one another and brings down emotional barriers.
Anything we can do to connect with students, even if it’s just 15 minutes a week, is important. A question of the day, weekly lunches with small groups of students, or even just intentionally chatting up a different student each school day is worth the effort. Finally, give yourself grace if kids don’t seem as easy to know as in previous years. Many kids have emotional guardrails in place, and it will take some time to learn how to get through to them.
4. Don’t dwell on the past
Sitting around thinking about how things used to be helps no one. Once we’ve identified changes and started working toward solutions, it is time to move on. If we refrain from comparing our current classes with those from previous years, we save mental energy and are better equipped to help the students we have now. This is important both for students and for us.
If we worry that we aren’t reaching kids like we did before or that they aren’t absorbing as much, we can wear ourselves down. We might blame ourselves and start doubting our teaching abilities. It’s really important to focus on the present instead. We should think: Who is sitting at the desks, and what do they need from us? It will take time to adjust to the students of 2023, but we are professionals, and we will figure it out. Together.