By Kevin Scott
Last year I wrote about my return to the classroom in a wild year and discussed many of the challenges I faced as a 7th grade U.S. history teacher after more than a decade away from teaching. While some facets of teaching—and attending—middle school have returned to ‘normal,’ so many things have not. For example, while all my students are back in the school building they don’t have lockers because our locker pods would pack them too closely together. So they carry everything with them everywhere they go throughout the day. This doesn’t sound too bad until I think about what it would have been like in my former office life, if I had not had a cubicle—if I had had to carry my lunch, my laptop, and any notes or notebooks to every meeting I attended every day, with no place to call my own. My students are now twelve-year-old nomads who are really, really good at leaving stuff behind.
This is just one, tangible example of how we’re “back” to school…but not really. The 2021-2022 school year started with a strange energy. Veteran teachers I work with talked about their students’ lack of knowledge—not about content, but about knowing how “to do school” again. The year and a half lost in a virtual space wasn’t just impacting their math foundations or ability to write a complete sentence; it was impacting basic social behavior. I started out the year saying “chat box” to my classes when they all spoke at once, trying (and often failing) to indicate that we weren’t in a virtual world anymore, where everyone could post their stream of consciousness in the chat box. From my perspective, the verbal deluge was just noise, and we had to establish some norms about how to have a classroom discussion. Trying to teach something as complex as post-Civil War Reconstruction to a room full of lawless 7th graders who have forgotten the basic rules of conversation is an impossible task. And that’s the unit we start with in September.
Unsurprisingly, there are also much higher levels of anxiety among both staff and students this year. Some days are okay, but others aren’t. Students who are worried about getting Covid come in with double masks while others pull their masks down to their chin almost all the time. Even before the pandemic, a lot of our time as teachers was spent as pseudo police officers: don’t run, don’t hug, hands to yourself, put your phone away during class, you can’t wear a Jack Daniels shirt to middle school, etc. But being the mask police has been my least favorite daily chore. Now, with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, I don’t see that changing during this school year. So far, I’ve been even more worried about infection in 2022 than I was in 2021.
There have been other safety concerns this school year besides the fear of spreading COVID or getting sick. Like thousands of other schools around the country, we started the school year with students vandalizing restrooms and posting what they stole or broke on TikTok. This challenge was a major disruption to the beginning of the school year, and frankly scared a lot of kids from going to use the bathroom. At least for a little while, we had one bathroom open for boys and one for girls with an administrator parked outside the door checking for phones. On some days, the school resource officer would also be waiting at the door to the restroom. Have you ever gone to the bathroom while a police officer waited in the hallway? I have not.
So what can we do to combat this new wave of stressors for our students—on top of the collective trauma of the past two years? There is, of course, no straightforward answer. As the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) lead for our school, I have helped to establish a period of time every other day in our block schedule for teachers to lead conversations about stress management, time management, and reflection, among other topics. Students also have a 20-minute break, during which they are not supposed to do anything academic and are basically allowed to just chill out. Our school has over 1,400 adolescents with many different SEL needs. As we gather more data about where students are as individuals through a series of surveys, we are hoping to be able to break down what we can do at the school level. Next, we’ll work in smaller teams to support those students who need it most. As it’s often said in educator circles, “there’s a lot more art to this than science.” That doesn’t mean we’re not using data to support decisions—it just means we are working with a never-ending series of changes.
The 2021-2022 school year has been challenging, but I don’t think anyone who works in a school system thought we would reset to the before-times immediately. Teachers are beyond overwhelmed, and are leaving the profession as fast as anyone can remember. Substitute teacher and bus driver shortages have changed the landscape for administrators and district leaders as they manage a workforce crisis. What I try to focus on each day are the students in front of me. I think I echo many teachers in classrooms around the country when I say that I am still glad that every day I get to help kids learn, listen to their laughter (even through the masks), and encourage them to ask questions and grow.
As a history teacher, it’s not lost on me how this time will be indelible in our collective memory. When we look back at the 2021-22 school year, and the early 2020s in general, I think the current challenges posed by TikTok videos and waffling decisions by decision makers will recede. What will be remembered is the sense of anxiety many educators and students endured, the way we tried to teach and learn virtually, and that we somehow made it through one of the most challenging times in recent world history. In just these last two years, we’ve gained a new appreciation for vaccines and the scientists that create them, a different perspective on the “risks” we take, like eating out at a restaurant surrounded by strangers, and a better understanding about how to manage crisis and trauma. Students of the future may marvel at how naive we were, but will be the beneficiaries of what we’ve learned.
Kevin Scott is a dedicated educator who brings multiple lenses to his teaching practice. In addition to his past and current experience as a middle school teacher, he has worked with educators nationwide at ASCD and elsewhere, learning from the best about how to approach all students with a balanced, student-centered philosophy.