by Kevin Scott
If you ask any educator how last school year went, you’ll likely get an exasperated sigh in response. From new teachers to those with decades of experience, from those teaching pre-k music through the most advanced high school physics class, the 2021-2022 school year was unusually challenging. At the beginning of the year, we just wanted to get back to full classrooms for the first time in over a year. But as I wrote in January 2022, by mid-school year things weren’t perfect by anyone’s assessment and the struggles students faced around “how to do” school in person again were both behavioral and academic. This stressed not only students but also their parents, teachers, and school administrators. So now that I’ve been off for a few weeks and I can sleep well (and longer) again, I’m starting to think about what educators can do next year to improve on what was a difficult “first year back.”
- Mind the phones.
As much as I embrace technology, the biggest point of frustration for me last year was managing so many middle school students who had laptops and phones at their fingertips all the time. We had a school and district policy that phones were to be away for the day, but this policy is not easy to enforce—not to mention that with the recent lockdowns and school shootings, not having access to phones in classrooms can even be considered a safety issue. In fact, my own high schooler went through a real lockdown in his school last year (which turned out okay in the end) and I was texting him nonstop to find out if he was safe. Every parent I know was doing the same thing. I can’t be a hypocrite and expect my school or my classroom to be any different in an emergency. But to manage it a little better, I plan to have a bin or an old-school calculator holder for phones at the front of my classroom next year so that the phones are in the room but out of students’ hands while we’re actively learning. I hope our administrators and parents will be supportive of being a little stricter with phones in class next year to maintain a more engaging environment.
- Laptops are not necessary all the time.
Every student is issued a laptop in our middle school. In the transition from hybrid school in the spring of 2021 to in person in the fall of 2021, I relied too heavily on Google Classroom, Schoology, and many, many other tools. What surprised and delighted me last year was the calm that comes over a room of 7th graders when you ask them to color in the regions of a U.S. map. It isn’t something I’ll do every day, but this is one example of the value that tangible and engaging analog activities still hold. I know other teachers were also realizing last year that kids actually thrived when they had a break from their laptops, and are now planning to put them away more often next year. These devices can be useful for so many things in our classrooms, but we don’t need them 100% of every class period.
- Treat teachers like we know what we’re doing.
School administrators need to be aware that, now more than ever, teachers feel like we’re working under a microscope and must tread carefully in every word we say. It’s exhausting. I feel extremely fortunate to work in a setting where teachers are by and large respected by administrators and parents alike, but even so, there has never been a more difficult time to be an educator. As a history teacher, I’m extremely cautious with my wording and how I approach teaching the trickiest topics, and I know my colleagues do the same. Yet there can be no way of pleasing everyone, and as teachers we are treated by many in the media and even some parents as monsters just for teaching the curriculum. Some see it as overly conservative while others feel we are indoctrinating children with progressive propaganda. And this critical attitude towards teachers extends far beyond history classrooms; from the books taught in ELA classes to the management of student misbehavior, teachers are constantly condemned.
So how can school leaders support teachers this coming school year? Treat us like the skilled professionals we are and give us the latitude to help students learn. With constant criticism coming from outside the school, it’s never been more important for teachers to be trusted and supported within school.
- Be kind.
Finally, teaching can be the most rewarding career imaginable, while also bringing the hardest single days of any job I’ve ever had. No, teachers are not rocket scientists or brain surgeons, but we make hundreds of decisions a day at a pace that’s exhausting. This coming school year, I’d love to hear more stories about parents taking a minute to thank a teacher when their kids share something positive from school. I’d love it if administrators came out of their offices more often to greet students and teachers with positive interactions. And in June of 2023, I’d love to look back at a year that was rich with learning, engagement, and appreciation for the joy of building a positive community centered around a school building. I still have hope that these scenarios can become a reality.
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.