Pandemic Fallout in the Classroom
This isn’t about teacher burnout, although I first put pen to paper after a particularly grueling day at work. This is about how pandemic trauma manifests in America’s teens, how we see it in the high school classroom, and how it’s affecting a generation. I’ve heard many education-adjacent professionals suggest that teachers are struggling this year because Zoom got us out of the habit of “real” teaching. They imply that we educators used to be “better” (more proactive? more creative? more optimistic? more dedicated?), and if we again invoke these traits we’ll stop having difficulty reaching our students. This gaslighting just incentivizes teachers to suffer silently.
So although this isn’t about burnout, I can’t begin without emphasizing that every teacher I’ve talked to is in over their head this year. Nobody has a working solution. Before teaching, I spent eight years in the hedge fund industry as an analyst and manager, and I never took a mental health day. Last week, for the first time in my career, I took a day off because I just needed the break.
But this is about our students, whom we love dearly and who are not okay. The media has begun to acknowledge it in generalities, as it manifests in lower attendance and increased reports of challenging behaviors. Here’s my story of this school year so far, so you can see how pandemic trauma is manifesting in schools and how much work there is to be done.
In September, we returned to 30-student classes, after a year in which most students were fully remote. Students last year learned some critical calendar management and digital communication skills that we’d never taught before. They connected through technology. But they missed out on curricular content, collaboration opportunities, and academic grit-building. Teachers are now faced with the task of helping students exercise these deteriorated muscles.
In the first couple weeks of school this year, my students were deer in headlights. They went through the motions as we set classroom norms, got logged into our digital platforms, and began working on content. They told me they were excited and nervous about being back in person. They weren’t sure how to make friends. I deliberately had them work together on assignments and I quizzed them daily on how many of their classmates they could name, to decrease the barriers to connecting. They began to open up and find community.
By October, the avoidance behaviors had begun. Students were cutting class in droves, hiding in the bathroom or stairwell, or sneaking into other teachers’ classes. In the classroom, behavior challenges reached an unprecedented level. Students regularly screamed and hit each other, threw objects across the room, left candy and wrappers in desks and on the floor, dancing to TikTok videos, and doodled on the furniture. In the moment I always told the student to stop, and then afterward we’d have a conversation — but it didn’t change their behavior. Never before in my career have I been unable to quiet a classroom after using every trick in the book. When I wish to address the whole class these days, it takes about two minutes to get the first half of the class to calm down (using the usual “If you hear my voice clap once” and its variants) and by the time the second half has quieted the first half is loud again. If I keep waiting (as we’re taught to do in teacher school), then some of the students who are paying attention begin to yell, “Hey Miss, why are you waiting for everyone? They don’t care, but I want to learn. Stop wasting my time.” I end up circulating around the room, helping students in groups, unable to give instructions or to clear up misconceptions with the whole class at once.
In response to students’ needs, I’ve adapted my style. My smartboard always shows what students should be working on, so they can get back on track if they are distracted or have just reentered the classroom. Every lesson is designed for every level of difficulty and for a variety of interests and learning styles, to give everyone a way in. Students have multiple options and opportunities to demonstrate understanding of a particular learning target. I invite them to my classroom before school or at lunch to help them catch up on content they couldn’t face during class. I conduct cogenerative dialogues to hear their honest experiences and to agree on things we’ll change to improve class going forward. In particular, at my most recent cogen, we agreed to begin each class with an eight-minute “Chill Time” wherein students can hang out and be on their phones. As the students have told me verbally and with their actions, they don’t yet have the stamina for back-to-back 45-minute classes all day. I think this pre-class break is great if it means deeper engagement during the rest of the period. So far, it hasn’t had much of an effect. But one clear benefit is that I can spend those eight minutes conferencing individually with students, to get to know them better. Their behavior is unchanged but our relationships are growing.
As we headed into November, despite thoughtful physics content and increased personal connections, the fraction of disengaged students increased. One of my highest-performing students has started to play games on his phone every day and will not stop when I sit down next to him and ask how things are going. I have a group of students who spent October heartily drawing energy diagrams and debating the mechanisms of global warming, meeting every learning standard from September and October. Yesterday, they still hadn’t begun the day’s lesson about 20 minutes into class. I reminded them to begin, and they said not until they finished their game of Uno. I stood next to them for five long minutes, waiting for the game to end. They were confused (not chastened) by my standing there.
Our students’ sense of why they’re in school has eroded. For over a year, students could hide behind a turned-off video and google their way through assignments, and no one was able to hold them accountable for halfhearted work. Now, students are genuinely affronted by the principle that school is meant to tax their brains, to be nonlinear, to take time. One of my top students honestly believed she was doing nothing wrong when her friend shared his physics quiz with her and she copied the answer to each question. She thought that this is what “working together” meant. Indeed it is what “working together” meant last year. Leaning into learning is harder for them than it’s ever been.
When I speak with parents (which I do daily), many of them are shocked. These aren’t their kids, the parents say. And they’re right: these aren’t the kids from 2019. My 9th graders were in the middle of 7th grade when the pandemic hit. They’d had only one full year of middle school. After a year and a half of trauma, they’re finding a way back to society. They’re testing out behaviors to see what works and what doesn’t. They’re avoiding facing classwork: it’s easier to handle failing because you didn’t try than to handle failing because you may not be good enough. We’ve never been a school where ignoring classwork makes a student cooler, but that’s becoming true this year.
My students are sweet. They are funny. They are brilliant. They ask the best questions (you should see our physics question wall). I love them. They’re also traumatized and immature. In the past, I’ve always honored where my students are by disregarding the lesson plan when it just wasn’t their day. But what do you do when every day just isn’t their day?
I love designing lessons for students who hadn’t heard of physics before meeting me. I don’t mind the paperwork that comes with the job. I honestly don’t mind when markers get thrown in my classroom from time to time, or when my stickers and balloons are stolen by students who don’t yet understand how unacceptable that is. I forgive them, while I hold them accountable. They’re learning how to re-enter society. And I do relish a challenge: I thrive on the freedom to try new strategies every day, to see what works and what doesn’t, to get closer to my students as we work through this time together.
If you’re thinking, “Why don’t you try ___?” I’ve probably tried it. (But if I haven’t, then I look forward to doing so.) If you’re thinking, “Maybe collaborate with other teachers, or guidance counselors, or the social worker?” I do that every day: my colleagues are amazing. We regularly meet to vent and strategize about specific student interventions, to implement changes across the whole school and not just in my classroom. If you’re thinking, “Maybe you need more support from school leaders?” then you’re wrong: our school leaders understand the issue and are actively working with us to find solutions. In fact, this unending support from colleagues and administration is a big part of why I expect I’ll make it through this year, and I’m unlikely to quit.
There’s no silver bullet that another school seems to be doing, and if only we just could copy that thing then we’ll all be fine. Teachers are not okay because our students are not okay. It might just take a year or two to figure ourselves out. Here’s hoping we heal together. In the meantime, I’ll keep cleaning up the pencils that I expect my students will keep snapping in half.
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