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This Year, We Need to Focus on the Whole Student

By Louise Williamson

I was excited to return to my classroom this fall and see my students in person, but about three weeks into the school year, I felt like a failure. My students were sullen, off-task, unfocused, and wouldn’t talk to each other or to me. Even though they worked during class, they didn’t submit assignments, and I had a shocking number of failing grades. Furthermore, my school had outbreaks of behavior problems that we were wholly unused to and unprepared for: fights, vandalism, and numerous drug and alcohol issues. I wasn’t alone; my colleagues all lamented the same difficulties.

To understand the problem, I decided to talk to my students about their feelings and experiences. What I heard was eye-opening, and, in some cases, deeply disturbing: “I am overwhelmed; I have four hours of homework a night. I’ve given up my job and my sport and I still can’t manage to get caught up.”

“I forgot how to be a student. I’m completely unmotivated.”

“I had a lot of responsibilities during distance learning, and none of them have gone away, even though I am now at school for six hours a day.”

“I lost a family member to COVID, and I’ve never had a chance to recover from that.”

“I feel anxious at school; I forgot how to talk to people and don’t have anything in common with my classmates anymore.”

“I feel like I have to choose between my mental health and my grades.”

I am glad that districts like mine across the state have been awarded significant funding through California’s Educator Effectiveness Funds (EEF). As districts make spending plans for these monies, nurturing student social-emotional well-being must be a priority in order to re-engage and support our students. Not only do we need to create learning opportunities for teachers like me to explore how to create supportive, caring classroom communities, but we must create sustainable systems for maintaining whole-child-centered school cultures.

Prior to the pandemic, districts were already beginning to realize the importance of school culture and classroom communities. However, the pandemic diverted these efforts, with “learning loss” now dominating the discussion. Teachers, feeling the pressure, are doubling down on their curriculum and are removing wellness check-ins and “community circles.” In my school, for example, we had previously dedicated funds for one full-time and two part-time positions to work with the school community on implementing restorative justice. This year, the previous allocation has been reduced to two teachers having just one hour a day for this — during which they are usually diverted by administrative emergencies. Our district has insisted on proceeding with normal testing, despite knowing that many students are already disengaged and failing. In October, we canceled regular classes for an entire day to give the PSAT, despite the fact that the SAT is no longer required by California universities. That day, we had numerous students sent out of class because of panic attacks.

Building classroom communities is a complex process that requires careful planning, support, and evaluation to have any long-term benefit. Teachers need the ability to have real-time practice of newly acquired skills; this comes from co-teaching, co-planning, and real-time feedback and debriefs. To be able to better support my students, I need time to work with my colleagues to develop engaging, whole-child centered lessons. I need time and space to meet with struggling students, and time to meet with the other teachers of these students to develop support plans. I need time to talk about what is working, what is not working, and what we can change.

Districts must use the EEFs as a bridge to permanent, sustainable positions in social-emotional learning and restorative justice for teachers to take leadership in their own schools. This will not only re-humanize our schools, re-engage students, and resolve most behavior issues, it will also help reconnect educators. Districts need to invest in the idea that transforming school cultures will bring back disaffected teachers, inspire future teachers, and help retain the commitment of current teachers. When teachers know how to connect with their students and community, morale is high.

After hearing my students talk about their feelings and struggles, I changed the way I do things in my classroom. I focused more on having caring conversations and showing students ways to work with their habits and feelings. It has made a big difference. I hope this year will show us not only that we can learn to focus on the whole student, but that we must, or everything else we do is but a wasted effort.

Louise Williamson teaches English at Hilltop High School in Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista, California. She is a 2021–2022 Teach Plus California Policy Fellow.

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