Reflecting on a year of distance learning as teachers plan for school reopening

Photo of teacher teaching online
Researchers from SRI Education and the University of Missouri are collaborating on a study to evaluate the efficacy of a classroom management program applied in dozens of classrooms in the Midwest and West Coast. The program, called Discipline in the Secondary Classroom (DSC), provides high school teachers with strategies they can use to enhance engagement, foster positive and productive learning environments, and prevent student behavior problems. Learn more about the DSC classroom management curriculum here.

After over a full year of school closures, several teachers and school administrators are busy preparing for the long-awaited return to in-person classes this fall. But while worries of student learning-loss, momentum, and social-emotional well-being remain at the forefront of parent and school administrators’ concerns, the significant impact that this past year had on teachers cannot be overlooked.

In the spring of 2020, researchers from SRI and the University of Missouri interviewed 15 high school teachers participating in the Discipline in the Secondary Classroom study, asking them about their experience transitioning to online learning, and how they and their students were affected by the change (see the blog post here). The SRI research team followed up with 6 of these teachers a year later in spring 2021 to learn more about their experiences teaching in remote and hybrid settings during the pandemic and what they anticipated for the upcoming school year.

The teachers we spoke with put in a great deal of effort to adapt to online teaching, engage students, and meet growing expectations from both the district and their students’ parents. This included extra prep work to meet remote learning needs, paying out of pocket to learn and utilize new programs in hopes of boosting student participation, and a lot of self-teaching on a variety of new technologies. Despite putting in this extra work to meet individual student needs, teachers still experienced challenges related to student engagement and interaction. As one teacher shared, “It’s so impersonal. You don’t get into teaching to sit by yourself… You just feel like you’re ghosted all the time…That’s rough. Before hybrid, it was hard to sit there and just question if anyone was even listening…That’s hard that you spend so much time, it’s so much work to translate everything into an online form, and then to do all that and to have no response.”

Although teachers relayed their concerns related to limited engagement, lags in student motivation, and learning loss, they also recognized the economic and equity implications of COVID-19 for several of their students’ families. Teachers were aware of students who were juggling other responsibilities at home such as caring for younger siblings, and they adopted more flexible classroom policies knowing schoolwork could not always be top priority. One teacher stated, “It was a socio-economic divide. My kids in poverty had a harder time. I started to realize the reasons kids weren’t doing things was beyond their control. So, I started to assign things that they could do outside of class time. So that if they’re babysitting, they can revisit assignments. I’d leave assignments open for kids to give them flexibility.”

Despite all of the heavy challenges, teachers also shared productive and positive takeaways for planning for the upcoming school year.

  • First and foremost, nearly all teachers agreed that maintaining the mental health and wellbeing of their students will remain a top concern going into the next school year. They plan to continue to check in on student wellness even once back in the classrooms, knowing that the burdens students carried over the last 18 months are still with them. One teacher mentioned that is easier to establish these relationships and talk about student wellbeing now that they are back in-person. This article from The Child Mind Institute provides some strategies teachers can use to support their students’ mental health, such as setting aside time for mindfulness and relaxation exercises during the school day. Additionally, this article from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley offers strategies to support teens’ mental health during COVID and beyond.
  • To the extent possible, teachers also want to continue to be flexible with students once full capacity classes resume, whether that is in their grading policies, or introducing alternative ways for students to engage as they did through various platforms in the online setting. One teacher mentioned continuing to give students options to demonstrate their knowledge (e.g., writing a paper, giving an oral presentation, pre-recording themselves and presenting to their peers). To learn more about strategies for engaging students in different types of instructional environments, check out this previous blog post.
  • Teachers agree that they need to make it a priority to give positive feedback to encourage their students’ efforts as often as possible. They hope that this might help reduce the patterns of apathy shown by students in the last year and restore both motivation and self-confidence. They recognize that when students feel good about their work, they perform better. See our previous blog post that describes some strategies for communicating effectively with students across learning environments.
  • Lastly, teachers acknowledge that this coming school year they will be tasked with helping students rebuild the social connections that were largely paused during the past year of online learning. Many stated that they are committed to finding new ways for students to connect and will put a higher emphasis on extracurricular activities for students to get involved in, whether it is through music, dance, sports, or other activities. Here are six strategies that teachers can use in their classrooms to help students build better relationships to their teacher and their peers.

Teachers seem to be cautiously optimistic about what school might look like this upcoming fall when in-person instruction resumes. Just as teachers will be supporting students to make the transition back to in-person learning, it will be equally important for school administrators and districts to be mindful of the challenges and stress that teachers have experienced during the pandemic and ensure they, too, receive support and encouragement as they begin the school year.

To learn more about teacher mental health and consequences of secondary trauma, please check out our blog post: When helping students hurts: Secondary Traumatic Stress. In addition, we’ve compiled relevant resources for districts and administrators seeking additional support in addressing some of the mental health needs of teachers. Please use and pass on this information to your colleagues.