Welcome back! The past two school years have been like no other. A pandemic, a nationwide school shutdown, remote learning, and epic health-and-safety guidelines are just a few of the obstacles educators have overcome. As the dust settles and we start to make sense of what surrounds us, you might notice a few things. Perhaps the need for mental health support for students is up. Maybe your staff morale needs a boost. The number of students engaged in the learning process might be half of what you are used to observing. When you pull your failure rate for courses, maybe you’ve found that over half of your student body is failing at least one class. As the joy and optimism of coming out of a pandemic fade, the feeling of being overwhelmed sets in.
As educational leaders, we are charged with helping students adjust to being back in a brick-and-mortar setting in a post-pandemic world. While elementary teachers and leaders have been talking about how the learning loss is truly unfinished learning, this holds an entirely different meaning to secondary students working to earn credit toward graduation. Every class counts; we don’t have time for do-overs. The time is now.
Whether you were fully remote last year or had students in person for part of the time, we are all still working to help students readjust to school. Whether you are in Alaska, Missouri, or Oregon, our task is the same: supporting students to find success. As you set out on this quest over the next nine months, here are some tips to help get you going.
Focus on Relationships
Let’s be honest. We work harder for those we know care about us or those with whom we have a relationship. If we don’t spend the time getting to know our students, the rest of the year will be fruitless. We have to show them that we care, and this has to occur daily. Are you greeting students at the door by their names? Are you engaging in authentic conversations with students during class, during passing time, or when they arrive at school? If you aren’t, now is the time. Spend the first few weeks building a strong sense of community within your class. The time you spend upfront on this will pay off as the year progresses. If this isn’t in your wheelhouse of skills, try working on a simple community-building activity at the start of each class period to get you going.
Build in Mental Health Supports for Staff and Students
Both staff and students need mental health support. These past few years have been rough, and we all need help adjusting to keep our stress low, our anxiety in check, and our productivity high. If you can leverage school counselors for open office hour times for staff, go for it! If not, you might try hosting some available times yourself or bringing in some mental health staff from the outside. The more your team is balanced, the more balanced they will be with students and their struggles.
You may have noticed that the level of mental health struggles of your students has gone up significantly. The struggle was real when it came to COVID-19 isolation. In order to be ready to support your students, think about ways that you can increase connection within your building through the use of additional advisory days, increased social events, and mental health support for students. You might consider adding additional staff that students can check in with throughout the day if needed, partnering with outside counseling services to make access easier, or integrating a solid social-emotional curriculum into your school day, such as the CharacterStrong curriculum.
Maximize Your Time With Students
We have all learned through the pandemic that our time with students should not be taken for granted. Every minute counts. As we come back, we truly need to examine how we spend our time with students. Is what we are doing in class connected to the heart and soul of our class content? If it’s not, we need to reflect on and examine why we are even wasting time on it. Students need to be engaged, challenged, and learning in ways that excite and empower them.
We also need to examine how we are spending the class period. Are we using high-impact strategies that are connected back to John Hattie’s work on effect size that will help students grow at higher rates? Not all instructional strategies are created equal, and we need to maximize our time with students. Work to incorporate a strong intervention system, specific and timely feedback, classroom discussion, and clarity of what you are teaching so students know what they are learning about, why they are studying it, and how they will know when they have reached mastery.
Get Crystal Clear About What Matters
Now is the time to get crystal clear about what matters in each class. What are the key power standards to the course, and how do they vertically align with the class above and below? With failure rates at record levels among schools throughout the nation, the only way to achieve credit recovery and classes for credit is to get strategic. With students needing additional scaffolded support, there isn’t time to teach everything. Instead of covering everything an inch deep, figure out what each class needs to go deep on. When determining power standards, look for those that have leverage, endurance, and essentiality.
Get Serious About Equitable and Fair Grading Practices
If we are going to make a change in education, we truly have to get serious about the grading practices within our school systems. Douglas Reeves has it right in his book FAST Grading: A Guide to Implementing Best Practices. We need our grading practices to be fair, accurate, specific, and timely. When these are implemented within the school system, they can reduce failure rates, improve student discipline, encourage learning, and enhance morale for both staff and students.
John George is the principal of Dexter McCarty Middle School in Gresham, OR. Rachael George is the principal of Sandy Grade School in Sandy, OR.