Addressing what students have learned through the pandemic

Kathy Walker, Paul Kelly, and Greg Schillinger • Principal Leadership Article

Turn on the TV or open your newsfeed, and you will hear about how students have lost more than an entire year of learning or that their learning was significantly impeded by the school closures and virtual learning during the pandemic. But what about their growth during this time? To get a real understanding of what our students have gained rather than lost, we reached out to Kathy Walker, principal of East Iredell Middle School in Statesville, NC; Paul Kelly, principal of Elk Grove High School in Elk Grove Village, IL; and Greg Schillinger, principal of Rutland High School in Rutland, VT. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Christine Savicky moderated the discussion.

What has the pandemic taught us about what matters most regarding academics in education?

Walker: I think parents, educators, and administrators can agree that nothing can replace having that teacher who cares for and builds a relationship with students. You see the impact, the difference it makes when kids are in person with an educator. The influence that teachers have is important. Content is there. It’s always going to be there, but it’s those relationships that teachers build with their students that is important. If we take away nothing else, we should definitely take away the importance of relationships. As a society, we need to know that, note that, and hold teachers in that high regard and esteem.

Kelly: We’ve known for a long time that relationships have a huge impact on student learning of all types, whether it be social-emotional or academic. The pandemic has, in my view, really highlighted the power of empathy and the necessity of developing empathy in students. As we’ve watched our country split into loud factions that don’t always listen to each other, it is all the more important that school be the place where children learn the importance of empathy, valuing differing perspectives, and preserving a form of government that demands respect for the other. I believe that’s the way the pandemic has really shaped academics.

Schillinger: I absolutely agree that what the pandemic has taught us about academics is that academics require relationships. I would take it one step further: I think what it has emphasized is that schools need to be conscious and deliberate about how we develop those relationships. Pre-pandemic, we could just rely on teachers developing positive working relationships, but now we need to carve time out of the day. We need to provide structure. We need to provide the things that make those relationships possible. We can’t just talk about them; we need to be really intentional about how we’re forming them.