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How to Plan for Recovery (Part 1 of 3)

virtual learning           

Is it virtual learning, remote learning, or distance learning? What are the differences in nuance among terms like “learning loss,” “learning disruption,” or “learning interruption?” A new language is constantly evolving around our altered state of pandemic reality. The term “recovery” has been bandied around quite a bit in relation to how schools will undertake the significant work of determining what students need both academically and socially upon their return to in-person classrooms. While every district and individual schools themselves might choose to handle the transition into this coming year differently, there are two big areas to examine that span the early grades through high school: emotional needs (student well-being) and academic needs, mainly in the areas of math and literacy. Before exploring the academic areas in more depth over the next couple of weeks, it makes sense to begin with well-being, since we cannot make progress with our students unless they are mentally prepared to tackle school. What are the questions and concerns we should address when planning to meet student needs? Here are some considerations and suggestions in this first recovery plan installment.

Structure for Success           

Meeting student needs is endlessly complex. How do we create successful structures and routines for the entire student population, from smaller groups to individual children? The process begins with how we prepare the environment that students will enter before they join us. For example, a lot of anxiety can be eased if we share as much as possible ahead of time. That could mean sending out a course schedule that includes the teacher’s name and contact information, a map of the school, and a letter about what the first couple of days looks like in terms of safety measures and special events (assemblies, picture sessions, and so forth). In addition, a clear line of communication should be established in whatever information students and parents receive, from how to best reach the school administration to teacher email addresses and work phone numbers, if applicable. It might also be wise for the school leadership team to establish some norms for all staff that apply to checking in on students during the first two weeks of school. That could take the form of contacting each child’s home during that time, having a school-based process to report students who display difficulty adjusting to the new year, or setting up “kid talk” meetings to specifically discuss challenges and brainstorm solutions. However it looks, we all need to prepare for helping kids by setting up structures ahead of time that increase our chances of reaching each child as needed.

Monitoring Needs           

Structures are a start, but it is also important to have an action plan in place that consistently monitors student well-being. If a child is not doing all right, is there a way to intervene productively before it is too late? Some schools rely heavily on the idea of a “trusted adult” to monitor students. This can work differently from building to building, but students either make a list of staff members to whom they feel a strong connection, or each staff member is assigned to a specific student (or both). On a regular basis, the student meets with this “trusted adult” to share feelings, concerns, or anything else they might need help with. In turn, the staff member has a plan in place to regularly monitor this student and can intervene if and where necessary. In a similar vein, some schools ask students to identify what supports are helpful to them and then staff members are specifically assigned to follow through and check in, particularly with the students who are struggling. By gathering this voice data from the kids themselves, we can more ably help them on their terms and not have to wonder whether we’re missing anyone, or if we are being truly helpful.

Testing the Climate           

Sometimes, we get a sense of how functional a school is just by walking through the front door. More often, we need to do a little more digging to accurately determine how students feel about the place they spend each day. In the first two weeks of school before we ramp up the curriculum, we have the time to learn about how students perceive their surroundings. In teaching teams or (even better) across the school, developing some questions for students can really help us understand them more. In terms of what we want to know about, there are a few areas that stick out more than others. How safe do students feel? Are there other students in the classroom that they see themselves befriending? With life outside of school, is anything happening at home that might affect their learning? And in the class itself, what are they excited to learn about? What concerns do they have? These are just a few of the many questions we might wish to ask. Depending on the answers, and whether patterns exist from class to class, school leaders can think about the current school climate vs. the ideal state and set some specific goals that put data-driven student needs at the forefront.

Restorative Practices           

When we make mistakes, it is important to know that we are valued and can recover. As teachers, some of the most memorable moments in our careers stem from helping a child who really needed us, one who was more likely than not a challenging individual who tested our patience. By sending the overt message every day that we believe in our students and will not give up on them, we increase their likelihood of developing social and emotional well-being. While there are many restorative practices that are recommended for classes as a whole (mindfulness, community circles, class agreements, and so forth), the success of a restorative approach is about how the teacher communicates the appropriate mindset to students both as a group and individually. With a focus on growth and not discipline, one method of gathering and maintaining trust is to have meaningful conferences with students who are struggling for the purpose of getting to the core of what the issue might be. Another strategy is to keep communicating, no matter what might happen. When we show students that they cannot push us away no matter how much they test us, we increase their sense of security and build more meaningful relationships.

Obviously, it is not realistic to make an entire plan for addressing student well-being in one article about recovery. However, these ideas give both teachers and school leaders a jumping-off point for proactively planning to address social and emotional health in the coming school year. There are so many situations that cannot be anticipated in this profession. Still, trying to think about how to set ourselves up for optimum success can mitigate some foreseeable challenges as we once more welcome students back into buildings five days a week. We have all struggled in this pandemic and we have encountered situations that are far from ideal. Using these waning summer days to think about taking steps in the right direction will show gains as we begin another atypical school year.

Related articles:

How to Plan for Recovery (Part 2 of 3)

How to Plan for Recovery (Part 3 of 3)

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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