The first year of the pandemic, when schools went hybrid and remote, was incredibly difficult—a principal said that he felt like he was juggling on a unicycle in a hurricane; teachers felt the same. Every day blew us into unchartered territory. We re-experienced the daily anxiety of being a first year professional—all new, all untested. We did our best to not crash. Kudos to all who hung in.
When schools re-opened their doors for the 2021-22 school year, I figured we’d slide back into the reliable comfort of doing school, like putting on our favorite cozy sweater. I predicted a great year for us all: we knew how to do school in person. We’d hit the ground ready to run.
I was so wrong!! The students who walked into our rooms displayed an expansive array of needs, skills, behaviors, and anxieties. They were splayed out across the arcs of cognitive development, academic development, emotional development, and social development to a degree we had never experienced. Of course the students developed with their families and communities—but largely in the absence of group norms and supports. The students who walked into 2nd grade that fall had last been in kindergarten; our budding adolescent 6th grade middle schoolers had last been eager-to-please fourth graders; our 9th graders had last been in the developmental maelstrom of seventh grade. Who were they all now?
Our long held expectations for what they could do from day one turned out to be insufficient. Compared to every prior school year, we could not predict how students would engage with the lessons, with each other, and with the rituals and routines of school. Once again we were in unchartered territory, this time with an illusion of normalcy.
That first year back was the hardest I’ve ever seen in schools, from kindergarten through 12th grade. Making the work even harder was the pressure to catch the kids up academically, as if we could ignore everything about them and what they needed most—which was not an overworked faculty, themselves in recovery from the stress of the pandemic, now trying to double up the lessons, or skip lessons—with large groups of students who had never had such disruptions in their development.
What we needed to do was slow down. We needed to be gentle. We should have gradually introduced academics, with the highest priority being a more thorough assessment of our students’ very splintered skills. There was no need to plunge into the learning gap before we understood how complex that gap was. Where in the past we might have spent the first day of school establishing routines and rituals and assessing needs, we should have done that for a week, or two weeks. We needed to make all the implicit ways of doing school explicit, again and again and again.
This bit of wisdom—to make the implicit culture of school explicit, intentional and persistently reviewed—should have always been our norm. And should continue to be our norm in all the years ahead, because public school culture implicitly and explicitly favors those who come from the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture; for instance, in 2020, 89% of white students graduated from high school on time with their 9th grade cohort; for native American students, only 72%. When a teacher says to their class, “Pay attention—this is important,” to whose daily life, family, culture, needs, and future is that lesson important? Our schools are more diverse and inclusive than ever. There is so much unexamined and unsaid about how to do school, and for whom school is designed to be successful.
Here’s one strategy to support success for every child who walks into the room: let them know explicitly, and repeatedly, what they can advocate for: “Remember, if you don’t understand the directions, you have a right to ask me to clarify them for you;” “Yes, you have the right to put your head down for two minutes if you need a quick break;” “If you’d like lined paper or graph paper, you can get what you need on the supply cart.” Make the implicit culture and norms explicit, heard at least as often as, “Remember to put your name on the paper.”
The pandemic taught us how essential the rituals and routines of school are for student success, and how at risk any child may be when those rituals and routines are implicitly designed for only some students. Schools can do their part in reducing the inequities in our communities, or they can replicate them. Coming back full-time from the pandemic, we are more aware than ever that students need an enveloping school culture that is explicit and inclusive of all students. In those ways, pandemic or no pandemic, we can better serve every student every year.