You’ve heard it. Throughout this long, rough school year, there has been a worried undercurrent, much murmuring about “learning loss” and students “falling behind.” Seemingly overlooking the fact that students have continued to learn the entire time, whether in person or remotely, the running commentary would have us believe that students have done nothing academically for over a year. However, as any teacher can tell you, that is certainly not the case.
Despite often learning alone at home, supervising younger siblings, and most painful of all, experiencing the illness and death of loved ones to COVID—with tens of thousands of students having lost at least one parent—students have hung in there. Sure, the learning curve as everyone adjusted to remote learning has been steep. However, students and teachers alike are doing it—and successfully I might add.
The truth is that the basic premise for all the angst about learning loss and falling behind is faulty. Exactly who are students falling behind? As far as I can see, students are all in the same boat, caught in the same storm. So, who are the ones so far ahead that all the other students need to catch up to them?
As classrooms across the country reopen in the fall, and students move from remote learning back to in-person learning for all, the problem will not be how to catch them up academically. Students’ emotional needs must be the focus. That’s not to say that a good number of students didn’t experience difficulties learning remotely, from not having laptops to problems accessing Wi-Fi or both. But they didn’t give up and neither did their teachers. Rather the challenge now will be how to meet students’ myriad emotional needs as a result of the pandemic.
Providing a safe and secure learning environment when in-person classes resume, for example, is essential. So is building relationships with students, developing trust, and creating a sense of belonging. And while we’re at it, providing students opportunities to express their experiences via writing, art, music, dance, and open discussion is equally crucial right now.
We teach kids, not subjects. The difference between the two is profound. As multifaceted beings, kids arrive in class with a wide array of experiences and an equally vast depth of emotions to accompany them, especially now. They need to know that we understand that, that we understand them. Wisdom and compassion dictate that we not overlook students’ emotional and social needs as they return to school buildings. Neither can we expect them to set aside their needs in favor of “learning.”
Just as we so often say that we must deal with Maslow before Bloom, now is the time to put that into practice. Sure, there is a time for learning, and school is the place. However, learning does not occur in a vacuum. Not a call for more social-emotional learning (SEL), this is a charge to individualize our lessons to meet the emotional needs of the classes in front of us, infusing academic content with relevant outlets for expression of social and emotional issues. Until we address the pain, the social isolation, the loss that students have sustained, nothing else matters. Actually, nothing else can even occur.