The 4 Biggest Lessons I Learned as a Teacher Returning to In-Person Learning For the First Time Since the Pandemic Started
All the avatars I taught on my laptop screen last year came to life as I walked into our high school on Monday. Distracted by my anxiety about being inside a packed school during a pandemic, I had not anticipated that I would burst into tears of joy upon seeing my students. For the first time since school as we knew it closed on Friday, March 13th, 2020, I felt a renewed sense of purpose in my role as an educator and mentor. As I watched the kids stream into our building for the first time since last March, I realized how crucial the first week was going to be for all of us.
Here are my biggest takeaways after my first week back to school:
1. Young People are Resilient
Whether kids were in a hybrid setting or fully remote, we all feared what it would be like for them to return to in-person school. Even though some students were in the school building last year, everyone was still learning (and teaching) remotely. When we first went remote back in March of 2020, I had built up relationships with students all school year so they mostly kept their cameras on when we ended up online. However, when school started last September, I quickly had to adjust to the fact that I was going to mostly be teaching avatars of Harry Styles and BTS—my district did not require students to turn on their cameras and most said having camera's on was a distraction from the class.
Back in June, I had asked students if they were going to need some time to adjust to school again. Most of them shared that they just wanted to get back into the routine again and "not get all emo talking about our feelings," as one kid explained. I was still concerned that after over a year of not interacting with one another, there would be an adjustment period as they lined up in rows in an actual classroom again. The first day was a bit awkward, even for me—someone who's taught in person for 20 years—but as we got into the week, students were back in the swing of in-person class: sharing ideas, debating one another and I definitely could feel them smiling under their masks. I am sure there are some skills and content that they will need to brush up on in the weeks to come, but I have no doubt that they will rise to the challenge.
2. The Teaching Content Can Wait
I am lucky to work at a school with a principal who puts students at the very center of what we do (shout-out to Principal Heather DeFlorio). At our staff meetings before students arrived, teachers were instructed to frame the week with activities based around social-emotional learning and having students share their interests and experiences. Before the pandemic, I would always start with content on the first day since I teach two courses that end in high-stakes tests (the United States History New York State Regents class as well as AP United States History). However, after a year of little to no interpersonal interaction in class, it was crucial to let the content wait. Over the first few days, students shared what causes and issues were most important to them and what they most enjoyed studying about in history class. We then had a lively discussion about the words they associate with America and that allowed me to better understand the students on a personal level. Also, I realized a long time ago that if students cannot see themselves in the lessons, then you are doing them a disservice. By spending a few days easing into school and learning more about them as human beings, I can be more mindful about finding ways to include their interests and identities in the curriculum.
3. We Were Disconnected but Still Connected
Throughout the pandemic, there has been a lot of talk about "learning loss." It is certainly undeniable that students, especially in lower-income areas, experienced major disruptions in their education. However, this was all necessary to keep as many people safe and healthy during the pandemic. For teachers, it was nearly impossible to know if what we were teaching was even registering with the students arranged on our computer screens in little boxes. I certainly felt disconnected to the point where I questioned if anything was getting through to them. However, when I started talking to my students this week, many of them expressed appreciation for what I taught them last year. Even though I barely ever saw their faces in remote school, now when I see them in the hallways or in my classroom I feel a bond with them. It reminds me that as hard as it was to stay cheery and on point last year, it made a difference for them. We might have been physically disconnected but connections were made nonetheless. However, I am still adjusting to so many students recognizing me as their "bestie" (as they say it these days) whereas I am seeing most of them in person for the first time.
4. Young People are Activated
Last summer at the same time that students were stuck at home, there was a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the murder of George Floyd. Even before the pandemic, I noticed that more and more of my Gen Z students were starting to self-identify as activists. In fact, I am a co-founder and advisor of our school's feminist club, the Feminist Eagles. While I was teaching them remotely, I saw a major spike in their collective interest in causes including civil rights and climate change. I even made sure to change around my lessons to respond to this shift. A combination of societal changes as well as more time online has definitely led to a much more engaged and activated group of young people. I can't help but think that seeing how government systems and certain leaders failed them during the pandemic also sparked their interest in the world outside of themselves. During the first week of school, I detected that their activist spirit is stronger than I have experienced in my nearly two decades of teaching. As a history teacher, I am elated since there are so many connections in the lessons I teach to the current issues that interest them.
This year is going to be challenging. Wearing a mask all day is essential but also difficult when you are talking and interacting. In addition, it is virtually impossible to adhere to social distancing guidelines in most large city schools. It would be really helpful if as many schools as possible could also double as COVID testing centers and vaccine sites—NYC is starting to test 10 percent of students weekly in schools. I just hope that everyone continues to stay safe so we can keep in-person learning going all school year. At the end of the day, nothing replaces the magic of a classroom, even though the Harry Styles avatars were nice to look at sometimes!