Students and teachers face a steep uphill climb now after a year of interrupted learning. To me, the challenge seems daunting.
But then I think about my students.
I think about the boy who fled violence in Central America with only his father, leaving his mother behind; he was always eager to solve the most difficult math problems. I think about the girl who also came from Central America with only her mother, with no belongings, but who never stopped trying to learn the English alphabet. I think of another immigrant who lost family to COVID, yet who would cheerfully answer questions about what she was reading.
I know that the learning loss from the past year was significant. I know that students will need to scramble to catch up. I know mental health experts are concerned about the trauma of that lost year.
But what the pandemic taught me, what gives me hope, is that children are resilient. They are incredibly strong. So many have overcome so much that I have faith in their strength to rise to the challenge.
I teach many immigrant students and I never stop marveling at their grit, perseverance and desire. They have endured and overcome more in their short lives than most of us will in a lifetime. I know they will embrace the challenges posed by an interrupted school year.
They should be an inspiration for us to radically change how we meet their needs. In this new school year teachers have a challenge, but more critically, we have an opportunity.
After a year of mostly digital instruction, most teachers and students are physically back in the classroom.
But education should no longer be the same.
As difficult as the past year was for teachers, we learned that we can radically change, for the better, how we teach.
We can better harness technology. Teachers and students gained technological skills last year that can open up new worlds for both.
We can better connect to parents. We were in more homes and for longer –even if only virtually — than we have ever been. We know more about our kids’ families than we ever have.
We can better teach in a way that meets students where they are. Teaching through the pandemic demanded extra effort to reach them, and we can keep stretching ourselves to achieve that.
We can teach more creatively. The pandemic required us to be creative in how we presented material to engage students.There was no going through the motions.
We can better teach the “whole child.” When teaching in the pandemic, we became more conscious of the social and emotional challenges that sometimes keep students from learning. We learned how to address those so students can be ready to learn.
We can better teach with rigor and to high standards. If we can teach challenging material in the face of the revolving demands of hybrid, in-person and remote learning, we can embrace the challenge of supporting students in their efforts to meet ever-higher standards.
We can better prioritize what we teach. With the limits of digital learning, we had to narrow our focus. Our teaching had more clarity and students benefited from going deeper rather than broader.
We can better feed students. Our food workers were phenomenal last year, providing thousands of meals to families despite students not being in school. Our students need not go hungry.
We can better teach with equity at the forefront of our thinking. After a year of racial reckoning, the inequalities in education have become more apparent and the need to address them more urgent.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we can stop saying, ”We have always done it that way.” We changed everything last year; we can change again.
And the times demand that.
The Horace Mann Voice of the Educator Study found that more than 97% of educators reported seeing learning loss in their students over the past year when compared with previous years. It found 57% of educators estimated their students are behind by more than three months in their social-emotional progress. In addition, students of color were disproportionately hurt by the lack of in-person learning.
As teachers face these challenges, we need only look to students to realize we owe them a revolution. Students like a girl from Guatemala who worked hard in her digital classroom, despite the clatter of her mother’s restaurant workplace. Or the boy from Honduras who kept doing his schoolwork in cars and hotel rooms as his father moved around for work. Or the many students who juggled caring for siblings and solving math problems.
Now that school doors are open again, I know students are ready to learn again. But will educators seize the new day?
Michael Arrieta-Walden is a teacher at Laredo Elementary School in Aurora Public Schools. He and his wife, Fran, live in Denver.