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How to Adapt to a Transitional Year with Constant Change

A sister studies with her brother.

When schools reopen this fall, we'll begin a transitional year. Getting back into the classroom won't be as simple as picking up where we left off and moving on. There will be ongoing changes as we get a better handle on what students missed and what they need to succeed.

Let's take a closer look at some of the issues that will be front and center this transitional year.

Recovering from Learning Loss

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 stipulates that schools must use 20 percent of their federal relief funds to help students catch up on the learning they missed in 2020. Some educators are building a framework of summer programs and high-intensity tutoring to help students recover, the Washington Post reports.

Further Reading: Changing Careers: What I Learned by Going Down a New Teaching Path

Teachers and students are concerned about learning losses, but they also say that they just need a break from school. After more than a year of stress and isolation, adults probably won't want to be stuck inside in a traditional school setting any more than children will, Alan Dworkin, CEO of the National Summer Learning Organization, told Education Week.

Melanie Claxon, who runs the Pittsburgh schools' summer programs, suggests that school programs would be more successful if they asked students what they need and what they want to do.

"We want to make sure that they have some voice and choice in the process," Claxton told Education Week. "I don't think folks have said it should simply be academics, or it should simply fun. I think they recognize there's a need for both."

Including a little fun in summer school can help, but generating enthusiasm for it might be a real challenge.

One Size Doesn't Fit All

One of the biggest challenges teachers face is determining what learning losses students experienced and what instruction they now need. Some students missed a lot of school time or dropped out because they couldn't connect to the remote classroom and will likely need intensive tutoring.

Other students failed courses because they were overwhelmed by the work required with remote learning. One straight-A high schooler I know failed a class last year because she simply couldn't keep up with the assignments required by her seven remote classes. It was the first class she'd ever failed. Even when students regularly attended classes via remote learning, many were also dealing with the stress of family illness and concerns about loss of family income, according to the New York Times, making it even more difficult to focus on their studies.

It might take time for teachers to adapt their curricula to meet students where they are. This won't be easy—but it will be easier if teachers participate in the planning. Some students will recover quicker than others when they are back in school and communicating daily with their teachers. Others will need a more organized approach that could include scheduled tutoring sessions or additional classes.

We'll also have to keep in mind that mastering every detail of a curriculum is not essential to moving on to the next level.

Changes in Professional Development

Needless to say, teachers are going to need time and resources to plan how they will address these myriad issues in the near future.

Teacher David Finkle told Education Week, "The pandemic has made me realize that unless we find ways to focus on students as people and engage them as people and make the work we're doing important to them where they are now, everything is for nothing." Finkle has taught language arts for 30 years in Florida's Valusia County Schools.

Teachers need training in how to incorporate social-emotional learning into their content area, Finkle adds. "There's a hunger out there for PD that is good and fresh," he says.

Jim Wichman, the principal of Prairie Ridge Middle School in Iowa's Ankeny Community School District, told Education Week that this year his district let teachers pick what they wanted to learn through professional development.

"It was the first time we really listened to the teachers' voices," Wichman said. "We started by asking teachers, 'What do you need?'" Wichman's district also decided against making summer professional development mandatory.

The idea of "choices and voices," seems to resonate for many regarding summer programming.

Transition Takes Time

Not everything we need to know about our students will be revealed in the first few weeks of school. Still, connecting with them will help students find their voice. As the year goes on and we gather more information, we can adjust curricula and instruction to our students' needs.

Educators must recognize that the 2021–22 school year will be a marathon, not a sprint. Arbitrary time limits for teaching and learning will need to be adjusted on the fly. We'll need to be flexible.

And students who don't accomplish everything this year might be more amenable to next year's summer sessions. We'll need to keep in mind that grades indicate progress toward mastery, not the ability to perform during an arbitrary time period.

This transitional year will be a work in progress, and educators should meet regularly to assess what's working and what's not. It would be a mistake to think that what we know at the beginning of the school year should drive instruction for months to come.

Moving Toward What's Next

It's not all about academics. Teachers should resist pressure to keep a laser focus on catching up. It won't all happen this year. And, in many cases, it doesn't need to.

Connecting with students is essential to learning. Making sure that there's time for discussions, jokes, fun projects, and personal stories is critical for students and teachers alike. When extracurricular activities, sports, and clubs start up again, we will move toward what's next.

Further Reading: The Moment of Impact: Small Efforts Can Create Big Changes

The biggest change will be that we're back in our classrooms and returning to our former teaching lives. And that's something we can adapt to.