Every year, parents, educators, and community members worry about “summer learning loss.” During the pandemic, these worries have taken on new dimensions: What can we do about all the knowledge and skills students have supposedly lost over the past year and a half? How will we structure classrooms and schools to make up for this lost learning? And what will be the impacts of this learning loss on students’ eventual careers and our economic prospects as a society?
This fall, we need to set aside these worries, which are ultimately detrimental to young people. They will learn what they need to learn if we teach how we should teach. Instead, we must focus on a different kind of learning loss — the prospect that we adults will forget the lessons we learned from the pandemic.
In some ways, this forgetfulness would feel natural. We are all eager to put this experience behind us, to get back to the lives we were living before March 2020. And teachers are eager to get back to the way they were teaching. But we know that the ways most teachers and schools were teaching were not working for many, many students — in particular for Black, Latinx, and poor students, whose identities and experiences do not match those of most of their teachers.
The pandemic took the endemic crises of schooling and made them visible. Classrooms that don’t engage students? Teachers who don’t spend enough time building relationships? Schools that expect students to ignore their personal challenges and just focus? In person, teachers and schools can use a mix of disciplinary policies, rewards, and the pressure of proximity to push many students to do the work anyway. In virtual learning, students simply don’t log on, or they log on and don’t interact. Teachers in every district where virtual learning was tried faced these challenges.
It is vital that we internalize the lessons of the pandemic, so we can reshape schools as communities that foster the brilliance of our students, as spaces that breed enthusiasm for learning, rather than simply using the tried-and-true pressures of school to make students do what we want.
First and foremost, teachers and administrators must recognize that they are both responsible for creating engaging classroom and schoolwide environments and are capable of doing so. Educators have the agency to shape spaces where students recognize themselves, their identities, and their interests. Teachers can create classes and lessons that are both interesting and vital for students.
Second, and in service of the first lesson, educators must place relationships at the center of their classrooms, their curricula, and their schools. Education is at its heart about relationships. The teacher must always hold connection as their primary concern. The relationship must never take second place to the curriculum, to the textbook, to the perceived needs of the school or district. The relationship has value in and of itself, and it is also the connection along which the learning process occurs.
Finally, educators must draw on and create new reserves of empathy for their students and for the adults who teach them. Schools must be environments that generate empathy between all the members of the school community, and that empathy must be extended first and foremost from adults to children.
This is our responsibility as educators: to create classroom and school environments that draw students into learning, joy, and wholeness. The pandemic showed us that we need to shift our practices. Let’s pay attention to these lessons, and address the kind of learning loss that really matters — our adult desire to return to how things used to be. Instead, let’s make small, important shifts that move us towards something new: schools and classrooms that lift up each of our students.
Jim Schwartz is an Oak Park resident, an educator, and a blogger at Entwining.org.