“Students have forgotten how to be students.”

The teacher looked at me from across the table, grabbed a section of the sushi roll in front of us with her chopsticks and raised it to her mouth. She paused while sighing, and added, “And I’m too tired to care.” She popped in the bite of sushi and our conversation drifted towards what was on our streaming watchlists. But those few words stuck with me; here is a great teacher with strong instruction and great classroom management. I knew she cared, but there is a fatigue that—I’ve been told repeatedly—is more ubiquitous and arduous than even last year.

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Throughout these past months, I have seen four habits that I consider pandemic carryovers and contribute to the fatigue plaguing our educational system. As instructional leaders, we can help fight the fatigue by helping break these pandemic habits.

 

Habit 1: Task-Orientated Instruction

Pre-pandemic, we were mostly time-orientated workers. We showed up to work by a start time and worked until quitting time, during which we did ‘things’ that were related to our job. The pandemic shifted this in a subtle but major way. Remote workers such as my brother-in-law (who may have forgotten what ‘real pants’ are) still work during a specific time, but their focus has shifted to complete individual tasks followed by free time until the next task.

A common remote learning model was to ‘check-in’ with students and supply a task for them to perform, after which they were done until their next class. Variations existed, but chances are your students were not on camera for 7 hours straight. Teachers and students became comfortable with task-orientated behavior. In-person classrooms still following this model result in tremendous amounts of “free time” where rigorous instruction could be happening but is not.

As a coach, you should keep your eyes out for this type of behavior which can frequently be identified by students rushing through an assignment to get to free time or some other activity which may have instructional value but is not directly tied to the day’s instruction. You can support your teachers by supporting engagement, whole-group, partner, reflection, metacognition, and re-teaching strategies.

Observe what the teacher does during free time: review what Tier II supports they provide to students and when. What other small group activities or interventions could they be utilizing during this time? Ideally, work with teachers to reduce the length of the free time, but in the meantime, make the most of it by building your teachers’ instructional practices while building back instructional time capacity.

 

Habit 2: Clicking the Mute Button

“You’re on mute” may now be a joke, but the truth was that classroom management during the pandemic—while frustrating—was easier than it is in person. Oftentimes, issues during the pandemic were getting students to turn on their cameras and microphones! We cannot mute students in the classroom no matter how much we wish they may have a mute button. Students were accustomed to doing what they wanted during remote learning, whether it was just getting up to stretch their legs or quickly grabbing a sandwich.

I would highly encourage coaches to work with teachers to take time to revisit classroom management. Discuss class behavior and expectations with your teacher, what aspects they are struggling with, and what they are proud of. Reflect with them on how that student behavior they are proud of came to be:

  • What did they do to teach their students how to behave like that?
  • What do they do to reinforce it?
  • What lesson can they take from that and transfer to the behavior they want to improve?
  • Have your teachers explicitly taught appropriate behavior in class?
  • Have they included students in the development of classroom rules and expectations?

 

Habit 3: Qualifying Student Behavior

“At least they’re in school.”

Much to my chagrin, that phrase has been uttered ad nauseum around the country. It’s a convenient phrase that releases responsibility from schools, teachers, staff, and parents. It is a weak, impotent, and tired phrase that discourages the pursuit of excellence. Ask me later how I really feel about the phrase… but I also understand that it comes from a place of fatigue rather than complacency.

One of the most important things we can do for our students to combat mediocrity is provide structure and consistency. During a discussion with another teacher, he said he struggles to get students to do work in and out of class. As he reflected on the needs and behavior of students, he decided to meet his students where they are and build up from there; he has seen success in slowing down and providing more class time and scaffolds for assignments. This addressed poor completion rates while providing the structure and consistency needed to support classroom management. Although the pacing is slower than a “typical” pre-pandemic year, the success is paying off and his 9th grade students are ahead of last year’s by a wide margin.

Coaches should realize teachers are frustrated by the latency in returning to their pre-pandemic pacing. After all, the scope and sequences say they should be on chapter 4 by now! The reality is that teachers still need to adjust their classroom instruction to match the needs of students while we work together to build back the capacity of students. This also provides an opportunity to reflect with your teachers about their instruction and grading practices. Ask your teachers questions such as:

  • What would happen if you eliminated homework?
  • What if you weighted summative assessments closer to 80-100% of the course grade?
  • Are all the assignments you give increasing student learning and understanding?
  • Can you eliminate any compliance-orientated assignments that offer little instructional value (such as word searches or coloring pages)?

 

Habit 4: Self-Deprecating Inner Conversation

I find that most teachers excel in offering mercy and compassion to students. After all, it is our duty to provide students with a safe environment conducive for learning. But I often find that adults are awful at extending that same compassion to themselves. In the world of education where we are continually being asked to do more without things being taken off our plate, it is vitally important to practice self-compassion to be the best we can to the young minds in front of us watching our behavior every single moment of the school day.

As coaches, we can help foster self-compassion in teachers by reflecting on the positives with them. Have them truly reflect on the wins in the classrooms and what led up to that point:

  • Was there a specific instructional or engagement strategy used?
  • Did a student finally have a lightbulb “aha!” moment?

These reflections pave the way to have forgiving conversations about aspects the teacher would like to change. What lessons can the teacher take from these positive experiences and apply to the aspect they want to improve upon? Psychologist Carl Rogers made famous the concept of Unconditional Positive Regard which, in short, focuses on providing a nurturing environment for a person to feel compassion and support without any judgment on behavior. As an instructional coach and leader, what are we doing to provide an unconditionally positive environment for our teachers and teach them to do so with themselves as well?

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These habits did not form overnight, nor will they break overnight, but keeping these behaviors and fixes in mind can help build back our education system’s capacity day-by-day.

 

Today’s featured author, Aaron Celmer, currently serves as the Director for Instructional Technology at Elmwood Park CUSD401 outside Chicago. He has previously served as an instructional coach and high school teacher in the states of Illinois and Oregon. Aaron is completing his EdS through Northern Illinois University where he also received his MSEd.