After last year’s chaos and uncertainty, this school year looks to be calmer, more productive and — to the amazement of everyone — “almost normal,” teachers and other school staff said at an EdSource roundtable on Thursday.
“We learned a lot through the pandemic. One of the things that came out of it is that we didn’t realize how much need was in the community. … But we now feel ready,” said Erick Rouanzoin, principal of Fruitvale Junior High School in Bakersfield, who said his school set up a food pantry and had the school’s social worker connect families to local services. “We’re in Day 3 and the kids are super excited. There’s a great energy. I don’t feel the same anxiety, and that’s a really exciting place to be.”
Rouanzoin, along with three teachers and a counselor on the panel, agreed that last year seemed like a marathon of hardships. In much of the state, schools navigated Covid and ever-changing rules related to safe reopening, as well as student and teacher trauma and escalating misbehavior in the classroom. Attendance plummeted in many districts, and teachers said they were frustrated and burned out.
But they learned a lot. For starters, they grasped the critical importance of incorporating social and emotional learning into the routine of the school day. Some schools opened wellness centers, quiet rooms where students could relax, listen to soothing music, do yoga or meditate, talk to a counselor and generally take a mental health break.
Others used state funds to hire more social workers and counselors to meet with students individually, as well as lead grief groups and classes on conflict resolution for the whole student body.
Gina Gray, an English teacher at Middle College High School in Los Angeles Unified, said she’s spending the first two weeks of the year focusing almost exclusively on classroom ground rules promoting respect, responsibility and positive behavior. She also gives students a voice in the classroom routine. For example, they asked for a few minutes in the morning to just relax, listen to quiet music and color before they dive into the curriculum. So she built that into the school day.
It’s all aimed at making students feel welcome and excited to be at school, putting the hardest chapters of the pandemic behind them, she said.
“We’re never going back,” she said. “We move forward, with intention and purpose and grace. And that is how we build community and continue to learn together.”
Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, an elementary teacher in Folsom Cordova Unified and a school board member at Washington Unified in West Sacramento, said she now conducts regular class meetings where students can discuss their concerns, and encourages them to write their personal thoughts and experiences in a composition notebook. She also said teachers should never underestimate the power of a good picture book.
As a school board member, she encourages policymakers to pay close attention to what teachers are reporting from the classroom. They are on the front lines, and their insights should shape policy at the highest levels, she said.
“Policymakers need to listen to teachers. When they come to talk to you, take them seriously,” she said.
Mike Patterson, an automotive teacher at South Tahoe High School in Lake Tahoe Unified and a board member of the California Teachers Association, had the same advice for administrators, as well. He cited the “importance of including staff in decisions, getting buy-in before making changes.”
“We’re all in this together,” he said. “We can’t be given directives there’s no buy-in for. It won’t work.”
Gray noted that administrators should give teachers the same respect and voice that teachers give their students.
Many of the improvements on campus this year are in response to the state’s unprecedented investment in youth mental health, said Rachel Andrews, a counselor at Redondo Union High School and a lecturer at Cal State Long Beach’s education and counseling department.
The investment in community schools, along with $20,000 grants for prospective school counselors, a state initiative to bring 10,000 more counselors to schools and a slew of other programs are aimed at relieving the mental health crisis that has afflicted young people during — and even before — the pandemic.
“Having those counselors around, those mental health professionals — that’s going to be huge,” Andrews said, adding that students will benefit for years from the social and emotional learning they’re experiencing in the classroom now, as well as the access to counselors and social workers. “I’m super excited for this year. … I’m very hopeful for the future.”
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