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An Unusual Return

Well this is certainly different, isn’t it? Kids are coming to school, many for the first time this year, with only weeks to go before summer. It is simultaneously the beginning and the end. “Summer break” seems to have lasted forever and yet will begin again soon. How are kids supposed to feel about this? Do they know? Do we?

This is a time for both conscientiousness and curiosity as we enter into something together that none of us has experienced before. It’s only human for both you and your students to have preconceived notions—positive and negative—of how this time will be. Resist predicting how things will go. Bring all of your energy to how things are going. Use your professional judgment to make things go better.

1. Favor Presence Over Performance

It’s not likely that many, or even any, of your students have just enjoyed the best academic year of their lives. The phrase “learning loss” appears in the media so often now, it’s easy to get down about things neither you nor your students have had much control over. At the same time, the kids are back, they’ve missed a lot, and it wouldn’t be unusual for any of us to want to work hard to do a little catch-up.

But there’s a catch: you and your students have likely had one of the most pressured school years of your lives. As much as you may be relishing the idea of finally being able to teach, resist the natural temptation to push your kids on performance. Emphasize presence instead.

This is more than just a matter of attendance. Just as you do, kids now know, too, how valuable time at school is. So it’s reasonable to talk to them about how they want to make the most of it. No matter what they say, and no matter what you have planned, their attention, focus, and meaningful interaction will make things better for everyone. As the old saying goes, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.”

2. Validate New Kinds of Learning

This may not have been the best year for traditional learning, but what we’ve just gone through is—we hope—a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Kids have learned a lot from this that would never appear in a curriculum. This learning is real and valuable and important to recognize.

It’s likely you’ve learned more than a few new things, too. Talk to your kids about what those are as a way of encouraging them to reflect on the things they’ve learned that won’t show up on a report card or a test. While it’s true that we’ve all missed a lot, don’t let your kids leave the classroom for the summer focusing on everything they’ve missed. Get them thinking about the special things—the good special things—that they’ve come to understand through this unusual experience.

3. Cultivate Gratitude

Here again, we have an opportunity to end a tough year on a high note. It’s great that the kids are back. You feel it. They feel it. So why not talk about it?

What’s good about being back together again? Do kids feel differently—ideally more positive—about school than they have in the past? What positive things do they notice about their days now that are different from their days up to this point?

It’s very clear that parents all over the country have a new appreciation for what you do and what school does for their children. Surely, the kids have some of those same thoughts, too. With the right emphasis, and time to talk or write, you may be able to help kids to life-changing realizations about the value of school.

We’ve all lost a lot through this tough time—an entire year if we go all the way back to last spring. Maybe there are things we can get back. Attitudes and emotional states are recoverable where more tangible things are not. Think of this time as an opportunity. Instead of thinking about all the things kids have missed, think of things they may have gained. And show kids how to be grateful for them.

4. Play the Long Game

There’s not much time left in the year. But there’s a summer ahead and a new school year in the fall to look forward to. Rather than thinking about how you can cram as much as possible into these unusual last few weeks of school, think about how you can set your students up for success in the fall.

What are you looking forward to next year? What are they looking forward to? Are they worried about anything? If so, validate their concern, but don’t feed it. None of us knows exactly what will happen in the coming months. Why not choose to look ahead with optimism?

Instead of thinking, “How can I get the most out of the time we have left?” Play the long game and try thinking “How can I use the time we have left to help kids get the most out of all the time we’ll have next year?”

5. Balance Freedom and Structure

In a normal year, kids would ride out the last quarter at ease with the structures of the classroom you’ve provided. But the end of this  year is different.

Some kids may long for the natural healthy structure of a well-run classroom as an antidote to the lack thereof—and likely the boredom and restlessness they’ve experienced through the year so far.

Other kids might have enjoyed the freedom they’ve experienced at home. These kids may have a tougher time with the typical classroom structures they would by now normally be comfortable with. Then, too, it is the end of the year, and nearly every kid, just like nearly every teacher, is eager for the freedom of summer to arrive.

The solution for these opposing and perhaps even confusing feelings is to balance freedom and structure through managed choice. When it comes to books to read, essays to write, problems to solve, give kids a narrow range of options to choose from. You’re still in charge. You still create and maintain the structure of your classroom the way you like it. But try giving kids a little of that responsibility, too, so that those who seek more freedom can find it in choice and those yearning for structure can find it in the way you manage the range of their choices.

One Good (Re)turn Deserves Another

If you haven’t already, you will quickly discover many good things to share with your kids to make this unusual return to school a happy one. In all likelihood, most kids will leave the year with a sense of completion and satisfaction, even if they haven’t spent but a few weeks in your classroom.

Keep in mind that how this return to school goes will have a strong influence on how the next return goes in the fall. Kids will remember, just as you will, “starting” the year in the spring and starting again in the fall. Naturally, they’ll conflate the two experiences. The odds are good, therefore, that if we create a good experience for them on this return, they will look forward to a good experience on the next return. Perhaps this time is not about bringing things to an end but bringing your students and yourself to a new beginning.

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Positive Action

Positive Action

SEL Curriculum Provider

Note: Fresh Ideas for Teaching blog contributors have been compensated for sharing personal teaching experiences on our blog. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

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