Ideas For Enhancing Classroom Community and Nurturing Student Well-Being in the Year of Another New Normal
A school year unlike any other we have ever known—that’s what last year was. Even the year before, ending with abnormal and unsettling abruptness, was an experience foreign to us all.
Now we’re coming back. But back to what? Back to normal? Not exactly. Most of us—and most of our kids—probably don’t feel exactly normal either.
Below you’ll find several useful ideas for dealing with what is not normal about this year and for making the new normal an emotionally safe and rejuvenating experience for you and your students.
Learning How to School
We all know how squirrely our kids get when they come back from ten weeks of summer, two weeks of winter break, or even a single week in the spring. This year, some of our students may not have been in a physical classroom since March of 2020. That’s almost 18 months.
Even those who got a few weeks in at the end of the year didn’t experience the beginning of the year. They have a lot of learning ahead of them. Some of that learning will be learning again how to be in school.
It’s Deja Vu All Over Again.
Our brains and our bodies are finely tuned to the feelings of fall, winter, spring, and the joys of summer vacation. This year, however, our heads will know what season we’re in, but our hearts may not.
Many of us will have an uncomfortable experience of having been here before and being somewhere new at the same time. So take the time, and make the effort, to notice when these incongruous feelings arise for you and your students. Talk about them, if only briefly.
Tip: Acknowledge that it’s perfectly normal not to feel normal in a new normal. Give yourself and your students permission to feel like you’re not sure what to do or how to act toward each other. Then give yourselves the time you need to figure it out.
Try not to “should” yourself (or your students) simply because you’ve handled the beginning of the school year so well for so many years. None of us knows how things “should” be this year. Remember that this year is both the same and different. It will take a little time to make the new normal seem normal again.
“A” is for Awkward.
Going back to school this year is going to feel different. And sometimes that difference will manifest itself in moments of awkwardness. Awkward literally means causing difficulty, hard to do or deal with, causing or feeling embarrassment or inconvenience.
Of the many dimensions of awkwardness, feelings of embarrassment are most likely what we will struggle with at the beginning of this unusual year. While there is no avoiding moments of embarrassment in our lives, there is a healthy way to handle them: blow your cover.
When we’re embarrassed, either by our own behavior or that of someone else’s, our natural tendency is to cover it up. But this only makes things worse.
Instead, uncover that feeling and lessen the discomfort by acknowledging openly and immediately—and with self-effacing humor when you can—that something hasn’t gone the way you expected it would and that this is OK.
Tip: Show your students that even the most cringe-worthy moments are more like an “Oops!” than an “Ouch!” Encourage them to approach these inevitable occurrences not with heavy-handed shame but with light-hearted curiosity and playfulness.
The beginning of the school year is always a time of mixed emotions. This year, our emotions may be more mixed than usual. It’s not necessarily new emotions that we’ll be feeling, but that our emotions will likely be more intense. We can try to settle ourselves and our students down, but there’s a better option: capturing moments of happiness.
We tend to let good moments and good feelings slip right by. We enjoy them, but rarely do we appreciate or reflect on that enjoyment. By contrast, we tend to turn and churn on bad moments and bad feelings over and over. What’s the result? We “wire” ourselves for negativity. But we can just as easily wire ourselves in positive ways instead.
Tip: When something good happens, or when whatever’s happening just feels good, call it out. Take a moment, maybe 5-10 seconds, and have your kids notice how happy they are.
At the end of a day or the end of a week, take a few minutes to talk about what made people feel good and why. Start a list of these moments and circumstances in a corner of your whiteboard or on a big piece of chart paper. You can literally capture happiness in such a way that it will be easier to repeat and more likely to recur as the year goes on.
Somehow or other, we managed to have something like school last year. But school is far more than just lessons and learning. The year is full of things we do every year, important traditions we likely missed last year.
Even if we didn’t technically miss these things, we probably didn’t experience them the way we normally do. This year, then, is a year to reclaim traditions lost and to create new ones you and your kids can enjoy for years to come.
The school year has a rhythm to it punctuated by weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual events and observances. In the past, we may have let some of these slip by or celebrated them half-heartedly. Don’t let that happen this year.
This year, you and your students will feel more comfortable, more confident, and more grounded if you emphasize school year traditions more than usual, and especially if you begin new ones.
This is a “Year One” kind of year. We will all mark last year as unlike any we have ever known. That makes this year unlike any we have ever known, too, but for positive reasons not negative reasons. Traditions accentuate the positive.
Tip: Don’t think of last year as a loss to be made up for. Think of this year as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to begin with a clean slate—and the chance to write anything on it that you and your students want.
Play the Long Game.
Nobody needs test scores or other data to know that most kids missed a lot of learning last year. The temptation—and perhaps even the pressure you may feel from parents and school administrators—will be to move faster and push harder than ever. Resist this temptation.
Yes, we’d all like our kids to learn more this year than in typical years. By all means, let’s up our game a bit. But not so much that we pressure ourselves and our students to do things we know we can’t do.
Kids will be behind. Is it logical that they would be in a position, right from the first days of school, to learn faster than usual? You’ll be a little behind, too, a little out of practice if nothing else.
Tip: We can’t cheat time. So take the time you need to lay a solid foundation for a good year based on strong participation and steady progress. Take performance off the table at first. Give yourself and your students a little time to breathe as we all rush back into the classroom.
Performance will come if we prepare ourselves well to perform effectively. The most reliable way to do this is to emphasize healthy participation, consistent progress, and strong community. For now, focus on the process, not the product. Praise the effort, not the result. Create classroom structures and consistent routines that enhance resilience and sustain improvement.
No one expects anyone to make up for everything we lost last year. Don’t look back, look forward. Don’t play the quick game of grades and tests that we sometimes play against our students—with winners and losers every day or every week. Instead, play the long game of growth, the game we play with our students—the game where everyone wins—from the first day of school to the last.
Don’t Wait Until Thanksgiving.
It’s late in November before many of us formally take stock of what we’re thankful for. But gratitude is something we can cultivate every day—many times a day, in fact. This is not about seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. It’s about savoring the best of the present moment, building resilience, increasing our capacity for delayed gratification, and improving our overall mental health and sense of well-being.
An enormous amount of research exists today on the myriad benefits of gratitude practice. Why not practice with your students? It’s as easy as asking, “What are you grateful for?”
Sure, some kids may say, “Nothing!” But we know this isn’t true. And the kids know it, too. That’s why it’s so valuable for all of us to take every chance we get to shed some of our cynicism and anxiety in exchange for healthy doses of joy and contentment.
When you can’t find something specific to be grateful for remember this: countless surveys have consistently shown that last year kids missed their friends, teachers missed their students, and parents missed—and now more greatly appreciate—their children’s teachers.
Tip: We all have things to be grateful for. Thinking about them, talking about them, and writing them down on a regular basis could make this year your best year ever.
If ever there was a year in our educational lives when we could all use a little more patience, a little more kindness, or the willingness to cut each other a little more slack, this is the year.
Tip: Grace is forgiveness. Don’t feed your pet peeves. Don’t let life peck away at your peccadilloes. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Choose big-heartedness and generosity of spirit over momentary annoyance every chance you get.
Talk to your students about this. They may not realize it at first, but they will feel the pressure this year just like you will. You can relieve that pressure by making the most of the things that matter and letting some of the little things work their way out over time or just fade away on their own as little things often do.
This is a year for growth, there’s no doubt about that. And we all grow greater with grace. We will all face unique challenges this year in the cultivation of the young minds and hearts within our care. But our minds and hearts deserve as much grace as anyone else’s. Remind your kids of this so they can give you the forgiveness that you need this year, too.
Learning How to People
There’s a curious expression going around these days: “I’m learning how to people again.” When a new use of language becomes a part of mainstream culture, it signals something deep and true within us.
Life is undergoing a sudden acceleration as so many of us rush back with joy to all the things we’ve missed for so long. What we’ve missed most is being with the people in our lives.
At the same time, we’ve been so isolated that many of us have become habituated to a less peopled life. This is true for our students as well.
The results are predictable: the more extroverted among us may find ourselves unusually fatigued by levels of personal interaction that have previously sustained us. Introverts, who may have been more comfortable in the relative isolation of the pandemic, will feel especially fatigued now with the rush of social interaction they’re experiencing this summer. As a result, school this fall may feel unusually taxing for all of us at first. Pace yourself emotionally. Teach your kids how to do this, too.
In every school and every classroom, the first unit this year will be learning how to people. But don’t worry: there’s no homework to do, no tests to study for, no grades to give or receive. Everyone will pass. We will all meet or exceed the standard as we come together again, for the very first time.