With the challenging and unusual 2020–21 school year behind us, it can be tempting to forge ahead into the new school year with a clean slate. You may be longing to return to “normal,” or you may be a brand-new teacher without a basis for comparison to prepandemic teaching.
But “the worst thing we can do as teachers is to ignore what has happened the past year,” says Andriana Xenophontos, an English teacher and a model teacher at Martin Van Buren HS in Queens Village. “We should not hold the mindset that school is back to ‘business as usual’ or brand this year as ‘the new normal.’”
How can you start the school year in a way that acknowledges the trauma of the pandemic and sets up students for success as we move forward? Here are some things to consider.
Teachers and students alike need time to reorient themselves. You may have students in your class who haven’t been in a school building for more than a year. Think about what you can do to reintroduce your students to your classroom and school building’s physical space. If you’re new to the building yourself, taking your students on a tour of the school can help you get oriented along with them. It can also help you and your students get acquainted with other teachers and staff members in the building they may not have met or seen for some time.
Relationships first, curriculum second. Most teachers realize that the first few days and even weeks of the school year are a time for students and teachers to get to know each other. Building relationships is especially important this year.
“You can teach every single standard you want and still focus on getting to know, respect and understand the people we have the joy of learning with,” says Shauna McGee, an ELA teacher and a master teacher at Castle Hill MS in the Bronx. “Spend the first two weeks of the school year focusing on students’ identities and getting to know them on a human level. Think about the assets your students possess and not how much curriculum you have to cover to address the last year.”
Be purposeful in your icebreaker activities. It’s natural to give students time to reflect on the school year they just experienced. But, cautions Xenophontos, “you will need to be strategic so students are not repeatedly engaging in the same activities or questions — a student can only recount their opinion of remote learning so many times.”
Instead, Xenophontos recommends asking yourself three questions as you plan icebreaker activities: How will it help my students? How will it impact my instruction? How will it develop our relationship? “These three questions,” she says, “allow you to create activities that establish empathy and ownership.”
Use your colleagues as resources. Your school building has a team of people — including social workers, school counselors and other educators — who are trained to address students’ mental health needs. Reach out to these colleagues to find out how you can best support your students as you prepare for the year ahead.