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How can teachers just go back to the way things were before the pandemic?

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A weekly advice column for K-12 teachers to share their joys, frustrations, and current questions about teaching.

Dr. Kem,

It feels like teachers have to go back to the way things were before the COVID-19 pandemic, not realizing how differently everyone perceives life now.

I teach at a school for emotionally disturbed students and we had very poor academic results last year. Our school was incredibly understaffed, to the point where I had to herd all the high school students into one room when others were sick. I don’t blame my administrator or the district—it’s a trickle down effect—but I’m burnt out.

Administrators and the district are largely focused on combating learning loss and conducting academic background checks, but that doesn’t seem to get to the heart of the problem. This was most disappointing.

Our youngest students have never had a normal school year and we have seen an increase in behavioral problems compared to other years. As educators, we know what we need to do to support students, but we are asked to prioritize their grades over their emotional needs.

Dr. Kem, I know that changes to the system are needed, but how can teachers make sure that the changes that are made are in line with what the students really need? And how can we make sure that change is sustainable if we don’t have enough resources? – The pursuit of change

[Are you a teacher? Submit your question for our advice column here.]

Dear Chasing Changes,

You are not alone.

America’s education system has been driving a car with its check engine light flashing BEFORE schools close in 2020. Someone should have stopped and asked teachers what to do years ago. Instead, the pandemic has intensified the drive to keep rolling until the wheels fall off.

Staff shortages and the need for additional resources occur daily in schools across the country. Schools need better funding to increase teacher pay and ensure equitable resources, depoliticize curricula that empower teachers, and improve professional development programs.

Education is not a fundamental right under the constitution. Establishing education is one of the powers vested in the states under the Tenth Amendment. We must be active at the state level to challenge legislation that is designed to undermine public education. As educators, we have the opportunity to invite legislators into our classrooms and let them hear our voice and the voice of our students.

One thing teachers can do together is vote. The entire ballot matters, from the local school board and district committee members to the President of the United States. Participate in this fundamental right to build a better education system.

Along with voting, you can make sure your classroom is equipped to meet the needs of your students by participating in social media movements like #clearthelist. Teachers and their communities are raising funds to ensure under-resourced classrooms get the supplies they need.

To participate, go to Amazon.com, create an account, and wishlist the items you need for your classroom. Once you’ve created your list, add it to your profile on platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Then search for #clearthelist and share your list with other teachers who will expand it with their followers until your list is cleared. You can also repost other teachers’ lists.

Within the walls of the classroom, focus on what you can control by creating sequences, routines, and patterns for students. Help them understand expectations when they arrive, during the day, and when they leave. Focusing on problems instead of solutions makes you worry about what’s wrong with education instead of what’s right.

This is how I secure my sanity and put the needs of the students first, even when change is the only constant.

– Every day is a new day. Practice the politics of new beginnings. Everyone, including the teacher who may have engaged in an unproductive activity the day before, gets a clean slate. There are no transitions. If you need to start the day with a health club instead of coursework, allow yourself to make a turn.

– Strive for progress, not perfection. Consistently be a student who achieves their individual Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs). It teaches them persistence in completing even the most difficult task. An old saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant?” One bite at a time.

– Look for ways to make a positive impact. There are children whose home lives are far from ideal. What brings us to tears is their norm. Sincerely seek ways to plant the seeds of greatness without condescension.

I painted “Intelligence is your birthright” and “Today I will walk in my power” on my classroom wall. I have had to explain to a staggering number of high school students what these two phrases mean.

The hard part of our job is to help the people around us see that life is an opportunity to achieve greatness. We show them when we positively transform our school communities.

In the pursuit of change, things are different now. While we can’t go back to the way things were before the pandemic, and in reality they weren’t much better, focus on the actions you can take with the teaching community and what you personally can do monitor in the classroom.

Thank you for writing this letter. Compiling your thoughts is the first step in helping other teachers who face similar situations.

I want to encourage all educators to use their voice. I am here. “After the bell” is here.

We can unite with the power of our collective voices.

Dr. Kem Smith belongs to Chalkbit reviewer’s first tip. She is a full-time 12th grade English teacher in St. Louis, MO. Send your question to Dr. Kem via this form of representationand subscribe to How I teach to get her column delivered to your inbox.

If you have a rebuttal or additional advice you’d like to share The pursuit of changeplease email afterthebell@chalkbeat.org

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