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Six experienced K-12 educators reflect on the needs of their students and what this year has taught them about the importance of knowing, supporting, and appreciating each student.

The 2020-2021 school year will long be remembered as the year of COVID.  At every twist and turn, the only constant seems to have been whatever you are planning would be changed due to circumstances beyond your control.

School leaders, teachers, and student support professionals have done a herculean job of leading, teaching, and supporting the needs of their students and school community over this past year.

As one who worked in a K-12 school for nearly a decade, I recall the many end-of-school-year activities that focused on reflecting on the lessons learned over the year and thinking about how our approach to the next year would be different.

This year I have had the opportunity to work with several educators who have been guest bloggers for Intellispark. They have shared their experiences and learnings from this year with our readers on a variety of topics. I could not think of a better group to ask a couple of reflective questions.

Two questions

What has surprised you about the needs of your students this year?

How will that change what you will do in the fall so that you can know, support, and appreciate each student?

Here is what they had to say

School is more than content 

I have been so impressed by the resilience our students have demonstrated. They have shown strength and flexibility in the face of difficulty. One delightful surprise which occurred during the pandemic was how much students want to be at school physically. Most of them didn’t realize how much they enjoyed their time at school making social connections in addition to their real-life learning experiences. I live in the community where I teach, and when we first went into quarantine, I crossed paths with many students at the local gas station and grocery stores.  

Standing in the aisles, I heard the same sentiment repeatedly from students: “We miss school!” Across the board, students wanted to return to the physical building. They wanted to set their alarm clocks and get out of bed. Their desire for in-person class surprised me, and it speaks to the fact that school is about so much more than our content. 

School is the catalyst for social, emotional, and behavioral development, invaluable for students to have lasting success. Now that students have returned to school, they seem relieved and happy to be back together. Students living in isolation and communicating over computer screens is not a way to learn.

I have a new understanding of the value of social and emotional learning at school. Students need time to connect with other people, and they need guidance in building skills that extend beyond our written curriculum. Skills such as time management, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and team interaction do not naturally develop independently.  

As we construct active learning experiences, we have to emphasize the student-to-student discussion to foster interpersonal development. As we assign tasks to students, we must challenge them to engage their background knowledge with new information to arrive at evidence-based conclusions. We must also offer embedded instruction in life skills whenever we can. This pandemic has shown us that students want to be present at school to learn and grow and that we need to offer them more than just our content. — Rachel Jorgensen, Teacher Coordinator of Work-Based Learning

Personalization fosters connections

While it didn’t surprise me, the pandemic amplified the need for connection within each student. I saw a keen demand for social-emotional wellness groups and implementing these groups in a virtual environment. Being back in person will allow for all of these groups to continue. I think it is a massive opportunity for us as education professionals to find ways to leverage technology to allow for virtual groups to continue. Our student support teams created virtual groups focused on peer-mentoring, SEL skills, virtual tutoring, and other connected topics. Regardless of the case, this environment allowed for greater access, flexible scheduling, and quicker connections.

Additionally, we witnessed smaller group personalization to the first-day experience for first-year students and those in transitionary grades. A more personalized and small group experience allowed for lessened nerves, more customized questions, and a better opportunity for counselors to get acquainted with their students. Providing a more personalized experience was embedded in many lessons and needed to be at the forefront with curriculum and lesson creation. — Matthew Liberatore, Ed.D., LCPC, Senior Advisor

Relationships matter 

What I am most surprised by this year is how much students need a routine and human connection. I knew this to be important, but I do not think educators, students, and parents knew how much structure a school day provided. We never really realized all that is being “taught” at schools, much more than academics. And how important human interaction and connection can be for the student’s well-being.

Next year we will intentionally start with Tier I supports so that all students have the opportunity to build and connect with their teachers and classmates. It is essential to take the time to foster these relationships. This past year has underscored that students are engaged learners when they feel connected to their teachers and classmates. — Katherine Pastor, School Counselor

SEL front and center 

Our students’ social-emotional needs are higher than ever before. We saw many students’ confidence level in schoolwork decline while at the same time, some students thrived as distance learners. The social-emotional needs of each student varied greatly and created challenges and opportunities to find ways of meeting the needs of the individual student.

We must focus on intentional conversations and practices around social-emotional learning and mental health. A priority is to normalize conversations about race and mental health in our district. Expanding the conversations we have with students regarding post-secondary options beyond college by increasing exposure to trades and technical careers and alternate pathways to internships and apprenticeships will be crucial. — Derek Francis, Manager Counseling Services

Each student is unique 

I was actually kind of surprised at how well I could get to know some students during virtual learning while others it was extremely challenging. In that vein, I was a little surprised to learn how some students thrived in the online setting while others didn’t. It was a great reminder that our students are so different.  

While trying to figure out this crazy year, what we learned, and how we can use our new experiences to support students in upcoming years, I have to take a deep breath and remember that our students’ needs are as diverse as the students themselves. I want to permit myself the grace to take this moment and reflect. For me, it may just be too soon to make sense of all of this, even though I want to.

Next year I will continue to honor the students’ diverse needs, backgrounds, learning styles, and home lives by being flexible, kind, and patient. Whether you are online, hybrid, or face to face, it is never a mistake to treat students with kindness, respect, and genuine care.

I am also really rethinking how due dates, grading practices, and attendance policies can negatively impact our students. These are broader policy issues that need to be addressed at the local, state, and federal levels. — Lory Peroff, Elementary Teacher

Discover the person, purpose, and pathway 

This school year allowed students to think about what learning means to them. They focused on understanding how to apply concepts instead of just reviewing them, doing homework, and moving on to the next topic. Students supplemented this desire of using knowledge by taking courses through Coursera or volunteering in specific areas connected to their interests. Having time allowed students to explore different topics that are unique or not offered as an elective. Students had a chance to reflect on what they liked instead of “doing school.”

I have developed a curriculum entitled “Person, Purpose, and Pathway.” When in the school district, this wasn’t easy to do, given the many other tasks I had as a school counselor. Now, I can guide students in exercises supporting their interests and applying them to future pathways. We discuss their skills and why they find certain activities they do meaningful. I am focusing on the student as a developmental process. It is empowering for the students and unique for me to learn the outstanding and creative side students have to enhance their future! — Deborah Hardy, Ed.D., Senior Advisor

Mary Docken

Mary Docken is vice president, outreach at Intellispark. Mary has extensive experience in education having served as director of admission at two colleges in the Midwest as well as director of college counseling at Mounds Park Academy in Saint Paul, MN. before joining Naviance in 2006 which was acquired by Hobsons in 2007.