Credit: Marion Siwek
A screenshot of the "Mood Meter" Marion Siwek uses to engage her students and gauge their well-being.

When I return to my school site this August, the freshmen I left in March 2020 will be juniors, halfway through high school. The sophomores I helped compose a well-tuned argument essay, will be seniors, poised to jump into the college process. I know I’ll be amazed at how tall they’ve grown and at their dazzling array of hair colors. I look forward to elbow-bumping each one of them, using social distance protocols, hoping their masks don’t make them completely unrecognizable.

The huge question that weighs on my mind is what our school needs to do to support them through a school year that is possibly even more challenging than the 2020-21 pandemic year.

Of the many buzzwords that memorialized this past school year, one of them would be engagement. It was a constant search for our teaching staff to strategize what learning experiences would keep our students focused and engaged, when home distractions and mental health issues were overwhelming them. In time, we concluded that crucial to student buy-in were greeting every student when they logged into class, validating and praising class participation and making one-on-one connections in breakout rooms.

At my small charter school in northeast Los Angeles, teacher and staff turnover is low, and school culture is praiseworthy, due to the high-caliber teamwork instilled by our principal and administrative team. Following the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, our teachers and staff started the difficult conversations about race and cultural identity and made a commitment to teaching culturally relevant content. We also began all-important training in trauma-informed, responsive strategies to prepare ourselves for the mental health issues our students and their families faced due to Covid-19; we learned quickly that many students were feeling stressed, isolated and unmotivated.

Teachers put new tools in place around social-emotional learning, starting every class with daily pulse meters, polls, surveys and Jamboard to check their students’ current emotional well-being.  Our office staff made daily attendance calls to parents to see why students weren’t logging in to their classes, addressing Wi-Fi issues and distributing hot spots when necessary, even texting students to remind them to log in. Student engagement, learning environment and Covid-19 concerns were tracked daily. Grade-level student progress trackers encouraged teachers at weekly meetings to reach out to students who logged in but left class, weren’t turning in assignments and were just missing in action.

According to the latest key findings by the RAND Corportion, the “mode of instruction and health were the highest-ranked stressors for teachers” this past year. Mindfulness check-ins opened every meeting (e.g., A Whine and a Shine, or a mood meter), and our weekly professional development meetings always began with a three-minute meditation, breakout room groups to connect and show gratitude, and included a snack and brain break, valuing our time and our wellness.

When the district mandated that our students return in April, at 25% capacity, it made a huge difference for many. Being at school motivated students to reach out to their teachers to help them pass and to push themselves to get the grades they needed. Just being around other students gave them a sense of normality.  Freshmen, who had never set foot on campus, began to get excited about the coming school year and about being back in the classroom with their classmates.

Come August, students will begin the transition back to in-person learning with teachers continuing to use the essential social-emotional strategies to engage students to make them feel like they’re part of their school community again. We will administer screening assessments for math and reading to determine growth, mastery and placement in academic support classes if necessary. Additional clinical counselors will be available for students who are coping with emotional regulation and Covid-related issues. Football, soccer, band, backpacks, after-school cooking clubs, assemblies, and Associated Student Body will also come back strong.

Teachers and staff are fully committed to a safe and healthy return to campus, and our goal is to make this an exceptional, meaningful and positive year for our students. Easing them in gently with fun, inspiring and engaging non-academic activities to reduce the anxiety they may feel at returning to the classroom environment is key. Supporting their concerns about their safety and well-being is critical. The transition back to in-person learning may be gradual, but the incentive of our teachers and staff is robust, and the relief at being able to walk around their own classrooms again is like an ice-cold drink at the end of a hot, humid day. There’s nothing that quite compares.

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Marion Siwek is the special education coordinator at Alliance Tennenbaum Family Technology High School in Los Angeles.

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