Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

With the start of the school year upon us, the anxiety and health concerns for students, their families, and teachers are all too real.

Discussions about mask mandates, testing and vaccinations will continue across the state, but here are four essential strategies that can ease the return to in-person learning.

1. Community builders and check-ins are a must! Having a check-in and a community builder, or icebreaker, exercise before each lesson helped me strengthen relationships during distance learning. It was important that students knew I cared about their well-being, desires, experiences and feelings every day.

My consistency paid off because students committed to sharing and participating in our routine check-in. Learning about each other’s backgrounds and identities through weekly community builders and daily check-ins are why I knew so much about my students behind those tiny black boxes. Whether in person or in the classroom, I highly recommend teachers take time during their advisory classes to learn about their students profusely.

2. Reduce the number of assignments and provide detailed and meaningful feedback. The pandemic amplified existing trauma and poverty for many students. A lot of students do not have access to a stable internet connection and have multiple siblings at home participating in remote learning. Teachers cannot forget these stressful living situations once students return to campus. Students need empathy to learn.

My suggestion is to reduce the number of assignments. Fewer assignments do not mean students are not learning. In fact, this is an opportunity for students to dive deeper into learning. Instead of daily assignments, teachers can focus on providing detailed and meaningful feedback using a rubric that allows students to clearly see what they need to improve on without hidden expectations.

In my Advanced Placement language and composition class, students received feedback on their argumentative essays. Instead of assigning more work, I gave students more time to process my feedback, review the rubric and revise their writing. During our next class, I shared student samples marked with feedback.

We discussed each sample thoroughly, going through each of my comments. A student privately messaged me, “Thank you so much for your feedback! This is what I really needed to grow as a writer.” This made me reflect on my process. Have I not been this detailed before? Sometimes, teachers move on an arbitrary timeline that is too fast for students’ learning style and pace.

3. Remember: Follow-up is extremely important. Whenever my students or I experience a challenging time, I use that moment to connect with them further. I admit, it can be overwhelming when you have several students sharing their experiences daily, asking for support, or emailing you to inform you why they will not attend class. However, it is extremely important that teachers follow up with students.

We must acknowledge what students share so they feel valued. I make sure to follow up with students about a specific experience or event within two weeks. The small gesture of following up makes students feel seen. In return, students communicate more.

We cannot allow the difficulties of returning to campus stop us from prioritizing students’ personal lives. I encourage teachers to create an accountability system. Perhaps teachers can document what students share so that they can revisit it later and follow up. Whatever the system is, we must commit to following up because it humanizes our students.

4. Communicate effectively and efficiently: Many teachers use their district’s grading system — usually Google Classroom or Schoology — to communicate with students. While these are important and efficient (yes, these systems are “down” from time to time), I often wonder, are these effective?

Many students have not developed the habit of checking their email frequently, a reality we all know too well. I often wonder about the students who are unable to check their email because of their many responsibilities. I would imagine that emails or direct messages from Schoology are not effective when they are working, helping their siblings or taking care of sick family members, all while maintaining their own health.

It can be easy to forget an assignment due at midnight or a project due date. Our students’ realities are why it’s important that teachers diversify how they communicate to students. Students need messages from apps like Remind, updates using the Schoology platform, individual emails, phone calls as a follow-up and flyers for events. They need frequent and multiple forms of communication. Otherwise, we risk losing them to whatever they are dealing with.

Incorporating these four essentials into one’s teaching practice will ensure that teachers connect with students and students are successful. The goal is to support students by centering them and prioritizing their learning, and these essentials do just that.

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Keara Williams is a Ph.D student in UCLA’s Urban Schooling division. She was a high school English teacher for 5 years and taught at Augustus Hawkins High in Los Angeles through this summer.

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