122 Teachers Speak: Surviving Student Learning Loss, Behavior Challenges
In survey, teachers reflect on students’ struggles with raising hands, forming sentences, using scissors, crayons, tying shoes, and angry outburstsBy Marianna McMurdock, Jasmine De Leon & Meghan Gallagher | August 1, 2022
The 2021-22 school year was a tough one for America’s children.
From regular f-bombs and bullying to difficulty finishing assignments, raising hands or buttoning pants, young people across the country are struggling to adjust to classrooms after lengthy pandemic isolation.
122 teachers from 37 states and Washington, D.C. painted a picture of a generation emotionally anxious, academically confused and addicted to technology, in a survey created by The 74.
Educators from coast to coast noted students had difficulty with common classroom routines — writing down homework, raising their hands to speak, meeting deadlines. And for the youngest learners, underdeveloped motor skills made it difficult to use scissors, color, paint and print letters.
In their responses, teachers plead for parents and other adults in their life to lead with “grace”: ask questions, read to them every day, listen to frustrations and model behavior.
“We have a huge problem we’re facing with kids now as a result of the pandemic, which isn’t over,” said Pedro Noguera, sociologist of education and dean of USC’s Rossier School of Education. “I hear it directly from teachers — talking about a kind of chronic absenteeism, kids not wanting to come, kids not being motivated when they do come, and then the behavior challenges that come when they are present.”
And while states iron out summer programs and tutoring initiatives for next year, made possible by pandemic relief funds, teachers have identified a summer wishlist for how parents and guardians can help the young people in their life.
The skills typical of age groups have seemingly shifted, teachers reported in the survey. Elementary students fumble to form sentences, use scissors and pencils; middle school students can’t quite grasp the concept of multiplying and dividing fractions. High schoolers are silent during discussions, averting the gaze and judgment of peers.
And racist, homophobic and transphobic language is on the rise, teachers say, as part of an a pattern of more aggressive behavior.
“This year’s students had significantly more behavioral problems than most previous groups of students. They made inappropriate racial remarks, struggled with owning the issues they created, made disrespectful comments to staff, engaged in bullying and even physical altercations,” a 7th grade teacher observed in Nebraska.
In Kentucky, an elementary educator asked a school mental health practitioner to lead social skills peer groups to curb conflict and get kids talking about their emotions.
Above are the words teachers used to describe student behavior and discipline challenges in the 2021-22 school year.
One fifth grade teacher in Arizona said students struggled to manage emotions and respect each other: “…Being honest about social issues (never heard so many lies before), tidiness, respecting others property [or] space. Arguments and competition [are] getting out of control.”
“Any little thing can wreck their whole day,” they added.
Young people now need extra practice with staying organized, taking notes, managing their time and following through with deadlines, many teachers told The 74. As one Texas high school English teacher said of their students’ executive functioning skills, due dates would “snowball… They quickly became overwhelmed.”
“Their fuses are just shorter and the concept of respect seems different. You can’t push them too much or they turn off … Their emotional state is still in turmoil, partly because they are teens, but also since the concept of school is new again,” one California English teacher said.
Accordingly, educators are adapting policies and class time to help students manage workloads.
“I’ve learned to be much more understanding to what’s going on at home. I’ve also scaled back on ‘homework’ and deadlines due to absences and personal situations,” said a 7th grade English teacher in southern California. I’ve also used class time to help students organize themselves or catch up on work. Some often just appreciate time to clean out their backpack.”
In elementary and middle school, teachers observed a host of language challenges. Students found phonics and reading aloud difficult, along with forming grammatically correct sentences and capitalization.
Reading longer texts, inferring meaning, and thinking critically were challenging for students of all ages, educators said.
In math, elementary school children struggled to understand numbers and order of operations.
“4th graders came having major gaps in basics of arithmetic … operations, number sense, problem solving,” said Stafford, Virginia teacher Jill Lottes, whose students could also not speak or write in full sentences when they returned in-person last fall.
Educators across state lines and grade levels noticed shorter attention spans and a lack of “stamina” or motivation to focus — listening to peers in class, and on most assignments.
In response, teachers incorporated more learning by doing; slowed down the pace of lessons; and added reading and writing activities to classes that never usually reviewed them, like math and Spanish.
“I am very firm with procedures and expectations, and saw much more success this year. I was able to build relationships with the students because they knew what my expectations were, but also that I cared,” said Andrea Calderon, a 7th grade English teacher in southern California.
For one first grade teacher in northern California, the biggest change in her teaching was devoting regular class time throughout the year to talk about behavior — how they treat each other, and why. It felt counterintuitive, given how much academic growth needed to happen.
“I think that a lot of last year for them was sitting in front of an iPad for a few hours at home, and then watching TV the rest of the time,” the teacher said. “I don’t know how much time most of the parents of our students spend with their kids talking with them, problem-solving with them, engaging with them.”
Challenges with motor, executive functioning skills
Above are the words teachers used to describe motor and executive functioning skills students were missing in the 2021-22 school year.
Across ages, teachers also observed students’ difficulty keeping track of their work and collaborating with their peers.
“Students really struggled with completing group [or] partner activities … having to wait their turn or share materials wasn’t something that was as big of an issue in middle school prior,” said one 7th grade teacher in Columbia, South Carolina.
Elementary school teacher Catherine Graber noticed similar trends in Louisville, Kentucky: “Social awareness and relationship skills were areas of growth. I worked with the school mental health practitioner to facilitate social skills peer groups for some small groups of students.”
As compared to pre-pandemic school years, many teachers noticed a rise in behavioral concerns, including fighting, bullying in person and on social media, and using sexual and racial slurs.
“The last two years have been some of the most divisive in American society … Show the kids what it looks like to respect each other and stop treating everyone like an enemy,” said Illinois middle school teacher Anthony Modica.
For young children, behavior changes were more subtle.
“It was fairly obvious to me that they probably hadn’t had a lot of adult interaction over the last year or two, and they were just so talkative, so needy, just sort of over the top in terms of how much energy they needed and wanted from me and the other adults in our classroom,” said a first grade teacher from Emeryville, California.
Key for most educators was getting to the root of behavior and showing kids what it looks like to talk through emotions.
“I still took time to ask questions about how or why a student was feeling or acting out negatively,” said a 2nd grade ESL teacher in Carrollton, Texas. “I also took the time to apologize to them when I overreacted and explain my feelings in a child friendly way. This went a long way in building trust and respect between us.”
Virtually all 122 educators surveyed acknowledged that behavior and academic challenges are challenging but not unexpected given the pandemic and exacerbated youth mental health crisis.
“We can’t just expect kids are going to just pop right back into where they were pre-pandemic,” a third grade teacher outside of Minneapolis said in an interview with The 74. “We’re going to have to do a lot more work to settle them into what school really is like and make them feel safe…”
And academics like Pedro Noguera say children will need much more than just academic recovery to feel like school matters.
“We have to bring some joy to learning and to being in school, so that kids want to be there,” said Noguera. “A sense of joy comes from a sense of belonging…So music, theater, sports have to be more integrated into the academic program, and not treated as an afterthought.”
Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter