What ingredients will it take for schools to be successful under these conditions? That’s the subject of this post, written by Raechel Barone, a kindergarten teacher at Orchard School in South Burlington, Vt., and Karen Engels, a fourth-grade teacher at Graham and Parks School in Cambridge, Mass.
By Raechel Barone and Karen Engels
It’s not hyperbole to suggest that public education is at a crisis point. We’re seeing record numbers of children experiencing anxiety and depression. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracked increasing rates of depression and anxiety among children ages 6 to 17, from 5.4 percent in 2003 to 8 percent in 2007 to 8.4 percent in 2011-2012. Over the last decade, rates again climbed. By 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death for youths ages 10 to 24. The pandemic exacerbated this already troubling trend, prompting the U.S. surgeon general to sound the alarm on child and adolescent mental health in December 2021.
At the same time, educator morale across the country is extremely low, as fatigued educators continue to navigate the constantly shifting seas of pandemic schooling. Earlier this year, the National Education Association reported that 55 percent of educators are considering leaving the profession earlier than expected. As we enter a new school year, staff shortages are threatening the stability of our public education system.
School environments can be toxic. Why and how they must change.
From our vantage point as veteran elementary school teachers, we believe that many of the factors contributing to declining well-being in children are the very same factors crushing teacher morale.
In addition to the larger national trends such as political polarization and incivility, gun violence, and technologically induced isolation, there are clear trends within public education that have contributed to declining student and teacher morale.
Ask teachers around the country about their experiences, and most sound eerily similar. There’s simply a big gap between what we’re being asked to do — relentlessly push students to “catch up” from “learning loss” — and what we feel we should do for our students. The education policy context we operate within often seems woefully out of step with the actual children in our classrooms. And teachers across the country feel excluded from the policy decisions that directly impact their day-to-day instruction.
The current moment requires us to reconsider the fundamental question of what we want from our public schools, and to ask ourselves honestly whether the strategies we’ve been using to “recover and thrive” will truly meet the urgent needs of our students.
When we think about what every student deserves, the ingredients are really quite simple. We believe there are six key pillars for successful classrooms.
Love, trust and belonging
At the end of the day, what each of us really wants is for our children to be cherished, seen, understood, and supported fully through mistakes, successes and quirky individuality. The unconditional love that teachers bestow on students is the ingredient that makes the rest possible. When students feel loved, they experience safety, warmth and connection, which enables them to take on the hard work of learning.
Love is also the ingredient that allows families to develop trust in educators. Once families see educators deeply invested in their child’s success, partnerships between teachers and caregivers to support the child take on depth and purpose.
In a classroom community, we want our children not only to be safe from physical or emotional harm, but to be appreciated, valued and cared for by others. We want their classroom to feel like an extended family, and we want children’s families at home to be equally embraced in the community that’s created by our classroom.
Is the common school in America dying?
Emotional safety and well-being
One of the most crucial roles we play in elementary schools is helping children to notice, navigate and express their feelings. Teaching these skills is time-intensive and requires a combination of intentional skill building and in-the-moment coaching. It cannot be “checked-off” by teaching a weekly social-emotional learning lesson. When we skimp on this instruction, we pay the price as a society. When we accept that children cannot make academic gains or form social connections if their emotional needs are not adequately met, then we see how critical it is that we address children’s mental health.
In misguided attempts to accelerate math and literacy gains, many districts are skimping on the parts of the day where this learning happens: playtime, recess, lunch, snack. Far from being “off-task” time or “time off learning,” this is where students learn the core skills of interacting with one another. When we reduce the time children have to employ relational skill-building, we are doing more harm than good.
Our misguided effort to close the achievement gap is creating a new inequality: the ‘play’ gap
Affirmation of full identity
For children to feel a sense of belonging, their entire identity must be welcomed, not just the parts they believe they are safe to carry through the door. The curriculum needs to be meaningful, purposeful and relevant to each and every child. Students need to learn about the joy, beauty and power of their individual cultures and identities.
The cultural and linguistic knowledge, as well as the breadth of experiences that children bring with them, enhances classroom learning exponentially and cannot be underestimated. We know that it is relationships with people whose world views and experiences are different from our own that lead to empathy and understanding. This has to move beyond shallow efforts to celebrate multiculturalism and must incorporate the far more meaningful work of illuminating the historical and sociocultural forces that shape the experiences of different students’ lives in the United States today as well as the experiences of their families over generations.
While the attacks on critical race theory claim that such illumination causes White students to feel shame and discomfort, the truth is that when we teach about race and racism sensitively, honestly and reflectively, we are allowing all students to make sense of the world we live in. This learning is the first step toward helping students claim their own agency and power to make our world more perfect — feelings that are the polar opposite of shame and discomfort.
Sense of agency and power
A stunning number of teenagers feel persistently hopeless about the future — the CDC estimates nearly half. Given these figures, it’s no wonder that some families and politicians are interested in protecting students from discomfort around the hard history that has brought us to the current moment of polarized violence.
However, we’d argue that hopelessness is about feeling powerless. Sheltering our children from the realities of our world actually increases their sense of powerlessness, because we’re sending them the tacit message that we don’t believe in their abilities to wrestle with complex issues. We need our children to grow up with the skills to tackle the daunting challenges their generation faces — such as racism, economic inequality, mass shootings and climate change.
But most importantly, they need to learn about the problems our society faces in a way that allows them to believe in their power to make positive changes. This belief comes from the lived experience of engaging in projects that have a direct, meaningfully positive impact on their local community, whether it’s planting vegetables for the school garden, starting a “kindness club,” creating public service announcements about ways families can reduce their carbon footprint, or singing for elders at a local nursing home. Empowering students to feel hope about the future is a radical act during times that can feel hopeless.
School-age children love to learn, and they enter school with boundless enthusiasm for the world around them. Making space for their endless questions can feel impossible given the hectic pace of the school day, but honoring their curiosity is an essential means of inculcating a lifelong love of learning.
Recognizing that curiosity shows up in ways that may look like testing the limits is a hallmark of good teaching. Truly encouraging children’s curiosity requires allowing time for discoveries that could have been “taught” and accepting unexpected outcomes. It requires the flexibility to spend more time on a particular topic that captivates a class’s passion, and to deviate from the pacing guides that tend to march from one idea to the next without sufficient time for learning that’s “sticky.”
For inspired learning to occur, teachers must be trusted to make timely curricular decisions about breadth vs. depth, whole class vs. small group learning, and assessing through different modalities. It is classroom teachers who know their students best, not policymakers or curriculum designers.
Opportunity to master core skills
Of course any successful school must ensure that students master rigorous skills. The skills an elementary school student must acquire over six years is mind boggling: from learning basic letter sounds and simple visual addition to composing multi-paragraph literary essays and unpacking complex multi-operation math problems. We know that children who struggle to master these skills in elementary school are at great risk for poor academic achievement in later years. The stakes are high.
The 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act rightly called out the “soft bigotry of low expectations” (which President George W. Bush warned against) and decried the stark contrast between the academic test scores of students of different races. But the solution — a relentless focus on math and reading to be measured annually in high stakes assessments — was the wrong solution. Why?
Because the solution addressed only one of the six pillars of a classroom where kids can thrive. And in focusing the spotlight on this pillar of foundational skills, NCLB effectively knocked the other pillars loose, unwittingly risking the stability of the whole enterprise of public education.
Are states really trying to overcome the harmful legacy of No Child Left Behind?
When we look around at our colleagues in districts across the country, the reality is that districts are singularly focused on the sixth pillar, academic proficiency, without sufficient attention to the prerequisite conditions that allow children and teachers to succeed.
Strategies that revolve around endless quantitative metrics — “teacher proof” curriculum rollouts, computer programs in lieu of rich and robust collaborative learning, and top-down decision-making — have landed us in a quagmire of stagnant student achievement and educator attrition. But it’s not too late to expand our focus.
The good news is that educators already know intuitively what’s necessary to create classrooms where students, and teachers themselves, can experience the magic of learning and community. Shifting strategies need not be costly. In fact, reducing our reliance on expensive curriculums, adaptive learning platforms, data systems and corporate professional development programs would ultimately lower the tab.
But the change that’s needed is in fact radical. It requires change processes that extend far beyond lip service to “SEL” (social-emotional learning). We need to loosen our worship of quantitative metrics, which may (or may not) accurately capture a child’s phonemic awareness or computation fluency but can never capture the equally important pillars. Does a child feel loved? Connected? Safe? Affirmed? Curious? Children will not grow their academic skills if we don’t give equal attention to the safety, joy and care that ultimately determine whether they will thrive or disengage.
As veteran teachers who have seen educational trends come and go, we believe that teachers, like children, need access to the exact same six pillars. We need to be part of a professional community where we are respected, valued and trusted. The enormous emotional toll of pandemic teaching needs to be acknowledged and honored.
We need emotional safety to take risks, to make mistakes, and to receive supportive rather than punitive approaches to our growth. We need our full identities to be embraced, not just as teachers, but also as people who are often caregivers at home as well as in school, and who are sometimes struggling with their own mental health and well-being as a result of primary or secondary trauma.
We need to feel that we have agency to shape the countless decisions that impact our daily work but are rarely made with our input. We need our curiosity to remain stimulated with opportunities to continue growing and learning as we progress through the phases of novice to veteran. And finally, we need access to research-based professional development that helps us hone our pedagogical knowledge skills.
Teachers and children know what it’s like to be in a classroom where learning is magical. We have both experienced these classrooms throughout our career. Districts and state education boards need to look to the expertise of its ground-level practitioners to move us forward. We know what it takes.