122 Teachers Speak: Surviving Student Learning Loss, Behavior Challenges

In survey, teachers reflect on students鈥 struggles with raising hands, forming sentences, using scissors, crayons, tying shoes, and angry outbursts

By Marianna McMurdock, Jasmine De Leon & Meghan Gallagher | August 1, 2022

鈥淢y eighth graders wouldn鈥檛 use capital letters, periods, punctuation鈥 had to do mini lessons to review.鈥

Eighth grade teacher, Cheraw, SC

鈥淎ngry outbursts over little things, physical violence… no sense of the purpose of school… it鈥檚 boring or not fun鈥 They don鈥檛 know why they鈥檙e mad or sad.鈥

Second grade teacher, Carrollton, TX

鈥淭hey don鈥檛 know how to play or play together. They don鈥檛 know how to take turns or share. The younger students can鈥檛 tie their shoes or button their pants.鈥

Elementary school principal, Blooming Grove, TX

鈥淚 gave them choices for how they could take time to regulate or express their feelings … I gave them food, let them nap under my table…鈥

Sixth-12th grade teacher, Charlotte, NC

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 , in a survey created by 成人抖阴.

Educators from coast to coast noted students had difficulty with common classroom routines 鈥 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 鈥済race鈥: ask questions, read to them every day, listen to frustrations and model behavior.

鈥淲e have a huge problem we’re facing with kids now as a result of the pandemic, which isn’t over,鈥 said Pedro Noguera, sociologist of education and dean of USC鈥檚 Rossier School of Education. 鈥淚 hear it directly from teachers 鈥 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.鈥 

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鈥檛 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

鈥淭his 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 ,鈥 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.”

鈥淎ny little thing can wreck their whole day,鈥 they added.

Young people now need extra practice with staying organized, taking notes, managing their time and following through with deadlines, many teachers told 成人抖阴. As one Texas high school English teacher said of their students鈥 executive functioning skills, due dates would 鈥渟nowball鈥 They quickly became overwhelmed.鈥 

鈥淭heir fuses are just shorter and the concept of respect seems different. You can’t push them too much or they turn off 鈥 Their emotional state is still in turmoil, partly because they are teens, but also since the concept of school is new again,鈥 one California English teacher said. 

Accordingly, educators are adapting policies and class time to help students manage workloads. 

鈥淚鈥檝e learned to be much more understanding to what鈥檚 going on at home. I鈥檝e also scaled back on 鈥榟omework鈥 and deadlines due to absences and personal situations,鈥 said a 7th grade English teacher in southern California. I鈥檝e also used class time to help students organize themselves or catch up on work. Some often just appreciate time to clean out their backpack.鈥

Academic challenges

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. 

鈥4th graders came having major gaps in basics of arithmetic 鈥 operations, number sense, problem solving,鈥 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 鈥渟tamina鈥 or motivation to focus 鈥 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. 

鈥淚 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,鈥 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 鈥 how they treat each other, and why. It felt counterintuitive, given how much academic growth needed to happen.

鈥淚 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,鈥 the teacher said. 鈥淚 don鈥檛 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.鈥 

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鈥 difficulty keeping track of their work and collaborating with their peers. 

鈥淪tudents really struggled with completing group [or] partner activities 鈥 having to wait their turn or share materials wasn鈥檛 something that was as big of an issue in middle school prior,鈥 said one 7th grade teacher in Columbia, South Carolina. 

Elementary school teacher Catherine Graber noticed similar trends in Louisville, Kentucky: 鈥淪ocial 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.鈥

Behavior challenges

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. 

鈥淭he last two years have been some of the most divisive in American society 鈥 Show the kids what it looks like to respect each other and stop treating everyone like an enemy,鈥 said Illinois middle school teacher Anthony Modica. 

For young children, behavior changes were more subtle. 

鈥淚t was fairly obvious to me that they probably hadn鈥檛 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,鈥 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. 

鈥淚 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. 

鈥淲e can’t just expect kids are going to just pop right back into where they were pre-pandemic,鈥 a third grade teacher outside of Minneapolis said in an interview with 成人抖阴. 鈥淲e’re going to have to do a lot more work to settle them into what school really is like and make them feel safe…鈥

And academics like Pedro Noguera say children will need much more than just academic recovery to feel like school matters. 

鈥淲e have to bring some joy to learning and to being in school, so that kids want to be there,鈥 said Noguera. 鈥淎 sense of joy comes from a sense of belonging鈥o music, theater, sports have to be more integrated into the academic program, and not treated as an afterthought.鈥

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