From the Magazine

Dear Lydia

My district split kids up, so many of my students who went virtual had another teacher. The problem is, as they come back, they are way behind the kids that have been here. How can I pivot what I’m doing to get all of these kids back on track?

Sincerely, Off the Rails

Dear Off the Rails,

Let’s take a moment here to pause — deep breath, in and out. I can feel your stress and it’s important that we acknowledge a couple of things: First, it is totally normal to feel stressed. Second, you’re not alone. Yep, even the Teacher of the Year in your building likely feels this same way. We also need to do a quick reality check — for those kids who are “behind,” you likely aren’t going to get them all back on track. Sorry, but even superhero teachers like yourself are constrained by limits of time and attention. 

Most importantly, in this situation specifically, you have students who are stressed, unsure, and know they are behind. Imagine the impact it’s having on their mental health and self-esteem. So, before we move into some tactical strategies, reorient yourself — the social and emotional well-being of you and your students must remain the number one priority. Acknowledge the realities, show humility, and let the kids follow your lead. 

Okay, now let’s flex on this situation a little bit and show the world what we’re made of. 

I know you may be accustomed to your class running in a more traditional manner, but this isn’t the year for traditional.

It’s the year for innovation rising from chaos. So, come on a little journey with me. Let’s use Experiential Self-Discovery ™, our Empowered methodology, to problem solve here a little bit. If you’re not familiar, no biggie. We’ll run through the five components together here. 

Right now, your freedom — how you are able to teach your students — may not totally be up to you. But what can you control? And how can you offer some of that control to your kids? It’s amazing what a little bit of agency and choice can do particularly for the kids who are behind, feeling embarrassed, or just plain want to give up. Let the lesson work around them, not the other way around. Bring in some choice boards, build out a handful of pathways for each next lesson, and let them showcase what they do know — in a way that’s most comfortable to them. For example, they could sing a song, write an essay, or create a comic book. 

When all the kids are working on different skills, it’s beneficial to have a shared framework for learning in place to keep them connected to the class and each other. Foundational Principles give you an evergreen lens through which students can make sense of anything, regardless of their mastery. I’d suggest implementing those principles and bringing the class together on projects that don’t require shared prior —knowledge, while their individual work aims to get everyone back on track.

To ensure that every student is challenged and honing their skills, you might ask students who are ahead to take on the role of peer leaders and help those who are behind. The magic of peer-to-peer learning is always amazing and truly does create a win-win — your behind student is learning, while the ahead student gets to practice sharing their knowledge in a way that others can understand. Sounds like it’s maybe time for some jigsaw learning or reciprocal teaching. 

And don’t forget: incentives matter. A classroom economy is an easy way to reward the behavior you like to see and get the class engaged together. The economy is critical as you rebuild a classroom of trust, respect, and excellence.

Your new classroom is probably feeling a lot different already. One thing you’ll begin to notice with the increased freedom and new incentive model is that kids are more engaged and anxious than before. That’s a good thing. That anxiety — or sense of unease, as they call it — is what powers action. It’s what powered you to make this change, for example. Creating that tension is your job now. Show them why not knowing causes distress, and learning eases it. Show them that the world is theirs to grab on to and make something of. 

Finally, how can you connect students to opportunities to discover their purpose? What kind of value can they create? What uniqueness can they bring to their community? That’s what it’s all about. And that’s what this whole exercise has been about. You’ve created a classroom that mirrors a community, where students thrive by bringing their uniqueness to the table in each activity, where they are intrinsically motivated to get better and learn more, where they are finally connected to their value. 

Your students are varying wildly in what they know and where they’re at in the learning process right now. But, the big secret is that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be impossible for you and it doesn’t have to leave kids behind. It just means you have to get a little innovative. 

Remember how we said social and emotional well-being is the number one priority? Well, the smiles, laughs, and things that you learn about your students during experiential learning are good for the soul. 

Happy teaching. Stay Empowered.

After years of teaching in the classroom, Lydia Hampton recognized her true calling was empowering teachers through curriculum design and professional development.