Much of the conversation around school reopenings has been technical in nature—and that makes sense given the host of health and safety concerns school leaders must take into account. But if these critical discussions about how to keep everyone safe aren’t “grounded in values or principles about what we want for students and what produces good educational experiences, then they are not likely to work or achieve their best results,” write Justin Reich and Jal Mehta, of MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, respectively.
Reich and Mehta brought together a range of stakeholders from different schools and states—teachers, students, school and district leaders, parents, state officials, and others—to identify important principles for planning the school year. Among seven themes around which school leaders might plan for school reopenings, the authors identified relationships as “the key to everything.”
“Relationships are the foundation of schooling: The trust forged between teachers and students inspires learners to do their work, enables teachers to offer candid feedback and criticism, and helps teachers learn to find the keys that unlock student potential and learning,” Reich and Mehta write. Once schools reopen, “educators and students need to team up to develop new kinds of strategies and structures for forging the relationships that enable meaningful learning.”
The authors identify four strategies ranging from “small innovations to major rethinking of how we organize schooling” to help build those relationships in the new school year.
When kids are learning from home, they can’t raise a hand to ask for help, and in the wait for a teacher’s email response they may lose track of what they were doing. To address this, one school that Reich and Mehta worked with had students bookmark a “Call a Teacher” page in their browsers and assigned a rotating group of school staff to handle incoming queries. “It goes to a webpage with text chat and with a link to a video conference room,” a student told them. “If you are stuck on a homework problem, they’ll find you a video or something. If an assignment isn’t clear, they’ll read it with you and try to tell you what it means, and if they can’t figure it out, they start texting the teacher or whoever made the assignment.” Since students, especially in high school, often do schoolwork at night, the school schedules more teachers to be on call then.
This strategy also creates an opportunity for adults to do quick check-ins, as the student noted: “They always ask me a bunch of other stuff too… Did I get enough to eat today? Am I getting enough sleep?”
Advisories can become a sort of home base, helping kids stay on top of remote learning. Another student told Reich and Mehta that his advisor is his “everything” teacher: “He makes sure that we each understand our grid of online lessons and assignments for the week. He texts us a couple of times every day to see what we’re working on, and we can always call him if we have questions.”
Students have several one-on-one Zoom calls throughout the week with their advisor, the student added, and there are some after-school group hangouts online. “We play Pictionary or Jackbox on Thursday nights at 9 p.m., which is cool of him to hang out with us,” said the student.
In an effort to prioritize student well-being, one principal told Reich and Mehta, his teachers decided to loop for the new school year. “Having [the same] teacher from last year allows the students and faculty to maintain relationships, and it allows the faculty to know what students missed as they move into next year,” the principal said. “It seems like it has worked really well—while not every match is perfect, on the whole, building on the relationships we had over the first two-thirds of last year has really helped us.”
When kids get involved in extracurricular activities, research shows, there’s a positive impact on academic engagement, and they become more deeply connected to their peers and to school. Students may be missing their team sports this year, but esports provide an engaging way for school staff to build relationships with students, and for students to develop friendships with peers, in a relaxed environment. One student told Reich and Mehta that his school’s librarian had organized an esports rec league around Valorant, a “capture the flag type shooting game.” The librarian organized student teams in a Google Doc and is planning a league tournament for the fall. “I really miss playing soccer and basketball, and I miss my coach and team, but this has been a pretty fun replacement,” the student told Reich and Mehta. The librarian “puts herself on the teams and a few other teachers from school come play with us sometimes,” he said. “They are really bad, but it’s still fun to hang out with them and show them how to play.”