Teaching in the New Normal: How K-12 Educators Can Support Students Inside and Outside the Classroom This Year

For young people across the U.S., fall is synonymous with “back to school.” But while the end of summer break often stirs mixed emotions, K-12 students may feel especially conflicted this year. For some, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home orders may have made them even more excited to reunite with friends and rediscover some form of normality. For others, the prospect of returning to the classroom may be the source of anxiety and fear.

These anxieties are not helped by the enormous variation in student experiences across the country and the uncertainty that remains. While some schools are fully reopening, others are adopting a blended learning approach, combining in-person classes with online education to limit the number of students in the building at any given time. Others still are keeping classes entirely virtual, at least for the time being. And as the pandemic runs its course, it’s likely that even the best-laid plans will change, meaning schools must be prepared to make sudden pivots as the situation evolves.

All this means it’s a challenging time to be an educator, and it’s natural to feel stressed about what this school year will bring. But supporting students is what you do best, and we’re here to help you in any way we can. That’s why we’ve compiled some tips and resources, as well as best practices recommended by experts in the field, to help you prepare for any eventuality—and ensure your students (and their parents) feel safe and supported, no matter what.

Make the classroom a place of inspiration, not fear

Whether it happens now or in six months, your students will eventually return to the physical classroom. When that day comes, one of the most important things you can do is provide a calm, cheerful, and welcoming presence that helps to offset students’ anxiety and makes them feel positive about being back at school.

This is true no matter what age range you teach. While younger kids may find the situation confusing or overwhelming, older students may be more tuned in to the news, leaving them with different concerns.

You can help put students’ minds at ease by having an open and honest conversation on their first day back, clearly outlining what safety precautions the school has put in place, what they can expect over the coming week, and why certain steps have been taken. Leave plenty of room for them to ask questions, and avoid the urge to oversimplify things. It’s tempting to say that everything will be fine and no one will get sick, but this is a promise you might not be able to keep. Instead, focus on everything the school is doing to minimize risk—and what role students can play.

Frame steps like washing their hands more regularly and avoiding moving their distanced desks as simple ways they can help, and encourage kids to feel proud of themselves when they follow the guidelines. You can also discuss the pandemic in an academic context—for example, during science lessons—to enhance student’s understanding of the situation and give them the language they need to process their feelings constructively.

Throughout these conversations, however, it’s crucial to remember that some students may have lost family members or faced financial hardship as a result of the pandemic. Lead your class with empathy, and gently discourage students from making jokes that some of their classmates may find distressing.

For more tips about easing the transition back to the classroom, download Playworks’ free School Reopening Workbook.

Keep students engaged and productive from anywhere

For teachers who will be leading online classes, keeping students engaged from afar is top of mind. While you may have taught a few remote classes in the final weeks of the previous school year, adopting this approach for the foreseeable future is understandably daunting.

To give yourself the tools you need to be a successful virtual educator, consider taking one or more of these LinkedIn Learning courses:

Another way to stay up to date with the latest teaching strategies is to join a dedicated LinkedIn Group. For example, this group for elementary teachers, which currently has more than 80,000 members, is described as a forum for sharing what works in your classroom, and this group for teachers on LinkedIn encourages members to share stories, concerns, and ideas. Groups like this provide an opportunity to stay connected to the wider teaching community—and remind yourself you’re not in this alone.

When classes begin, aim to make lessons as interactive as possible. While you might ask students to mute their mic at times to avoid cross-talk and disruptions, delivering the whole lesson this way may encourage some to watch TV or play games when they should be paying attention. To avoid this, build moments of participation into your lesson plans—like asking students to share their perspectives during the discussion or holding fun trivia-style quizzes.

Adopting a somewhat improvisational approach can also help boost engagement. It’s good to have an outline to keep things on track, but reading from notes for extended periods may cause students to tune out, so look for ways to keep lessons spontaneous.

While remote teaching will take some getting used to, you already have most of the skills you need. The medium is different, but your ability to support and inspire your students hasn’t changed.

“We know that effective distance learning draws on the same ingredients that are essential inside the classroom—setting and maintaining high expectations for all students and delivering on those expectations with coherent, knowledge-building instruction,” says Lynne Munson, founder and CEO of Great Minds. “We are working to ensure high-quality instruction continues no matter the circumstances teachers face this fall.”

Have a plan in place for anything

Even if your school will soon open its doors again, it’s worth having a communication plan ready to deploy at short notice, should circumstances change and you suddenly need to transition to remote learning. Consider compiling a list of resources to help students and parents manage the transition, such as:

Providing resources like this can make a world of difference to families who may be struggling. LEARN Charter School Network discovered this when it went above and beyond to ensure its students had everything they needed to be successful.

“LEARN Network is committed to our families, which is noted in our values under family involvement,” explains Michelle N. Pierre-Farid, LEARN’s Chief Schools Officer. “With that in mind, we had 100% of our schools contact 100% of their families. In those conversations, teachers wanted to know the family’s needs and any technology support. We then set up a family support program where we provided gift cards directly to families to meet any of their immediate needs. We also provided Chromebooks to any family that requested it. We know that this strengthened school-parent relationships because we had families personally reach out to the CEO to state how much they appreciated the one-to-one contact from our staff.”

Whatever happens, try to provide updates to students and parents on a regular basis to keep them in the loop about any upcoming changes. Constantly shifting schedules can be especially difficult for working parents and anxious students, but you can take some of the weight off their shoulders by being a beacon of clarity in a sea of uncertainty.

As you support your students and their families, we are here to support you. To be the first to hear about new resources and tips, subscribe to the LinkedIn for Nonprofits blog today.

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