If you are anything like me, you are probably wondering where the summer went and how it is possible a new school year is upon us. This has been a wild year-and-a-half to be working in education. I think everyone is ready to start fresh this fall with renewed perspective, energy, and optimism for the 2021-2022 academic year.
Over the last 18 months, I have had the privilege of speaking with teachers, paraeducators, policy makers, administrators, and other educational thought leaders about how schools can best support students at the start of this school year. One thing is clear: We have all, students and adults alike, experienced trauma.
When we hear the word “trauma,” our minds tend to conjure severely negative experiences. But trauma is not always tragic, and it describes a range of experiences. This is a critical point to hold in our minds. As educators supporting students, we have to ensure that we have empathy for our students’ experiences, that we are prepared to support them without judgement, and that we recognize the value in their perspectives. At this complex point in our collective experience, trauma may stem from many points, with COVID-19, political divisiveness, racial injustice, economic changes, and climate change in action populating only a partial list of options.
Through these disruptions, it has become evident that, now more than ever, social-emotional learning must be a top priority for every school. There is understandable concern about academic loss, but we must remind ourselves that, unless we address students’ social and emotional needs, we will not be able to regain ground on students’ academic performance on the kind of timeline that many outside of education are demanding of schools.
New school years always inspire a mix of excitement and stress. When I was a classroom educator, I remember showing up on the first day of school with butterflies in my stomach, a bit tired from a restless night’s sleep. In the context of welcoming my new class of young, curious minds to a new school year, however, the combination of nerves and anticipation was exhilarating.
Now, with shifting health guidelines, changing schedules, academic expectations, and more, I can only imagine how overwhelmed educators are feeling as they gear up to greet students at their classroom doors on the first day. Despite these extra layers, I encourage all of my colleagues in education to think about this year with optimism. In this disrupted landscape, there is an opportunity to not simply go back to the way we were teaching prior to March 2020. There is an opportunity to rebuild the architecture of our schools to truly put students’ first. Social-emotional learning is the foundational step in that process.
Sam Drazin Executive Director