Charlotte school teacher on challenges of post-COVID learning


One Charlotte middle school teacher writes about how challenging the last two years of COVID learning have been.

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The New Lesson Plan

Statewide data released last week that covers last school year shows that math students in North Carolina middle and high schools are more than a year behind, and reading losses are anywhere between two and seven months behind at the end of the 2020-21 school year. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, less than 15% of all third-graders are expected to be on track in reading. So, what can be done to help regain learning losses? This special report explores the problem and offers insight and resources.

The first day of school this year had us all excited in a way we hadn’t previously experienced. We were finally getting a full school full of students! As I greeted many of them on my morning duty post, they seemed excited, if not nervous about (for many of them) their first school day in an actual school since March of 2020. Within a few days, the honeymoon period ended and we began to talk amongst each other as teachers about what we were seeing.

There are always students who hand in work late, but this seemed excessive. There are always kids who can’t seem to stop talking during instructional time, but this was a lot more than we’re used to. The hallways and during “Teen Time” were different than I had ever experienced. Students couldn’t stop touching each other and were using language that was not school appropriate. It’s as if they had forgotten how school works and what the rules of engagement were.

Leslie Neilsen
Leslie Neilsen is a teacher at Community House Middle School. Courtesy of Leslie Neilsen

I teach elective classes and therefore teach grades 6th, 7th and 8th. My 8th graders had spent a majority of their middle school experience at home in pandemic mode. They had developed habits that included an “I’ll do it later” mindset that meant turning in class work late, opting instead to socialize or play games.

As a teacher, you try to be vigilant about the ways the students are using their computers to be off-task, but some still try it. So it became my job to double down on expectations, parent communication and accountability. There are bad habits that include feeling the need to “google” every answer to everything. They got very used to looking online for answers and it’s been important to make them actually do the work. Some students don’t want to struggle for answers … and yet we know that the learning takes place because of the struggle.

The pandemic mindset of being able to turn in work whenever for full credit was detrimental to the learning process because we are trying to gauge comprehension and mastery of content and standards. I have no doubt that if educators keep working at holding the expectations high, the students will rise as well.

Not ‘learning loss,’ but learning delay

My 7th graders are like perpetual 5th graders. This was their first authentic middle school experience this year. They lack maturity and have so much energy. I have had to adjust a lot to accommodate that, but I know it’s also part of being a 7th grader, with a lot of growth happening over the summer. It’s up to us to set those expectations and to hit the ground running next year.

My 6th graders have been amazing. They always come to us with the elementary school mentality, but this really worked for them because it was much easier to instill great habits and behaviors. I asked a lot of this group and they rose to the challenge every time. It wasn’t always easy, but they were so hungry for the opportunity to push themselves, so I could continue to move them forward. I think they will recover most in the years to come.

There has been a lot of talk about “learning loss.” I don’t call it that, because loss indicates something is missing. It is not, it was simply delayed for some of our students. The past two years we’ve been frozen, but the thaw is happening. And guess what? Teachers have always known how to fill in gaps for students.

Some come to us from other countries and experienced war, poverty and trauma and had interruptions to their education. Some come to us from other school districts where they may have not had the same educational opportunities offered in our schools. Some come from other schools here in CMS and may be experiencing any multitude of life experiences that have had an impact on their learning. Educators know how to diminish those disruptions in their education.

‘A metamorphosis of education’

COVID has pushed us to do more, do it faster and do it under the microscope of public scrutiny that is driving thousands of educators away from the classroom. If we truly want to mitigate “learning loss” we need to stop vilifying public schools and teachers and trust the professionals to do what we do best.

As we head into our testing window across the district, I implore the community to ask themselves what is our priority for children — test scores or their well-being? Because looking out over my classes of middle grades students, knowing they are making their way back to normal is what lets me know we are righting the ship.

We won’t ever be fully normal because we participated in a metamorphosis of education through the pandemic. Their loss of time with peers and structure and consistency had a way bigger impact on them than “learning loss.”

Education requires a lot of heart, hard work, flexibility, mobility and ingenuity. You need dedicated teachers in classrooms to accomplish this, so what is being done to stop that loss?