I’ve been checking on my high school students by phoning and emailing them and their parents. Only about 3% have reported significant struggles due to COVID-19 and even those are starting to find the strength to carry on as they get emails and phone calls from school, encouraging them to do what they can and encouraging them to share their needs and feelings. From what I am reading online, I’m thinking my district is far above average for being able to address the needs our students have. I am fortunate to be in a district that was able to offer a device to every family that had no other device (other than cell phones), so pretty much all of my students have some kind of access to the internet. A couple of my students have suffered losses of loved ones, and the pandemic makes those losses even more painful than they would be under normal conditions. But the number of my students in critical situations is in line with what has been common in the past.
In the beginning, parents and students were reporting feeling overwhelmed by emails from school. No one had run the numbers: 7 classes + school + district + sports. That could easily be ten emails per day, up from likely a typical two. (I had often heard from my students’ families in the past that they weren’t reading the emails because there were too many even back then.) Parents with multiple children in multiple schools could multiply that and get 30 emails. Learning management systems used by teachers in the district included the common grade portal, but also Schoology, Google Classroom, Canvas, web sites…. My own district wisely called teachers’ attention to the problem and made some great recommendations.
But then another issue began to surface when a number of my students reported they were not doing the work because they still couldn’t figure out what their math assignments were when I was using the same link I had used since August. In addition to maintaining that same assignment link, I was sending a weekly assignment email with the same information, reminding them of the link and pasting the work for the week in the email. I had also started posting the same work in Google Classroom because I knew some of their other teachers were doing that. Regardless, they said they couldn’t figure out what the assignments were.
I believe some of those students were sincere. They never had to make a list of all their assignments from all their teachers before. They just wrote down whatever was written on the board and the grade portal was sprinkled with the periodic comment, “missing.” Missing assignments became “late,” often with extended due dates and sometimes went away. One by one, with email and phone follow-ups, almost all of my students started turning in some of the work. But in those communications, it became apparent that the issues my students were struggling with were mostly
- disbelief that the academics in front of them were worth the effort
- lack of executive function that would override immediate gratification from video games and social media
In the mean time, parents shared how stress at home was increasing because they were unable to motivate their students to complete school work. Those that understood the long-term effects of losing months of math were very concerned when their student would not cooperate. After working all day, the parents were coming home to find no school work was done. I have come to realize that in all my efforts to outdo myself, being the most compassionate and empathetic educator I could be and developing social, emotional learning in my classroom, I failed miserably to drive home a very important idea: we need to do what we can to take care of our responsibilities as we look for ways to also serve others with gratitude. In far too many cases, I failed to help students set long-term goals and build the academic self-discipline and stamina to meet them. I am beginning to wonder if I inadvertently reinforced the idea that an emotional challenge was an excuse to do nothing.
Of course I can’t sanely own all the blame for the entire problem. While participation in extra-curriculars is linked to higher achievement,* too many students have grown accustomed to investing long hours into those extra-curriculars; and academics are now perceived as the “stressors.” Child labor laws do not apply to the extra-curriculars, and we wonder why so many students have been coming to school exhausted. This is a systemic and cultural issue. I believe that this issue needs to be resolved before the vast majority of high school students will be convinced that the academics are worth the effort.
In my thinking, whatever accountability system we have in place, we need to consider both the short-term and long-term needs of all students in our care. Short-term stresses are good, long-term stresses are bad.** In the short term, students need to believe that work invested in academics is worth the “stress.” Much of that will depend on how we hold them accountable to reasonable standards and how well we help them see themselves as independent adults. Of course we do not want to exacerbate real suffering during the pandemic any more than we would want to in any other time. But if we expect too little** from them, we send the message that the social media comics are right: academics are a farce. Then when they want to live independently, the big, long-term stresses will hit; and that will not be a good thing.
Much of what I have been reading in education news and Edu-Twitter has emphasized self care, self reflection, self awareness, self interest, self protection… Surely we all need those things. But that focus on immediate “self-happiness” can just as easily fall out of balance. Several of my students have gamified a system of pretending math is “too overwhelming” before they even watched the 8-minute lesson video. They will argue that putting their name on a worksheet and filling in a few blanks should be enough effort shown to get credit for the assignment.
To answer the question, “Can there be too much social-emotional empathy?” I would say, “No.” But to exercise empathy that is in the best interest of each student over the long haul, that empathy needs to be be aligned with high expectations. Somewhere in the process of social-emotional education students need to see that doing what one can to take care of their own responsibilities defines their character in the short term, helps maintain peace at home, and will put them be in a much better position for the long-term.
*Abruzzo, E. (2016). Does Participation in Extracurricular Activities Impact Student Achievement?. Journal For Leadership And Instruction, 15(1), 21-26. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1097547
**Lentz, N. H. (2016). Yes, Overprotective Parenting Harms Kids. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beastly-behavior/201608/yes-overprotective-parenting-harms-kids
***Schilling, K. M., & Schilling, K. L. (1999). Increasing Expectations for Student Effort. About Campus, 4(2), 4. https://doi.org/10.1177/108648229900400203