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6 Ways Educators Can Embrace Student Engagement During a Unique School Year

By Araha Uday with James Colyott

August 13, 2021

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing and districts across the country unveiling various return-to-learn plans, schools are facing one of the most unique openings to a school year ever. As school personnel plan for the new school year, they should be aware of what students have experienced during the pandemic and what they are saying about those experiences. Embracing student engagement is more important than ever as students return to schools in large numbers and deal with the lingering academic, emotional, and social effects of the pandemic.

What are students saying?

Last year challenged students in ways we could not have predicted. For me, a junior at Schaumburg High School in Schaumburg, Illinois, it was disorienting to learn in the same place I lived. While my classmates and I worked online, my family had to adjust to a new living situation as my mom worked long hours at a hospital. The challenge of managing the restlessness that resulted from sitting in the same place for hours while resisting distractions was more difficult than I anticipated. A lack of connection was the most challenging aspect of my year; it meant adjusting to school without social stimulation and hands-on learning, and sometimes feeling that help from teachers was literally out of reach.

And I’m certainly not alone. During the 2020–21 school year, the Illinois State Board of Education’s Student Advisory Council conducted a survey of 500 Illinois high schoolers to learn about their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. The anonymous quotes that follow demonstrate the challenges that students dealt with over the past year.

Want to hear more from the Illinois Student Advisory Council? Watch the recording of “Pushing Educational Boundaries: Student Recommendations for Spending American Rescue Plan Funds,” a webinar hosted by the Region 9 Comprehensive Center that features their recommendations for using the current influx of COVID-19 recovery funding to make the biggest impact for students.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your year so far?

“The most challenging aspect of this school year is that I find it hard to concentrate and take in the information behind a computer screen at home.”

“Keeping track of assignments and overcoming the depression I feel when I have no outside contact.”

“I would say it would be losing sense of control. I felt like I couldn’t control what was happening in my classes let alone in my home or in the outside world.”

“I no longer communicate my questions clearly, my grades dropped significantly below average, and my frustrations with not only my peers but my teachers have grown.”

How has your work ethic changed over the past year? Are your grades better or worse this year than last, and why do you think that is?

“My work has declined significantly. My grades are not good. I know I can be doing better, the problem I face is lack of motivation which often leaves me tired and not wanting to do the work.”

“My grades have never been as low as they are right now. I have been working twice as hard and spending twice as long on my schoolwork, but that doesn’t seem to make any difference. I am mentally and emotionally drained from this school year. I used to love school, but all of this stress has made me miserable, and now I hate school. I am worried that I will not be prepared for college next year because I have not been learning what I need to in preparation for next year.”

It is clear from personal experience, conversations, and our survey that students are entering this school year in unique academic, emotional, and social circumstances. Numerous students in the survey described how their motivation and work ethic have worsened, with most saying they were “overwhelmed.” My social group has narrowed significantly, and I was recently discussing with a friend how something as simple as finding people to sit with at lunch would be odd, since many people we used to consider friends are now just acquaintances. Although a lack of connection was something students struggled with during the past year, heightened social anxiety could be an equally significant challenge as in-person school resumes. Additionally, incoming underclassmen may feel unprepared for the increased academic rigor of high school; one sophomore told me that he “still felt like an eighth grader.”

Student voices must be part of the COVID-19 recovery

Many of the survey respondents offered specific and realistic suggestions that spoke to the student experience within their schools. As students return to in-person learning, schools and districts should set a precedent of inviting student voices into the conversation. Doing so is not only valuable but necessary, as overcoming certain challenges will require student cooperation. For example, I had a conversation with a department chair in our school who noted that one of the obstacles our school might face next year is engagement in social activities, especially from younger students. School staff may not be as effective in addressing such challenges as the students themselves. Therefore, my school and others should consider hearing what students want to see in social activities and collaborate with them to increase participation. This thinking should be applied to many of the decisions schools face over the upcoming year in areas such as offering creative learning opportunities, hosting social activities, facilitating academic and athletic celebrations, designing honors and award ceremonies, scheduling school spirit rallies and assemblies, etc.

How can school personnel help?

Schools leaders place a high priority on educating students according to state and local standards aligned with their local vision and mission statements. Just as important, school systems must understand the experiences of students since the pandemic began. The 2021–22 school year is incredibly unique, as many students across the country may be returning to school on a full-time basis for the first time in more than a year. Students will enter a new grade and have new teachers; they may be in a new building and may not feel prepared. School personnel can help students reacclimate to the school setting and incorporate their voices into decision making in the following ways:

“I think teachers and the school could do a better job by just reaching out to [their students] even if it’s like I want you guys to meet with me and just update me about your life outside of school.”

“I think administrators could do a better job at making us feel like we are heard when we do come to them with concerns.”

  1. Embrace every opportunity to engage directly with students. Whether with a one-on-one passing in the hallway, a quiet moment in the school office or library, in the lunch line together, or at recess, school personnel should take the time to engage in brief conversation with the students. Ask how students are doing in a class, about a pet or sibling, or about the lunch box or backpack they are carrying. Take the time to comment on what a great day it is, or simply offer something about yourself if they don’t seem talkative. This may be one of the first real conversations students have had outside of family members or close friends in quite some time.
  2. Support and praise your students daily. Now more than ever, a few words of praise will go a long way. A few words of encouragement may truly help a discouraged student who is struggling. Think of creative ways to provide support for your students, and be sure to express your belief in their ability to learn.
  3. Provide time for students to share. Allowing students the opportunity to share their experiences these past 18 months is not only a great way for them to express emotions and relieve stress, but for others to learn from their experience and realize they aren’t the only ones feeling isolated. School personnel must think about how they can provide sufficient quality time for students to share and engage in deep conversations with one another.
  4. Brainstorm opportunities and solutions together. School personnel must be intentional about working collaboratively with students and student groups when gathering ideas to plan school activities and resolve any current issues. Plan regular meetings with diverse student groups to ensure a steady dose of student voices for all decision making. Also, consider a suggestion box in the office or on the web site where any student may add an idea with their name on it for consideration. School personnel can then reach out to the students for additional discussions.
  5. Host and promote social activities. Keeping local health and safety protocols in mind, schools should strongly consider hosting and promoting as many social activities for students as possible. Continuing traditional school social activities is important, but so is the possibility of adding small and large social events to meet the latest needs of the student population.
  6. Celebrate and communicate. School personnel should celebrate successes throughout the school year and communicate the challenges as well. Publicize information on the school web site, social media, or local news publications to keep the school community aware of ongoing positive relationships in the schools. Praise student participation in these successes and publicly encourage this practice to continue. And when students contribute ideas for improvements, schools should connect with students to let them know how those ideas were implemented.

Every year, schools strive to meet the needs of their students. However, this year will require extra effort from all school personnel to help students through this incredibly challenging time as they reacclimate to a full-time school environment.

Araha Uday is a rising senior at Schaumburg High School and will be joining the Illinois State Board of Education’s Student Advisory Council for a second year in 2021–22. Last year, Araha and her advisory council group researched and presented proposals to address the post–COVID-19 achievement gap to state board members and other educational leaders.

James Colyott, EdS, leads the Region 9 Comprehensive Center’s teacher recruitment, retention, and recognition project with the Illinois State Board of Education and is a technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research. He has more than 20 years of experience in public education, including 7 years as a school district superintendent.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages.