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COVID's impact on classrooms will linger and must be addressed, according to teachers

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

High stress, large class sizes, trying to squeeze in too much information. That is how some educators have described the teaching industry three years into the pandemic. As teachers nationwide have navigated remote learning, the return to the classroom and learning loss among their students, we've been checking in with a small group of them to get a sense of how things are going. And last time we spoke, school was just letting out last summer. So halfway through a new school year, we thought it would be a good time now to check in with all of them again. Tiki Boyea-Logan is an elementary school teacher outside Dallas, Texas. Also joining us are Suzen Polk-Hoffses, a pre-K teacher in Milbridge, Maine, and Michael Reinholdt, a teacher coach in Davenport, Iowa. Welcome back to all of you.

MICHAEL REINHOLDT: Thank you for having me.

TIKI BOYEA-LOGAN: Thank you.

SUZEN POLK-HOFFSES: Great to be here.

CHANG: Tiki, I want to start with you because the last time we spoke, you said that the fourth graders coming back into your class were more like second graders academically speaking, emotionally speaking. Tell me. Has that gap closed at all as kids have been back in classrooms longer?

BOYEA-LOGAN: I don't see it smaller. I teach reading, writing, and they tacked on social studies for me. And I find myself going back. We are going over the basics. What is a complete sentence? What's an action word? What's a noun? And these - some of them actually don't know. And as a fourth grade teacher, we're supposed to, you know, start being creative with their writing, how to expand, how to add ideas and get down their, you know, their details. And I'm having to start back from the beginning. I'm teaching them the basics. And, I mean, that's putting us more behind.

CHANG: What about you, Suzen? Is that gap in any way closing? Is it wider in the kids that you're teaching?

POLK-HOFFSES: So I teach 4-year-olds. And to be honest, this year has been a very challenging year. What I've seen in my 4-year-old students - a lot of anger, a lot of irritability, a lot of lack of impulse control, be it with their words, with their hands. I've seen a lot of oppositional defiance. It's really concerning. And I really do think this has to do with, you know, the pandemic. I think whatever the parents were going through, you know, in 2020 - something has happened because I'm seeing really a big disconnect in the young children that I'm teaching today.

CHANG: When you say anger, can you give me an example? What kind of situations come up?

POLK-HOFFSES: A lot of swearing, which I have never...

CHANG: Wow.

POLK-HOFFSES: ...Experienced before in my - I mean, like, full-blown, this person just rolled out of the bar or a pirate. Like, I have never in my life been cussed out the way that I've been cussed out this year. A lot of just, you know, given a direction and the child just turning and screaming at me, no - and the direction might be, oh, let's go back to our table, or, let's go put our boots away. I mean, really simple things are really throwing children off.

CHANG: Well, Michael, just to remind everybody, you coach other teachers. Can you give me a sense of, like, the challenges you're hearing from them at this point on? Is it similar to what Suzen and Tiki are talking about?

REINHOLDT: Yeah, absolutely. I think ultimately, what we're seeing in the classroom is just a reflection of the stresses that our families are under and they continue to be under because of the pandemic. Over here in Davenport, we work with students that come from some social and economically disadvantaged families. And I think that we're really seeing how many of these - how deeply ingrained these problems are, how deeply affected these families are. And then the students are coming to school. They're having the behavioral outbursts. They're socially - need a lot more time, and they need a lot more training. And we go through a lot of social-emotional learning in our classrooms just to make sure that they are getting what they need. Conflict resolution, how to self-regulate - those kind of basic skill sets that oftentimes you see students come in with, they don't - these students don't have.

CHANG: You know, Tiki, in our last conversation with you, you said despite how much you love teaching, things have been really hard. You weren't sure if you would be able to continue teaching. How are you feeling these days, seven months later, since we last talked?

BOYEA-LOGAN: I actually switched school districts. I'm at a much smaller school district. And so a lot of the - I still have all of, you know, the worries and the gaps and all the things that are piled on our plates. But I'm not, like, dreading, you know, to go to school anymore. At this new school district, we do something called Capturing Kids' Hearts, CKH. And it's really - I don't know if strange is the right word, but we're having to really go back and teach them social skills, too. I think that might be coming from part of the issues that they're having with anger because they don't know how to express themselves. They don't know how to deal with confrontation. You know, somebody hurt their feelings, or - it's just, like, a good tool to have. Not saying that it's...

CHANG: Absolutely.

BOYEA-LOGAN: ...A magic wand, but it's really, really, really helpful as a reminder to them. Like, hey; we don't have to hit our friends, you know?

CHANG: So what more can be done to help schools not only just attract but retain teachers? This is a question for all of you.

REINHOLDT: I think one of the things that I most want is that although the pandemic is over for the general public, we need to make sure that people understand that its effects are going to continue to reverberate throughout education for not only this year but future years, five, 10, whatever a number of years out there because it's not all going to get done in one year. We're not going to be able to fill those gaps in six months. If I could do that, I'll tell you what. I'd get paid a lot more money. But we're seeing it in social, emotional, academically, all across the board here. And we just need people to realize that schools need support not only for this year but continuing to deal with these effects.

POLK-HOFFSES: In the past, we were so focused on teaching academics, about math, reading and writing. And now in 2023, we as educators understand that we need to teach kindness. We need to teach compassion. We need to have those kinds of social-emotional learning activities going into our classrooms because we need to prepare our students...

CHANG: Right.

POLK-HOFFSES: ...For the real world.

CHANG: What's the state test for that, right?

POLK-HOFFSES: Absolutely. How do you test kindness? How do you test compassion? How do you test just being a good person because how can you teach a child that is screaming at you, cussing at you, becoming in a disruption? Obviously, that child is feeling pain and anger. And they're saying, somebody help me. But we're just like, OK, guys, turn to page 95. This will be on the test next week. We cannot keep teaching like we were teaching 10, 20...

CHANG: Right.

POLK-HOFFSES: ...Fifty years ago. Education has changed.

CHANG: That was Suzen Polk-Hoffses of Milbridge, Maine, Michael Reinholdt of Davenport, Iowa, and Tiki Boyea-Logan outside Dallas, Texas. Thank you, again, to all three of you for what you do and for sharing your thoughts with us.

POLK-HOFFSES: Thank you for having me.

BOYEA-LOGAN: Thank you so much.

REINHOLDT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gus Contreras
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.