Students Aren’t Falling Behind – If Anything, They’re Learning New Skills

Students Aren’t Falling Behind – If Anything, They’re Learning New Skills

While the pandemic wears on, parents and teachers naturally worry about our young charges, our students and our children. We worry about their mental health. Are they falling behind in their academic growth? We worry about their screen time. Are they getting enough fresh air, healthy food, and exercise?

And while worry seems to be part of the parent and teacher job description – and while it’s absolutely true that the pandemic has had far-reaching negative impacts that we don’t yet understand fully – I’m here to tell you:

The kids are alright.

Yes, when it’s safe, they need to be back in a classroom. But the straits aren’t all dire.

Our students aren’t falling behind academically – far from it. In fact, if we are looking to make the proverbial lemonade from the lemons that 2020 handed us, there are quite a few positives. Our students, from the youngest kindergarteners to high school seniors, are learning new skills that will prove invaluable to them in their future careers.

Here are just a handful of academic and mental health skills our students are acquiring amidst the global pandemic.

1. They are learning to advocate for themselves.

For the first time in a long time, my students are actively seeking me out when they need help. Often (always) I’m the one hunting them down, nagging them to make up a quiz or test or turn in their renaissance faire project. Now, since my students don’t see me every day, the surefire way they can get help is to ask for it. And they are asking for it, as the emails stacking up in my inbox can attest to. Robyn Jackson wrote a great book about teaching strategies called Never Work Harder Than Your Students: And Other Great Principles of Teaching, and I’m feeling like the pandemic has finally forced the hand of some of my students. They are working harder than me for their A for a change! It’s pretty hard for me to tell if a student is picking up what I’m laying down when their camera is off. Now, if my students need help, they must advocate for themselves by asking for it. Students aren’t falling behind when they’re learning important skills that are preparing them for college, the workforce, and beyond.

2. They are learning to be intrinsically motivated.

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, right? My students, especially my honors English students, are deeply motivated by letter grades, and while I can’t fault them, I sometimes feel like we are missing the point of education by focusing so much on grades. Well during the pandemic, a lot of things that used to be mandatory just aren’t. It’s so much easier for a student to skip class or fiddle around on their phone when they are supposed to be taking notes, but the thing is – they aren’t. They are showing up to my classes in droves. They are participating in class discussions and turning in their homework even when these things aren’t required in the way they once were. My students are showing up for themselves, and I couldn’t be more proud.

3. They are learning new technology skills immediately applicable to the workforce.

Zoom, Canvas, Google Meets, design skills through Canva, uploading files, sending emails with attachments, editing a PDF, these are all real-world office skills our students will use almost daily in the workforce no matter what career they go into. What future employer doesn’t want a tech-savvy employee? The good news is, learning this technology is no longer optional. If students want to turn in their assignments, they have to learn to navigate our digital era (the same can be said of teachers as well!).

4. They are learning to communicate.

Pre-pandemic, making an actual phone call to an actual person was high on the list of things my students feared. I build a phone etiquette unit into my journalism class, and students had to cold-call local businesses to sell ads, and you wouldn’t believe the intense anxiety these students felt over learning a skill the older generations take for granted. Our students primarily rely on texting and other forms of social media to communicate, so verbal communication is a challenge for many in Generation Z. Now, I’m making regular phone calls home to students to do wellness checks, discuss assignments, or inform families about new pandemic protocols, and my students enthusiastically pick up the phone. 

Equally important, the pandemic has given teachers a golden opportunity to teach students about proper email communication, including proper salutations, how to professionally address an adult, and the importance of proofreading. Sure, I still get plenty of emails that read like text messages, but many more students than usual have mastered the art of the email. The improvement in communication shows students aren’t falling behind.

5. They are learning at their own pace.

Many classrooms are now flipped, with teachers uploading videos and lessons that students preview before coming to class, where they receive tutoring and can ask questions. In this scenario, students teach themselves the content, a sophisticated process that takes practice. It is rewarding to try and try until you finally succeed. Instead of delivering content in a one-size-fits-all format, students are able to work through content at a pace that suits them.

6. They are learning how to be bored.

Yes, I know plenty of students who spend all their free time on TikTok or taking selfies, but a huge number of my students are filling their extra hours with new personal improvement pursuits. One young woman I teach runs four miles a day (putting me to shame). Another started meditating. Consumption of audiobooks is way up. Students are learning to fill their leisure hours with meaningful new hobbies.

7. They are learning resiliency.

This is hard. It’s been eleven months, and it’s taking a toll on all of us. And yet, in spite of the myriad changes, the total 180 schools have had to do, the loss of sports and dances and homecoming, and the endless requirement to “just be flexible,” our students are showing up and putting in the work. This teaches discipline. This teaches perseverance. Our students aren’t falling behind. They’re learning that they can do hard things.

Let’s not forget that every benchmark – every single one, from the common core state standards to our classroom curriculum maps – are arbitrary. Somewhere along the line, someone sat down and decided that counting by fives should be learned in first grade, or that students on track for college should know how to solve derivatives. That’s all well and good during a normal school year, but these are not normal times. We can change these standards. They aren’t handed down from on high, nor carved in stone. There is a call to give grace during these difficult times.

Educators and parents alike must understand that, while teachers may not cover the usual amount of curriculum this year, our students aren’t falling behind. In fact, they are still indeed learning. I promise they are – I see it every single day.

Join us in the Empowered Teachers community for more discussions like this.


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I am an unrepentant lover of words - and lucky me, I spend all day, every day immersed in them. When I'm not teaching, I'm reading. Or writing. Or teaching eager (and sometimes not-so-eager) adolescents about the power of the written word. I live on the scenic Oregon Coast with my dog, two cats, and five-year-old son.

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