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Tuesday, July 25, 2023

The #1 Thing We All Need This Year

Last school year was really hard in new ways I don't think any of us fully anticipated. And the years before that too. As I'm putting together my purchase orders and Amazon wish lists, reflecting on last school year and thinking ahead to next year, I have been thinking a lot about the main things my students need to be successful this year, and realizing the things they need are the same things my colleagues and I need as teachers as well. While there are a lot of things that play into it, there is one thing I keep coming back to that I think all of us- students and teachers- need most this year.

First of all yes, we still definitely need more funding- for supplies and for salaries- I'm not saying that we don't need the material things too! But truly solving the teacher shortage, the student behaviors, the mental health crisis... that will take more than anything money can buy. 


The number one word I have been reflecting on since the middle of last school year is agency. We all lost our sense of control over our own lives during the pandemic (which led to a lot of conflict over masking, vaccine mandates, etc) and we are all looking to regain some sense of control- of agency- over our situations. At the same time, students in particular experienced a different type of agency and control over their situation during distance learning. They could stay in their pajamas all day, eat and use the bathroom freely and, let's be honest, mute the teacher whenever they wanted. One of the advantages I saw in distance learning was the freedom for each student to say whatever they wanted whenever they wanted and be heard by the teacher. Whether it was on Zoom or asynchronous, students could type in the chat or comments without raising their hand, waiting for someone else to finish talking, or waiting for an opportune moment when the teacher found it convenient for them to speak. 

Similarly we as teachers have repeatedly joked about how nice it was to be able to mute students, but it's more than a joke- there were advantages to being able to finish my sentence without being interrupted, but still allow students to ask questions in the chat and be able to address them without stopping the flow of the lesson, and have students be able to say things to me without distracting the other students.

Last year I sensed a lot of pushback from students and adults looking for more agency. A lot of conflicts in the classroom and disruptive behaviors stemmed from students who weren't getting to do what they wanted when they wanted, who didn't want to be told what to do, who just wanted to have more snacks. And a huge part of the frustrations for teachers centered around not being able to teach because of the student behaviors disrupting the lesson, feeling powerless to properly hold students accountable for their behavior, being severely restricted in what books we are allowed to have in our rooms and what we can and cannot say because of politics. Teachers are leaving because they have lost their sense of agency.

There is a whole treatise of things to be said on this topic, and I am planning to flesh this out more in the future with concrete thoughts on how we can foster agency (and other things that contribute to a sense of agency) for students and for adults. And obviously the struggles we are facing are multifaceted- there are other major factors besides agency, I'm definitely not saying this is the one key to solving all of our problems, just that it is one of the central ones. But I needed to put this thought out into the world and would love to hear your thoughts on this- I really believe that if we are going to find our way through this, we need to find ways to foster agency for everyone. Please share your reactions, thoughts, and ideas in the comments below.

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