For K-12 education, 2021 was a year of change and stagnation, challenges and growth. Many of us entered the year full of optimism, confident that the COVID-19 pandemic would soon be winding down. We felt ready to tackle the gaps and impacts it had left on K-12 education.
But as the year progressed, and the pandemic with it, we saw new challenges. Teachers were burning out and leaving the field in droves, and they weren’t alone. It soon became difficult to find any educational staff, including bus drivers and school nurses. Learners were hit hard, with students finishing their first year of pandemic education months behind in core subjects. The debate on learning loss raged wildly as educators and the public grappled with its potential impacts. In July, a McKinsey & Company report on learning loss found that “today’s students may earn $49,000 to $61,000 less over their lifetime owing to the impact of the pandemic on their schooling,” a staggering statistic given climbing inflation and cost of living. At the same time, that overfocus on learning loss and accelerated learning seemed equally problematic, and many advocated for putting student well-being and social emotional learning above all else. There were more K-12 school shootings in the United States in 2021 than there have been since at least 1999, and the impacts of student trauma and disengagement in school began to be felt in other ways, including chronic absenteeism.
Given all of this, it’s not surprising that many of us are heading into the second half of the school year feeling overwhelmed and tired. Innovation might be the last thing on our minds as we struggle to simply keep our staff and students afloat. Yet there remains plenty to be excited about, and innovation in teaching might just be the way we move toward better student experiences and outcomes.
Today, social emotional learning is at the forefront of educational discourse, and funding is available to support districts in programs that encourage safe, inclusive and stress-free learning environments. Using data to drive teaching and school leadership decisions has never been more important, but understanding the danger of overreaching with data is also entering the public discussion as more and more educational thought leaders encourage a “go slow to go fast” mentality to post-pandemic education.
More and more, standardized tests are being critically examined for effectiveness and found wanting, while a new appreciation for mastery-based learning and assessment is being celebrated. A holistic approach to teaching and learning that includes authentic experiences, personalized learning pathways, and a growth mindset is becoming not just a nice-to-have but a must-have in K-12 education.
So, as we continue in the early months of 2022, let’s be resilient. Let’s focus on strong teaching practices that are at the core of all good learning: understanding our students, knowing where they need to go and helping them get there. We can’t always minimize the noise, and every educator has the right to be tired right now. It’s been a hard couple of years, and that can beat us down. But what we do is important. And as clichéd as it sounds, our students really are the future—we need to prepare them to be the strong, engaged and active citizens our future will require.