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Back in February, on a cold Friday night in the middle of our pandemic winter, one of my ninth grade students emailed me a cry for help. The message contained phrases — “can’t take this anymore,” “a lot of pain,” “mental breakdown” — that signaled a serious crisis.
Teachers have protocols to follow in situations like this. We document the signs of crisis. We alert counselors and administrators. After receiving my student’s email, I followed these protocols and waited to hear back, hoping that my student was OK.
I didn’t sleep much that night. While I waited for an update on my student’s situation, I ran through worst-case scenarios in my mind. How desperately lonely must that teenager be to reach out to a teacher whom they’ve never interacted with other than via a Zoom screen? (I’m not including identifying details about my student, including their gender, in order to protect their privacy.) When the student wrote, “I just need someone to talk to,” I understood what that meant.
I’ve struggled with depression since I was a teenager. Back then, I had no idea what depression was. I just thought I was a person who was often very unhappy. Looking back, though, it’s easy to see that throughout high school I suffered serious bouts of depression that caused me to alternately isolate myself, lash out at the people around me and experience feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness. For much of this past year, I battled those same symptoms again. Many of my students battled them too.
In this year of depression, the literature we studied in my ninth grade English classes became both a refuge and a type of therapy. We read Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” in a year when mask-wearing had taken on new and unexpected significance. Then we read Dunbar’s and Maya Angelou’s writing about birds trapped in cages.
After a quick detour through “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — the perfect escape from our bleak midwinter — we plunged into Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” It’s one of my favorite books but teaching it this year felt risky. All the obvious connections between Gregor’s and my students’ conditions — physical confinement, social isolation, bodily transformation — could also be sources of deep discomfort for the students. Would it hit too close to home? Would it upset them? But isn’t that — the opportunity to feel something deeply and explore that feeling — part of what English class is for? And might that be what these students needed, this year more than any other?
So, we read “Metamorphosis” and my students rose to the occasion, finding unexpected connections between their own lives and Gregor’s. They were extremely interested in how family finances and debt affected Gregor’s story — and some students said the book led them to reevaluate their perspective on cockroaches, which I took as a sort of victory. I was pleased that the students did so well with a challenging book, but I wasn’t surprised. All year long, in depressed conditions, my students found ways to engage with the content and one another.
They recorded TikTok-style Shakespeare monologues and wrote powerful essays. They logged into Zoom and mostly kept their cameras off, but just when I thought a student was sleeping, that person would put a comment in the Zoom chat. Occasionally, though, a student would be sleeping. And there were certainly bad days and weeks and students who struggled with remote learning. But I’m proud of the work my students managed to do in unbelievably challenging circumstances.
That’s another thing many people learned this year: Teachers do far more than deliver lessons. We care for our students.
Instead of celebrating their perseverance, however, what students and teachers got for much of the year was a steady stream of negative feedback. No matter how hard we worked, we were told that this was a “lost year,” and that remote learning was an unmitigated disaster. Imagine how students must have felt hearing countless voices — those of journalists and education researchers and school district leaders — informing them that, no matter how much learning they did, they were actually experiencing something called “learning loss.”
My ninth graders heard those voices. They came to class asking about them, nervous that they were falling behind, scared that the pandemic had created yet another way for them to fail.
The student who emailed me the cry for help was most upset because (in their account) their father had said they were “lazy” for “not trying hard enough” in school. Before judging this father, consider the anxiety that parents were encouraged to feel about their children’s schooling all year long. Consider that in the midst of a pandemic, rather than taking measures to alleviate that anxiety, the federal government denied states the right to waive standardized testing requirements, effectively imposing high-stakes tests upon millions of traumatized children. If my student’s father gave them a hard time about their grades, he’s certainly not the only one responsible for the pain his child was feeling.
Here in New York, we made it through the semester, and the depression I struggled through this past year seems to be receding. Thankfully, the student who emailed me back in February ended up being OK. Their parents were contacted quickly, and it seemed that, in the end, the student just needed to be heard. They needed to know that someone cared.
That’s another thing many people learned this year: Teachers do far more than deliver lessons. We care for our students. Early in the pandemic, there seemed to be some recognition of this, as “social-emotional learning” went from being teacher-speak to a buzzword one might hear on the network news.
Unfortunately, the fact that students need more from school than academic exercises is a lesson that policymakers seem determined to ignore. After a year of loss and trauma, school districts around the country are reportedly planning to welcome students back next fall with a battery of standardized diagnostic tests. Even if these tests are meant to help teachers assess what kind of academic support our students need in the coming year, I worry that state-administered exams with Scantron sheets and No. 2 pencils will generate the sort of stress and anxiety that students typically associate with high-stakes testing. This is the last thing students need.
Like most teachers, I start each school year by giving my students diagnostic assignments. For their writing assignment, I often ask the students to compose a letter that answers some questions about themselves. Instead of shipping these letters out to the department of education and waiting to hear how the students scored on a scale of 1 to 100, however, I read the letters immediately and learn about who my students are, both as writers and as people. After a year of depression, students don’t need more standardized tests. They need meaningful learning experiences designed by teachers who know them. Let’s give them what they need.
Will Johnson is a high school teacher in New York City and a ranking member of MORE (the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators).
This story about how this wasn’t a ‘lost year’ was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.