Growing Back to School: Challenges and Opportunities

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Growing Back to School

Over the course of the next several months, I look forward to sharing some key teaching tips, strategies, and interventions that I believe will be helpful to the challenging work ahead and to opening learning opportunities for you and your students.

In this first installment, I want to briefly address the key role of observation for teaching and learning and how it will be especially important for the establishment of classroom communities going forward. Coupled with this, I link the utilization of incremental success to the concept of student resilience.

January 2021 will be the fortieth anniversary of the birth of educational practices that would grow and develop into the Responsive Classroom approach. In the January issue of this journal, I will explore the importance of teachers being conversant with stages of child and adolescent development from different theoretical perspectives and the critical role teacher perception plays in teacher expectations of students.

In the February issue, I will explore the concept of trust and its connection to cooperation in the classroom and the school’s adult community. I will explain the concept of relational trust in the context of schooling and share some of the research from this field with examples of programs I have helped to develop and implement.

In the May issue, I will close this series with an examination of perceptions of childhood in the past and in our present-day realities, and what we might do to restore and preserve a clearer vision of childhood for the future of our civilization.

Challenges and Opportunities

In January, we will usher in 2021. Looking back, we are all intensely aware that those of us who are involved in education—teachers, administrators, staff, parents, caretakers, and students—have been deeply impacted by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whatever configuration of school you and your students return to in January, your communities are counting on you to continue to provide the best education achievable in the safest environments possible. Center for Responsive Schools is trying to do the very same thing for you: paying attention to the needs of others and providing resources and support in these difficult times.

When the time arrives for children to return safely back to school full-time, some students may have spent up to a year without having much direct interaction with their peers, teachers, or other people outside of their own families. It is important to understand, however, that this does not imply that during these months children have stopped developing socially, emotionally, or cognitively. Every day children and adolescents learn something from their interactions with parents, siblings, and peers on social media and in virtual classrooms, as well as through online resources, the media, and the routines and responsibilities of daily living.

Imagine welcoming a full class of students in person we have previously only known virtually or in hybrid settings since the start of the school year. It is reasonable to predict that whenever students enter school full-time, they will present a broader array and range of academic, social, and emotional skills at each grade level and in every classroom than has ever been previously encountered. The pandemic has exacted physical, social, and emotional tolls on all children, with pediatricians reporting a higher than ever incidence of anxiety and stress. Especially challenged are families struggling without adequate income to cover food, clothing, and housing costs, and with little or no health care coverage—families living on the edge and on edge constantly. Children in these situations are at risk in many ways, and their capacities to learn will be affected by the degree of the continuing challenges in their lives. School employees from staff to teachers and administrators have also been impacted in profound ways and will need time and latitude to assess the needs of their students so they can establish safe and caring classrooms. Differentiated classroom practices such as Academic Choice will be more important than ever and providing the time to prepare classrooms for students and trusting teacher autonomy and collaboration will be essential.

Fortunately, educators are increasingly focused on the critical importance of the social context of student learning, spending more time integrating social and emotional skills within academic curriculum in teaching approaches. Putting the whole child first will require teachers to resist the temptation of first rushing to catch up to standard curriculum expectations. Success is likely to be more dependent on how well we consider social and emotional needs of students within an academic timetable that builds confidence and competence for the long haul—one geared for incremental success.

Observing Is Learning What to Teach

In 1978, when I was teaching first grade and serving as a teaching principal in a rural New England K–8 school, I attended a workshop sponsored by the Gesell Institute of Child Development. I watched with amazement as the presenter, Jackie Haines (who would become one of my most valued mentors), unpacked the ins and outs of child development. We watched her observing a five-year-old girl as she answered some questions, built with ten red wooden cubes, wrote her first name and the numbers she knew with a pencil, copied some geometric forms onto a piece of paper, and added missing parts to a half-finished stick figure, as well as hop and skip across the room. Jackie asked us what we observed, and then proceeded to fill us in on what we missed: how the girl sat (or didn’t sit) in her chair, how she held the pencil shaft, which direction her strokes went when she wrote or drew, and why the stick figure’s arm she added stuck straight out instead of matching the angle of the other arm. All of these observations opened a window to the girl’s overall developmental level and proclivities.

When I returned to my first-grade classroom after attending the workshop, I noted that although I led a Morning Meeting each day, and had building blocks in a corner, an easel for painting, and a place set aside for reading groups, I knew little about the children I was teaching. The next day at our Morning Meeting, I showed the class a sign I had made from construction paper and some yarn. In big red letters, I had written “OBSERVER.” I put it around my neck and told the class that when I was wearing it, they couldn’t interrupt me unless it was an emergency (which we had an interesting discussion about). “It is part of the teacher’s job to watch how children learn,” I explained. I became a better teacher that day, and my students became better students—more independent and suddenly not so needy.

I then realized there was a second important step for the observer (after remembering to remove the sign), and that was thinking about the notes I had taken. And what to do with them. It might have taken a few years for me to fully figure out the magic next step. It’s called “noticing.” I learned this step from Ruth Charney, one of the co-founders of Responsive Classroom, when we were teaching together in our fledgling demonstration school beginning in the fall of 1981. As she later wrote: “When we reflect back to children what we notice, we communicate that we know them. Children need to feel that we, their teachers, know them.” (Charney, 2002).

As I have learned to say over the years of teaching and observing, “When students know they are known, they have a reason to learn. They know their teacher is a receptive audience.”

Of course, the more positive noticing we can do, the better. Once we know the things that are hard or challenging for a student, we can offer them a great deal by requiring less while expecting more each day. This is the concept of incremental success. For example, incremental might mean deciding together how many sentences a child will write on an assignment, with no sentences being unacceptable but one sentence to start as acceptable. Noticed and rewarded by more noticing as the student’s writing muscle grows stronger, success builds on success. Continual failure, on the other hand, breeds resistance and more failure.

Another important aspect of observing is the objectivity of the observer and an awareness of one’s own cultural bias. In the January issue I will cover this and teacher perceptions, as well as teaching social-emotional learning through CARES (cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control).


Charney, R. S. (2002). Teaching children to care: Classroom Management for Ethical and Academic Growth, K-8. Center for Responsive Schools.