COVID has left a lasting impact on education in a number of ways. Deficits in learning may never be fully redressed; backlogs, delays and more complexity in university admission will continue to be felt down the line; anxiety and depression are more prevalent.
But the pandemic has also given educators a chance to think about doing things differently. With the experience of lockdowns and social distancing, but also the opportunities offered to use technology more creatively, schools and universities can view the pandemic as a chance to recalibrate systems, processes and the whole philosophy of education.
Often experiences tell you not only what is present, but what is not present, and why whatever is missing is indispensable. One of the core takeaways from COVID has been the centrality of well-being and human relations in learning. Through confinement and distancing, it became clear to students, teachers, parents and administrators that rapport and emotional connection, community and presence were all fundamental.
Learning is not a dry, technical exercise. It is an emotional, social phenomenon. This is something that psychologists have known for a long time.
A number of articles are pointing out that serious disciplinary issues are arising in schools post-COVID. In the US, schools are reporting an increase in fights, vandalism and unruliness, causing teachers to quit. In South Africa, severe discipline problems have spiked post-COVID with cases of harassment, verbal abuse, physical attacks, intimidation and even stabbings.
Specialists are saying that there are more cases post-COVID than there were in the past.
I’m the head of a large K-12 school (from kindergarten to 12th grade). We have soldiered through COVID and it feels like we are coming through to the other side. I’ve seen student anxiety, learning gaps and disciplinary issues arising in the way that young people respond to what has been a worldwide trauma. But whenever we look at discipline, certain universal principles come to the fore and should be considered.
Educational psychologists know that discipline issues are linked to the family context. Positive parental behaviour, daily routines (like having dinner every night as a family) and social support (listening, conversing, spending time together) have an enormously positive effect on students.
But not every student has the family backing needed to offer full emotional and psychological support.
Mentoring and one-to-one discussions
As a head of school, I’m a strong believer in establishing rapport with students on a one-to-one basis. Most schools are big places and it is easy for individuals to fall through the cracks. Every student should know that there is one trusted adult in the building and every teacher should be the coach of a given number of students. The smaller the group of students followed by a teacher, the better.
If every child has a chance to sit down with a teacher and talk about how things are going, it helps consolidate rapport and express any tensions that might be welling up. Every year I meet with my students and ask a few core questions. Teachers can do the same, taking on a coach position in these discussions, asking powerful questions such as:
How are you?
Tell me your story.
What would you like to talk about?
How are things in your life?
These questions allow students a chance to open up and express themselves. They also improve relationships between faculty and students over time. This becomes important because people are less likely to fall into antisocial behaviour when they are in the company of those they know and trust, particularly if those people are figures of authority.
A mentor programme built on rapport and meaningful growth conversations is a sure way to reduce tensions and promote well-being. This might not be enough to eradicate discipline problems altogether, but it means that students can be called to reason more quickly. There is already some social capital to work with to restore calm when that is needed. And the open door of conversation – with a known adult – is there as a pressure release, replacing violence.
A school is a microcosm of the society around it. This does not mean we cannot change society through schools.
Rather than merely expressing the hardships of the adult world, schools are also sanctuaries for young people to learn and flourish in peace. The teachers who put themselves on the front line every day for this vital public good deserve recognition and thanks.
With even more care given to building one-to-one relations, schools can help create a more peaceful world based on listening and appreciation of others.