Top 6 Reasons Why 2020-21 Was the Worst School Year Ever… and Why Next Year Will Be Better

Jon Konen
District Superintendent

Never has a school year given us so much to gripe about… and never has summer break brought such a feeling of sweet relief. In the past week since school closed, it's been nothing but sunshine and margaritas as I slip into the bliss of morning hikes, beach days and barbecues till late August.

At the end of a year that left students, teachers and parents all feeling like we ran a marathon, I know I'm not alone in saying summer break came just in time this year.

Teaching was one of the fields hardest hit by the pandemic in the spring of 2020, and it was still reeling and trying to find its footing when the new school year began in the fall.

Conflicting priorities and the ideological push and pull taking place at the state and district levels were one thing, but at least that was left to administration to figure out. The reverberations of that chaos ran all the way down to where the rubber meets the road, though, and the job of managing all the day-to-day challenges fell squarely on teachers.

I initially thought I would put together a nice click-baity list where I could have fun riffing on our favorite things to complain about this year. But when I sat down and talked with colleagues, that approach started to feel like a cheap way of processing what we've all been through. I saw in their faces and felt in their words that unlikely blend of total exasperation and unwavering resilience that only teachers are capable of.

So instead, I decided to pull a few meaningful insights from those conversations with my friends and fellow teachers, and pieced together my favorite highlights.

You could definitely say it was a year to remember - for all the wrong reasons… but for some good ones too. It's not like anybody would ever need to be convinced of that. But just in case someone wants to debate that point at the neighborhood barbeque this summer, here's some incisive things the teachers I talked to had to say about the unique challenges we all faced in 2020-21… and why 2021-22 is definitely going to be better.

1 - New Priorities and Procedural Changes Being Rolled Out At the Last Minute

teacher having a hard time

Procedural wrangling between state government, teachers' unions and district leadership meant that the final decision on just about everything came in at the last minute.

Teachers weren't included in most of the conversations about exactly how the school year would roll out. For the most part, we had a good sense of whether or not schools would be open for in-person classes based on directives being handed down at the state level, but there were still many questions left unanswered.

We were left scratching our heads about scheduling and hours, how we would serve students who had limited access to high-speed internet and devices, and how standards would be modified and progress tracked in the brave new world of online learning.

Ashley, a high school English teacher in the Dallas-Fort Worth area described a sense of powerlessness in being unable to do one of the things teachers do best - plan…

"Normally I can use the summer to prepare, and tweak what I did last year. But because we didn't know what it was going to look like, there was little I could do over the summer."

Coming into the school year last fall, many teachers said they were in the dark for half the summer, then had to scramble at the tail end and adjust on the fly.

Andrew, a high school English teacher in St. Paul, Minnesota had this to say…

"Like everything with the pandemic, failure is top-down. Our federal government screwed up the pandemic [response], then it was on to each state. States did the best they could, but there was a lot of fumbling. The same thing happened with education."

States pushed decision-making off onto districts, which in turn pushed it onto the schools. Next, many districts went back and added mandates that teachers were required to implement and adhere to. All with no prep time, and very few resources.

2 - In Our Always On, Always Connected World, We Somehow Felt Out of Touch

Student on Zoom

No matter how many times you ask students to turn their cameras on in a virtual classroom, you can't make them do it, and you can't spend the whole class period trying to make it happen. It was simply outside of our control. As a result, many teachers found themselves lecturing to a sea of muted black squares.

Jessi, who lives in Eugene, Oregon, and teaches K-12 art, English and humanities in a rural district outside the city, acknowledges that she is lucky to be in a small district where she already knows most of her students. She wasn't bashful about reminding them that she's a person too, and that she expected some participation out of them.

Reflecting back on the experience, she said something that I'm sure we can all relate to...

"It's hell to teach to a bunch of black squares. You don't even know if they're in the room anymore."

But she acknowledges that many students have a good reason for keeping their cameras off. In rural and remote areas, even the hotspots the schools provide didn't work very well. "Some people's internet crashes if they try to also do video," she says.

And then of course, more students start using that excuse. Rather than assume her students are lying, Jessi chose to acknowledge that they've turned their cameras off for a reason. Self-consciousness is a big one among middle and high school students.

"Eventually I just stopped getting after them," she says. "Even if they're taking advantage of the accommodations, they're doing so for a pretty good reason."

Ashley, in Dallas-Fort Worth, summed it up in a way that likely sounds all too familiar…

"Speaking into a void and talking to yourself is very awkward, and it doesn't really feel like teaching. It's harder to see which kids are having a hard time, and there's only so much you can do. They can just disappear."

3 - Being On the Receiving End of Misplaced Public Hostility

Person getting the finger pointed at them

When the pandemic first hit in the spring of 2020 and we were all thrust into the world of virtual learning, many parents expressed their admiration and gratitude for teachers after getting a first-hand look at how difficult their jobs are.

But according to Ashley, that didn't last long…

"That dried up real quick. We have a lot of people who don't care very much about the lives of teachers. They see us as selfish if we don't want to risk our lives."

She adds that a lot of parents feel that teachers are glorified babysitters who need to get back in the classroom and do their jobs.

"I'm a parent, I understand the need for childcare, but the flippant attitude toward our lives has been really grating. Especially after last spring when they were calling us heroes."

Ashley sees a lot of parents saying essentially, "Just go back to in-person teaching, or quit." Unfortunately, a lot of teachers have quit. There's a severe shortage, and Ashley's district doesn't have enough substitutes to fill the gaps.

Andrew knows several teachers who are stepping away, and others who are strongly considering it. "The whispers have turned into conversations," he says.

"I don't stay in social media groups that are hostile to teachers," Jessi says, but she saw enough to get the gist. ‘Just go back to school, do your jobs,' is the common sentiment.

"We are doing our jobs: teaching from the classroom or from home," she says. But some parents seem to feel that having to be more involved in their kid's learning because it's taking place at home means they're doing the teacher's job for them.

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4 - Sharing in the Collective Trauma of All Things 2020

2020 Drama

Kids have lost friends, family and classmates, here and abroad. Their parents have lost jobs, and many families faced eviction. As a country, we were all sort of feeling this menacing sense of perpetual stress this past year. Many kids are caring for younger siblings or working part time, or even full time.

"You need certain things in order to learn," Andrew says. "For example, you can't learn if you're hungry. You can't learn if you don't know where your shelter is." Housing stability for students is a huge problem. "This is already well-known in education."

As Andrew put it…

"You need to solve the basic needs before starting on educational needs. And safety is a big part of that. People need to feel safe, and right now they're not."

Andrew, teaching in St. Paul near the epicenter of the protests over the murder of George Floyd, and more recently Duante Wright, had plenty of students who marched in the streets. He touches on how the events of the past year affected many of his students …

"We're having conversations about safety and what safety means in our community. For example, some of my black students feel unsafe in the community. Last year we had police officers in our school, this year we don't. In our classroom, we try to make it a very safe and welcoming environment, but we don't live just in the classroom. We have this whole community around us. And the community includes not just this metro area, where two people have been murdered by the police in the last year, but the whole country."

5 - Haunted By the Specter of "Lost Learning"

Stressed out student

One of the biggest priorities for people who don't work directly with children is the concept of lost learning. To be sure, most kids have learned less this year compared to typical school years. But Jessi thinks it's ridiculous to hold kids to pre-pandemic standards. "Let's be honest, most kids are back in school, and they'll continue learning," Jessi says. "If we try to make up for ‘lost learning,' it's going to slow everything down." Jessi went on to say…

"We've had a very traumatic year. These kids are going through a literal plague. They've learned a lot of other things: Online study, communicating in different settings and situations, how to have patience with their teachers and each other, how to survive. There's been learning, it just hasn't been rote classroom learning."

6 - Constant Changes and Illogical Rules

Student doing online learning

From tech platforms to schedules to cohorts to you-name-it, education was in a constant and chaotic state of flux all year. It led to a lot of anxiety and confusion, which is not conducive to either teaching or learning.

"It's been a very hard year, the most exhausting year," Ashley says, though she hesitates to call it the worst ever. The lack of time to prep in spring 2020, the uncertainty of summer, it all led to a lot of anxiety.

Ashley and Jessi's districts required that teachers commute to the school and teach from an empty classroom, claiming that it would help foster a sense of normalcy for the kids. It's still a seemingly unnecessary hoop to jump through for teachers who commute hours a day like Jessi does. For those with small children, it was a major hassle and expense to try to figure out childcare.

As Andrew put it…

"The whole year has been pushing square pegs into round holes. One of the frustrations is that it's clear nobody had a plan for this. Every quarter was something completely new. Children operate best with consistency, and this entire year was the complete opposite of consistency. It just hasn't been working."

As Teachers, We Can't Help But Look for the Lesson, and This Year Taught Us Plenty

parent helping kid student with online learning

Ashley, Jessi and Andrew all seemed to see an upside to some of the things that were foisted upon us during COVID-19. Many students have thrived. Flexibility in scheduling has allowed them to get more sleep, work ahead or catch up. Students who are distracted by the social element of school have found renewed focus in a more solitary environment.

In general, self-guided students have done well. Some neurodivergent kids have also found that a quiet environment helped them focus better. Students with social anxiety, some students who are especially withdrawn, or who don't feel like they fit in for whatever reason have all had a better year than normal.

"Students who need that social learning have struggled," Andrew says. He adds that he's gained new skills and tools by being forced to figure out how to teach remotely. Texting students from Google chat rather than from a personal phone, for example, helps maintain appropriate boundaries, while still reaching kids where they spend most of their time-their phones.

A silver lining Jessi notices is that the obvious flaws in some concepts are coming to a head. "Is perfect attendance really the be-all, end-all of a successful school year?" she asks. Many say no, even though district goals don't yet reflect this reality. "If you want productivity, maybe don't work people like robots until they dig their own graves."

Jessi also hopes that we'll carry forward new protocols around health and prevention, wearing masks when it makes good sense to do so, and changing the norms around coming to school and work while sick. Jessi credits that change entirely to masking…

"This is the first year in nearly 5 years of teaching that I haven't been terribly sick for about a third of the year. Even coming back to school, I haven't been sick."

"Do I want to go back to a normal school year where nobody wears masks and kids come to school sick? I just get sick and I'm barely surviving, let alone thriving." Jessi loves being a teacher, "but is it worth my actual physical health? I don't know."

Despite all the challenges and limitations of virtual learning, Ashley remains positive that the bugs will eventually be worked out and sees the potential for it to become an effective medium for teaching…

"I do think that one good thing that's come from this is we're going to have more of a virtual option going forward. Some kids have found that a virtual option works for them. I found our virtual platform to be an awesome tool that I'll continue to use. I've learned a lot."

Ashley adds that children are getting a head start learning to use tools that they may need to use in the workplace. "We had to come up with lots of creative solutions to problems we never had before," she says, "such as virtual collaboration."

Can We Take What We Learned in the 2020-21 School Year to Make Next Year Better?

Tough girl fighter

Ashley, Jessi and Andrew all say yes.

As systems adjust to new realities, we'll gain a measure of familiarity and control. Much of the panic of the pandemic stems from fear of the unfamiliar and the inconsistent. As for who's to blame for some of the breakdowns that occurred this year?

"It's a problem, but it's nobody's fault," Ashley says. Everyone has done the best they can, and "you can't be mad at a disease."

"The decisions aren't ideal," says Andrew, "But also, I don't have any answers either." His best guess? Amend structured curriculum, and provide optional, low-pressure enrichment activities. Focus on connection, reinforcing core concepts, and providing resources for families.

"If we've learned one thing it's that we can't predict the future," Jessi says. She's hopeful that we'll learn real lessons from this year. "The inequities were already there, and the pandemic just highlighted and brought them forward."

So, was it really the worst year ever? Sure, maybe, but it's too soon to tell. And even if it was, it's behind us now. We made it to the other side, tougher, more resilient and more confident in our ability to handle anything that comes our way.

The strength that comes from adversity is a powerful thing, and we all own that power now. It's an exhilarating feeling to know you can rise above the toughest circumstances. It's enough to get you pumped for the next fight, whatever that might be.

You earned every minute of sunshine coming your way this summer, so live it up, recharge and recoup so you can carry that energy and fighting spirit forward into next year.

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