Understanding Students During the Pandemic

Students throughout 2020 up to recently have dealt with stress involving school and changes, causing behavioral changes and adults not quite understanding the reasons why. Get a inside read of students' and a few teachers side of things.

By Zoe Warfield from Morehead Writing Project in Kentucky

COVID-19 has been the one of greatest change to a lot of students and teachers. Students have struggled with many things this year which has caused them to be frustrated. It is very important to understand the roots of the problems and possible ways to help our students.

School problems

Almost all students have seen online learning as a challenge.

In my survey, students were asked to answer a question about their personal experience throughout COVID-19. “Would you say social distancing has affected your learning abilities?”

About 74% of students answered yes. 

When asked to explain why they answered yes, the answers ranged widely over many factors.

For example, many students said that online learning gives you a choice to be able not to pay attention, or even cheat on assignments. Other students carried on that thought by stating that they got distracted easily because they didn’t really have someone to keep them on track. Some other students explained that their motivation was lost as they had no routine to follow and lost any reason to actually get anything done. One student even noted that school became more about getting done assignments and turning them in rather than actually learning and understanding the assignment. A few groups of students used this question to vent about the amount of work that was pushed on to them.

Most other answers involved not having good internet or problems at home that affected their learning.

Inside Problems

Apart from school being one of the leading problems for students, they have also explained their decline in their mental health.

When I asked the students, “...do you feel as if you have declined in any area personally,” nearly 90% of students said yes. Again, when asked to explain, the responses can be grouped in common answers. (Blue is yes, red is no).

One common trend in answers involved the students feeling lonely as they had no way to socialize except through a screen. Some students experienced losing friends from the distance, while others lost themselves in their own mind. One student said that they felt as if we are constantly being pushed to unrealistic standards.

In multiple responses the students explain how quickly they felt unwanted, and alone because of being online and in lock down. Worse, some even felt stupid if they couldn’t understand things they thought they would.

Overall, students were expected to quickly adjust and adapt to the new systems quickly.

Teacher’s perspective

Along with the survey, I’ve also had the chance to interview three teachers to see how they see things.

Becky Calvin

The first teacher that was interviewed, Becky Calvin, a first-year teacher, who helped me see her side and perspectives on this topic.

She said that she definitely saw a decline of students turning in their work when Indian Valley High School switched to online but she also acknowledged that, yes, students are home, but they might not have the right resources and internet to join in on online classes, she understands that not all students have an equal home life.

Following that, she also brought it up to me that teachers are also, what she called, “mandated reporters.” Explaining that, not only are teachers there to teach the students,but also there to make sure students are being taken care of at home, and that their mental health is okay.

“When you physically see someone you get a lot of that information,” she explained, ”but I got really anxious for students that weren’t signing in that something was going on at home and since I couldn’t see them I was worried if they were okay.” Ms. Calvin also recognizes that being an adult you are taught to “expect the unexpected,” but being a teenager brings about a lot of unknowns already. She said, “With being pulled away suddenly, you lose the stability of the classroom and the school environment and that has a profound impact on mental health...” This also made her worried more so about students that were sick, or quarantined rather than how she felt during the switch between being in person then to being online.

Finally, to end off the interview I asked each teacher the question, “Is there anything you wish you would have done differently to be there for students or in your lessons in general?” In response, Ms. Calvin emphasized that she wished she would have made her lessons and zoom calls shorter as she felt that she was expecting classroom expectations, which you can’t get through a screen. As well as a quick few check-in’s with students to see if they needed any further help.

Melanie Glazer

In addition to interviewing Ms. Calvin,I also had the chance to interview Indian Valley’s middle and high school’s choir teacher, Melanie Glazer.

For her classes, she explained her style of teaching was more dependent on the student. She told me, “I wanted the students to put into it [assignments], what they think they were wanting to get out of it.” This gave her students the ability to decide the amount of effort they were going to give. If they weren’t going to at least try, then they should expect the grade that came with it.

Next, she explained that she felt prepared for the changes through the year. Mrs. Glazer even had days, when they were in person, the class would go outside and go on a zoom call to help prepare her classes for the switch as choir is more of a performance class, not a class where students can just open a book or learn from a document. Even though she felt prepared, she too also felt downcast coming over when she did see an empty room that was just filled with students a week ago.

And, in addition with the assignments given online, she explained that her discouragement came when she knew students could do better. However, she also told me that once she showed the students what they made and how much their own, separate recordings mattered, the effort was brought back.

Again, to end the interview I asked Mrs. Glazer the same question, “Is there anything you wish you would have done differently to be there for students or in your lessons in general?” And with great passion she stated, “I wish I would have started a cooking show.” Questionable at first, but the idea came with a great explanation, where she wished she would have created short, easy recipes for students to follow. Eventually, when it came to lunch time, she wished she had students who wanted to join her and would enter the call and have the freedom to talk to other students,and follow along with the recipes. With this, she would have given students that social level that they were missing because they were online.

Andy McMillen

Andy McMillen, who has been teaching for 18 years also described his perspective. Mr. McMillen said that he went into teaching for two main reasons, one was that he loves the history subject, and two he loves working with younger people.

First, he explained that when Indian Valley had to switch to online, he was miserable, adding that the history department at Indian Valley likes to make the subjects fun, you can’t really do much through a screen, so in that aspect it affected him.

In addition, his style of teaching has changed and continues to change throughout the years. McMillen described his online testing and assignments as “hope for the best, expect the worst,” because of the chance students could cheat on assignments. He knew that the switch was almost inevitable, so, even though his teaching is more of pencil paper he made online copies expecting to be moved to online, so in that way he was prepared. However, he also exclaimed that if he knew he would be doing zoom, he would have never started teaching.

Mr. McMillen mentioned that he feels that having more of a personal connection to his students is important and that, usually, he can tell whether something is going on with a student, but with masks and being online, that aspect was hindered, affecting him. He added that he understands why some students dislike zoom.

McMillen noticed a decline of assignments being turned in and the quality of those that were turned in went down. Recognizing that online classes took a lot more to hold the attention of students, he noted that it could possibly be a fault on his part because he didn’t change much when students were online.

At last, Mr. McMillen was asked the final question, “Is there anything you wish you would have done differently to be there for students or in your lessons in general?” He responded that he wished he would have used the breakout rooms on zoom, explaining that, “While I love having group discussion in my class, I questioned whether the breakout rooms would be an inviting format for people to have discussions. Because of this I chose not to use breakout rooms. Perhaps this is one resource I should have better utilized when teaching via zoom.”

Common answers

Though there are many different teaching styles, and the teachers interviewed above teach separate subjects and for different amounts of time there were common responses.

All of the teachers expressed the emotional fatigue that came with students not being there and in person. They also all mentioned the internal culture that was affected, brought about by being online, and the different aspects lost. Whether it was seeing students talk in the hallways, jokes made among classes, or even just seeing a room full of students there and learning, seeing it taken away so quickly felt like the environment of the school was impacted. It was missing what made the school, a school; students.

Possible Options for Help

To find a solution to any problem you first need to completely understand the problem, and in some situations we need to understand the background of the problem.

A survey done by a Center for Disease Control and Prevention showed that prior to the pandemic, only 11 percent of Americans reported experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Very low compared to now, that is 42 percent.

Aggressive behavior reports have been more common all across the nation since the pandemic. Some psychologists think this could be because of the connection to mental health and stress. If that is the real reason, then students having aggressive behavior makes more sense. Students have had many stressors this year, from switching between online and in person, losing friends or not having any contact with them, to even some students feeling rushed for work to be done and could properly understand it. Generally just being pulled away so quickly when we were told it would only be 2 weeks, were we ever really prepared? Understanding that this is new to us, and to many it's one of the biggest changes to happen to us, can help us students, too.

There is no one-way to fix stress, and you can’t expect something that works for one person might not work for you but you can find something that does.

Often people do things like write the stressors down. Sometimes people even rip or burn the paper after to receive a feeling of overcoming the problem. You could always try listening to music or doing art. In this article done by ThoughtCo., they explain different options of art to pursue to help relive it. You can always take a second to breathe and understand an outside perspective of why you are upset with the problem and work your way through it.

With that, there are always hot line numbers to reach out to. You can call the National Alliance on Mental Illness' HelpLine at 1-800-950-6264, along with many other options for help.

The worst thing you can do is keep it in and not reach out. It is okay to need help, it’s okay to reach out, don’t be afraid.

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