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Educators, students struggle to find new 'normal' with return to in-person classes

Several teachers found the isolation caused by COVID shutdowns dramatically affected students’ ambition and their ability to return to the structure of school.

MINNEAPOLIS — When students went back to class this year, there was a sense of optimism — now that everyone was together again, things could go back to normal.

But that's not what happened.

When I asked teachers on my Facebook page to describe this past school year, the overall theme was as consistent as it was discouraging. 

From kindergarten to college, the kids are not okay.

Now, it's important to note, not every student is struggling — not by a long shot — but so many are, that these teachers, who deeply care about their kids and their profession, want you to know about it.

Recently, we sat down with seven educators from across the state who teach at different grade levels, from second grade to college.

We wanted to know: Now that students are back in the classroom, did things return to normal?

The resounding answer from all of them, was "no.”  

The apathy and disrespect from students this year, they said, made it the most challenging year of their careers, and most of them have been teaching for more than 20 years.

Jennifer Van Haften, who teaches second grade in St. Paul, said she welcomed back children who had never been in a classroom, so they had no idea how to do basic things, like line up for lunch. 

Kristi Metcalf teaches high schoolers at St. Michael-Albertville. She said many of her students, too, were socially two years behind.

"The surprise to me this year,” she said, “was like it felt like there was this pause in growth socially, and so to see so many more negative behaviors and students feeling like mediocre is okay. I feel like we've seen so much more of that. And I've not seen that or experienced that in previous years."

All of the teachers noticed the same thing. The isolation caused by COVID shutdowns dramatically affected students’ ambition and their ability to return to the structure of school.

Tyler Salone, a geometry teacher at North High School in Minneapolis, attributed many of the issues he’s seeing to the disconnect online learning created.

"I mean, I wonder if a lot of these issues are stemming from the fact that they lost their relationship with school," he said. Online learning, he said, gave students a lot of freedom and flexibility and many had a hard time giving it up.

At the college level, St. Cloud State professor Marc Markell said students this year seemed incapable of getting assignments in on time. It overwhelmed them, so he lifted all the deadlines for all of his assignments and told them to get them in by the end of the semester.

Jox Metcalf, also a teacher at St. Michael Albertville High School, said that was just one of the things that made this year so tough.

“When you have people asking for extensions, you want to hear their story,” Metcalf said. “I have 140 students a day. You can't hear all their stories and still get your content across and still try to be a good human and be a good role model and it's overwhelming."

But the thing that is perhaps most concerning, is the lack of respect these teachers are seeing at every level.

"I would say before the pandemic in my entire teaching career, I could count on one hand how many times I'd had students come at me very abusively in terms of the things that they've said,” said Dr. Tai Mendenhall who is a professor at the University of Minnesota.

“Since the pandemic, it’s been a couple of students per semester, which is of course, comparatively speaking a huge increase, and students have gotten downright mean.”

Kristi Metcalf agreed, adding that students aren’t just disrespectful toward teachers, they’ve been more disrespectful to each other, too, at a level they’ve never seen before.

When asked to raise their hands if they’ve had a student swear at them using “the f-word,” all but one raised their hands, even the second grade teacher.

"We treat our students almost like family in a weird way. I mean, you care about them,” Jox Metcalf said, “And so when it comes back at you, it almost it hurts."

His wife Kristi agreed, saying, it is hard not to take it personally.

"And it's more than just, 'Okay, what is this? A referral or detention?'” Jox said, “I mean, there's ways to solve it, but the impact it makes on you that, like, digs into your soul. It's a strange feeling."

This past year has been so tough, that it’s made more than half of these teachers want to leave the profession.

"I feel like I'm not changing lives,” Kristi Metcalf said. “I feel as a teacher, I'm meant to be a light. And it feels right now like the dark is kind of winning and if I go to the negative places and thinking, what if this is our new normal? Because it could be. Do I have enough to give for 20 more years, you know?”

Salone agreed. 

"I just question when will I not have to go above 50%? When will they meet me halfway? Not just the kids, everybody.”

"I feel exactly the same way,” Dr. Mendenhall said. “I mean, my students break my heart. They do. I mean, I go home pretty exhausted but I care for them. I love every single one of them."

It's precisely because these teachers care so much, that they agreed to share their stories. They want people to know what's happening inside the classroom with our kids so it can change.

Eric Koser, who teaches at Mankato West High School believes the model we are using for school is broken.

“It isn't what we need right now,” he said. "And I hope that we can use the pandemic as an opportunity to tweak that model, change the model, throw it out and start over."

In the meantime, Marc Markell, a professor who trains future teachers has a word for his weary colleagues.

"What you're doing is enough, and it's good,” he assured them, “And you just have to keep remembering that, and that it will pass. This will pass. And we will look back and we'll say, 'That was hard and bad. We survived.'"

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