WYOMING SCHOOLS AT A CROSSROADS: Returning to Structure of School Day Difficult After Pandemic (Part 2)

Elementary and middle school teachers say traditional classroom structure, noise level a struggle for some kids

By Elizabeth Sampson

Special to the Wyoming Truth

This story has been updated as of 9 p.m. Mountain on March 16. 

This is part two of the Wyoming Truth’s four-part question-and-answer series exploring the pandemic’s lasting impacts on students and teachers’ hopes for their futures. Part one focused on preschoolers, who now grapple with delayed social skills.

Brittney Montgomery, Wyoming 2022 Teacher of the Year, has worked in Green River for 14 years and currently teaches first grade at Harrison Elementary. Cody Middle School sixth grade teacher Greg Eckley has been teaching for 29 years. Both turned to the old adage “It takes a village” when explaining what elementary and middle school students need to succeed after the uncertainties of COVID-19. Though most students have returned to school, these veteran educators say some have struggled with the transition back into a full-time classroom.

When you think about the students you taught pre-COVID and compare them to students you are teaching now, have you observed any differences in behaviors? 

Pictured above is Greg Eckley, a sixth grade teacher at Cody Middle School.  (Courtesy photo from Greg Eckley)

Eckley: A lot of it is societal, but I see it exacerbated since COVID. A lot of kids sat home all alone on their devices. When they had to come back to structure, a larger percentage really struggled. They didn’t know how to engage in what we were doing in the classroom. They would disconnect so quickly, and you’d lose them. You had to continue drawing them back into the fold.

Montgomery: Students now are much more anxious and nervous about day-to-day life. They come by it honestly, because we no longer have a normal.

[Growing up] we had the luxury of knowing school would happen the next day. We would be there after a break. We don’t have that anymore. It could shut down tomorrow. That’s how quickly it happened last time. So, I think it’s a lot of confusion.

I watched kids isolate and dysregulate. They are not being asked to mindfully focus very often, and it’s become an unlearned practice. Students need constant stimulation, and if they are uninterested in the subject, they require one-on-one attention to guide them.

That one-on-one at home was so quiet that I have a lot of kids who just couldn’t be in classrooms because it was just too much. One person talking is too much for them now…They were waking up in pajamas in their safe space. They had access to food if they were taken care of. They got to choose whether they learned or not. Now you’re supposed to be with 20 other human beings, and you’re supposed to sit in a certain way silently and learn from me with all these other kids around you.

What else have you noticed about your current students?

Eckley: I see a big increase in apathy in students. They just don’t want to do it, and they won’t. Instead of the can’t-dos, we have the won’t-dos. You talked to parents, and parents were like, “We’re having problems at home, too.”

They wanted the “A” but didn’t want to put in the effort to earn one. If they missed school, they didn’t even make an attempt to do the work.

Montgomery: My own children were learning through the pandemic, and I was trying to be a mom and be a teacher. When I was trying to do my job, I gave them a device. It was a digital babysitter so I could do my work. When they had to do their classwork, we had to do it on technology. They are overexposed to tech.

It just hasn’t been what we’ve prioritized, because we’re all in survival mode. I don’t blame kids. I don’t blame anyone to be honest with you. We have to model it first. It takes a long time to break habits. Some of these kids were handed devices very early in life, like one or two. 

Have you modified your teaching techniques to meet new challenges with your current students?

Eckley: I find I have to incorporate more brain breaks, more transitions than I used to. If I don’t keep them moving, I’m going to lose them. I intentionally have materials on one side of the room so they have to get out of their seat to go get them.

There are definitely some academic holes. When I’m teaching my curriculum at a sixth-grade level as directed by Wyoming Department of Ed, I’m losing some of them because they don’t have the foundation required to understand what it is I’m teaching. I have to back way up. I have to revisit some of the things that normally are taught in elementary that they didn’t get or have forgotten.

Brittney Montgomery, Wyoming 2022 Teacher of the Year,  teaches first grade at Harrison Elementary School in Green River. (Courtesy photo from Brittney Montgomery)

Montgomery: At the beginning of the year, I teach them how to use board games because they don’t know how. Who is playing board games at home? No one. They don’t have any fine motor skills. They can’t grip; they’re not picking things up.

I am putting in hands-on experiences as often as possible. I’m also taking the time to build in class meetings, show-and-tell, movement and teaching littles executive function skills. 

How is their mental health? Are you seeing more anxiety or depression?

Eckley: These students show signs of depression, anxiety, combativeness, passive aggression, confusion, lack of confidence, etc. They need so much attention beyond academics.  . . . 

It also seems as though a growing number of our middle school kids are overwhelmed with the academic expectations placed on them. When it comes time to show grit and allow their failures to lead to success, many are quick to give up and miss out on the reward of their persistent efforts. In my career, I’ve seen a decrease in academic stamina in these particular students. Is this due to mental health issues – anxiety and depression? I certainly think it plays a part. Today’s kids seem to be packing around a lot more than they used to, and they shouldn’t have to.

Montgomery:  I have first graders that are suicidal, and I don’t know how to help that. You do the best you can, but there is a lot of development that needs to come with this new generation of learners.

We sent them home without any warning, isolated them, told them it was not safe to be around other people, and then threw them back within a couple months and said, “No it is OK.”

The year we came back and we were unmasked, it was almost more traumatic because we would have kids have to leave and be escorted out of the building [with COVID], and we couldn’t talk about it.  It was like, “We will see you in 14 days.” …Then they would come back and be expected to be just right up with everybody else.

What strengths have you seen in these students?

Eckley:  These kids really know their way around technology. They’re pretty much fearless with that.

I saw them reconnect with families. The family structure in our society is taking a hit, and I think COVID forced some of these families to come together again and reconnect…It helped them see things differently or appreciate what they have.

Montgomery: These littles are some of the most resilient humans I’ve ever met. I have students going through things adults wouldn’t even know how to comprehend. Yet each and every day, they show up with a smile, excited and ready to learn.

What do you hope or fear for these students as we look to their future?

Eckley: We just keep passing them on from grade to grade whether they’ve met the standards or not. I worry about what message that is sending. Are they going to have a false expectation when they get out into the real world? 

I worry about the lack of grit that it takes to tackle a job and do it well with quality… We do have some kids who are going to be very well equipped, and they are going to go out and they’re going to kill it. School could have been a part of it, but I think a lot of it also is support from home and what their environment was growing up.

Montgomery: [The pandemic has] been a collective trauma. If anyone lost anyone, that’s traumatic… Plus there’s just a lot of anger in the world—to vaccinate or to not vaccinate. The kids are listening whether we’re knowing or not. They might have headphones on, but they are listening. 

What do you hope people will understand about these young people? 

Eckley: I think it’s going to take our societies and our communities in unison with schools—it’s going to take all of us to get these kids where they need to be. I would hope to see some more unification in that regard.

Montgomery: They care deeply about one another. They want equal opportunities for one

another and know how to advocate for themselves and each other. They have lots of questions which are not disrespectful. They are curious, and rightfully so. These littles and our youth want to be seen and recognized as valuable to us.

This generation is different. They are much more empathetic than we are. I think they will find ways, with or without us. The only hope we have is to teach them resiliency. 

Check back for part three, coming to you soon.

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