Most kids are finally back in physical classrooms this year. But after over a year of remote learning, many parents of kids who learn differently are asking, “Is my kid behind?”
To help answer this question, hosts Amanda Morin and Gretchen Vierstra talk with special education teacher Kareem Neal. Listen to find out what he’s seeing in his classroom — and why he’s not worried about “learning loss.”
We also hear from two other teachers about what they’re saying to concerned families.
Amanda: Hi, I'm Amanda Morin. I'm the director of thought leadership for Understood.org. And I'm a parent to kids who learn differently.
Gretchen: I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood. And this is "In It."
Amanda: "In It" is a podcast from the Understood Podcast Network. On this show, we talk to parents, caregivers, teachers, experts, and sometimes even kids. We offer perspective, stories, and advice for, from, and by people who have challenges with reading, math, focus, and other types of learning differences.
Gretchen: Today, we want to tackle a question we've heard from a lot of parents as we work our way through this new school year, still trying to figure out and make sense of the last one, when most students were doing some or all of their learning remotely.
Amanda: And that question, which I have too as a parent, is "Is my child behind?"
Gretchen: Yes, I have that question too. Is my child behind? So, to answer that question, we wanted to hear from those on the front lines — teachers — starting with one of our favorites, Kareem Neal.
Amanda: Kareem is a special education high school teacher in Arizona. He was 2019 Teacher of the Year in Arizona. And as of this year, he's been teaching for 25 years. He teaches in a self-contained special education classroom, which means most of his students stay in a special education classroom all day long and spend some of their time in a general education classroom. But no matter what kind of classroom students are getting back into, we wanted to know what teachers are seeing. So, that's where we started our conversation with Kareem.
Gretchen: Before I ask the question, Kareem, I just wanted to say, congratulations, you're hitting 25 years in the classroom.
Kareem: Yes, yes. After I finish this year, I think that it'll have been 25.
Gretchen: The world is so lucky to have you in the classroom for that long, and especially considering what the last year and a half has been like.
So, maybe we should get to what we're wondering, then. After all this, are you seeing that your students are behind? Are the families coming up to you and asking, "Is my kid behind?" Tell us a little bit about that.
Kareem: So, I definitely found that there were places where a lot of my students were behind because it was like we built the routine in that worked and worked and worked, and then it was completely broken. And so, coming back, I wasn't stunned that a lot of those types of goals, there was a quick drop. I was on top of it and trying to just get them back. I wasn't too concerned about, like, "Oh, my students in comparison to some other random students out in the world." I wasn't thinking like that. I would say, "I know that my students are capable of doing these things. I'm going to get them back there. Right. Me and my staff. We're going to get them back there." And that's what we started to do.
Gretchen: Amanda, I love how Kareem says he wasn't too concerned or surprised that there was some learning loss among his students, because, you know, COVID, this unbelievably disruptive and destructive thing, happened to all of us.
It's still happening. And there's no way that we or our kids are going to live through that without it being disruptive to our learning or our productivity or our well-being.
Amanda: Right. I mean, and that's one of the reasons I've actually stopped using the phrase "learning loss," because we've all lost a little bit this past, I don't know, two years, right? We're all losing some skills. And what we can do is look forward as opposed to looking backwards. So, instead of learning loss, I'm starting to talk about interrupted learning.
Gretchen: I like that, interrupted learning. Still, we know parents, and for them, this anxiety is real. I mean, I felt it. My kids seemed to be doing OK with remote learning last year. I felt like we had it all under control.
And then I started reading articles about families hiring tutors or hiring teachers for a pod. Or pulling their kids out of school and homeschooling them. And I thought, "Oh no, what? Am I supposed to be doing all these things? Was I not doing enough? Should I be worried about their learning?"
Amanda: I remember these conversations with you, Gretchen. I think we were having that conversation about our kids. We were wondering if everybody was talking about this.
Amanda: It's a real concern. And so we asked Kareem how he's been responding to those kinds of anxieties about all of this.
Kareem: I know that I was a little shocked, stunned, or whatever when I started hearing, like, the national discourse on what was happening during COVID. The part where it was, like, "These students need to be in school," they'd been out for a whole four months or six months at the time, I was like, seriously? Summer break's, like, three months!
And a lot of these folks, politicians, they got, I was, like, some of y'all take your kids for a year and send them abroad and things, like, everything's going to be OK. And we do have a little more leeway in a self-contained program because graduation is a little bit different, right? For me, when a student comes in, four years to get your credits, you totally can graduate. However, four years, even if you have all your credits, you also totally can stay, because there's some skills that you still need to do. And not to stress about it.
Now I know that is difficult for the folks who have traditional gen-ed programs. But I mean, I tell those folks, I'm like, everything's going to be fine. Like y'all need to worry about building those kinds of relationships so that parents don't freak out over the confusion of it all. Right? My parents aren't confused about anything, and that is huge in itself.
Amanda: You know, this pandemic is such a good reminder that even under normal circumstances, these timelines that we set for our kids, those should-haves we think they need to know by the end of kindergarten, or what they have to do by the end of fourth grade, or what they need to know to go into eighth grade. Whatever that is, it's not set in stone. Because if your kid hasn't learned something by that time, it doesn't mean they're never going to learn it.
And I wish sometimes that all of our kids could be in classrooms like Kareem's, where that goal is to help students get there when they get there. There is so much more individualizing in special education that I think can be put into general education classrooms too.
Gretchen: So true, Amanda. Well, the good news is that a lot of general education teachers are starting to think this way. Here's what we heard from another teacher, Shaquala Butler, who's a reading specialist in Huntsville, Alabama.
Shaquala: Addressing a parent's question of how do they know if their child has fallen behind, I think it's important to first ask, "What is this in relation to?" and, like, where are they comparing their child? And then once you have that conversation and reassure the parent that every child is an individual, I could then show what's been normed for a child at their age, grade level. And it's important to always assure them that we start where their child is and work from there.
Amanda: We heard from another teacher who had some really smart things to say about how she talks to parents about interrupted learning.
Gretchen: This is Lauren Jewett, and she's a third- and fourth-grade special education teacher in New Orleans.
Lauren: When I am asked by a family or a parent, how do I know if a student has fallen behind, or how can I help that parent assess whether their student is falling behind, I first try to remind families that, you know, teachers' approaches right now are really twofold. We want to have high expectations and continue to hold those high expectations for students, while also having a high degree of empathy. Because the students and their families have been through a lot.
And I let parents know that what we should focus on is the type of quality that we're providing in the instruction — maybe over the quantity. You know, as teachers, we often know that in a year that we didn't have a pandemic going on, it was typically hard to get through all of our lessons and squeeze everything in.
But I think that opens a broader conversation about what kind of quality and depth our instruction has and if what we're doing is really teaching students to mastery and allowing them to continue to show and retain and maintain that mastery, versus just checking off that we covered it and moving on. I think that approach doesn't communicate that a student is really growing.
Amanda: So, still worried about your kid being behind? Kareem has some really practical advice for you.
Kareem: Yes. I would tell parents to find a way to connect to their school. I know it's going to be tough, right? You've got jobs, but find a way to do it because they're the people who can put your mind at ease and can show you the real work that's happening.
Because a lot of times what happens is a parent learns things from report cards, progress notes, grades, right? And if they knew the teachers, it would be different than just hearing, "Oh, my student got a B because they knew this, that, and the other." If you talk to the teacher, if you had a relationship with the teacher, you would understand what they're doing, how they're planning to bridge those gaps, and it would put your mind at ease. You're never going to have your mind be put at ease by reading articles, but it could be put at ease by the folks who work in your school every day. And so it's worth it to figure out a way to connect to some people at your school.
Gretchen: I agree. It's so important to build relationships with people at your child's school. But sometimes that's easier said than done. I mean, lots of families have complicated work schedules, daycare schedules. Teachers are busy, and families might not always feel comfortable talking with teachers. It can be a frustrating experience to try to make that connection.
Amanda: Oh, for sure. You know, and I think you and I have both experienced that and I would say two things. It only takes one person, that one ally or person that you feel comfortable talking with, to get some answers and maybe have an advocate for your child at school. And it may not be the homeroom teacher or the guidance counselor. You could try someone else. The art teacher, the gym teacher, the receptionist, whatever it takes.
And the second thing is, give people grace and presume good intent. This pandemic has been so hard for all of us. Schools are dealing with masks, air purifiers, distancing assessments, and parents and kids are dealing with those things too. So, don't assume that the lack of response means a lack of caring. Keep trying, be persistent, keep that grace, until you find the person who will work with you.
Gretchen: I was going to ask one more thing. After listening to this, I feel a lot better. Right? I feel more at ease, but there still might be the parent out there who's wondering and may feel worried that their kid, you know, does have gaps that they won't be able to make up in a time that they've predetermined in their mind. You know, what should these families really do? Any advice for them?
Kareem: So, part of it is, I remember when we were at home, we were sending a lot of supplemental stuff. Part of it is to then say, can I just ask you for some more of the kinds of stuff that you sent during the breaks? It was in everybody's mind while we were home, right? It was like, oh, some people's technology isn't as strong. We sent home a bunch of low-tech, high-tech, to supplement. Ask for those kinds of things, then, if it will only put your mind at ease knowing that there was more work, ask for those kinds of things. Your schools at this point probably all have them.
Gretchen: Thank you so much for being with us.
Amanda: Thank you for joining us, Kareem.
Kareem: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Amanda: You've been listening to "In It," part of the Understood Podcast Network.
Gretchen: You can listen and subscribe to "In It" wherever you get your podcasts.
Amanda: And if you like what you heard today, please tell somebody about it.
Gretchen: Share it with the parents you know.
Amanda: Share it with somebody else who might have a child who learns differently.
Gretchen: Or just send a link to your child's teacher.
Amanda: "In It" is for you. So we want to make sure that you're getting what you need.
Gretchen: Go to u.org/init to share your thoughts and also to find resources from every episode.
Amanda: That's the letter U, as in understood.org/init. You can also email us at email@example.com.
Gretchen: As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference, and we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at understood.org/mission.
Amanda: “In It” is produced by Julie Subrin, with special help this week from Anna Mazarakis. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors. Thanks for listening, everyone. And thanks for always being in it with us.
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Gretchen Vierstra, MA
is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the In It podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.
is co-host of the In It podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents.