LA students’ emotional needs are higher than ever, teachers feel more like social workers

This story was produced by Danielle Chiriguayo as a part of a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 California Fellowship.

Her other stories include:

‘The hardest goodbye I've ever had to make’: LAUSD teachers share why they quit

LAUSD says it’s hiring 922 mental health workers. 75% of the positions sit empty

By Steve Chiotakis

The toll of a year and a half of remote learning is now starting to show its colors. The LA Times analyzed data over the past school year to find out how students are faring after campus closures and at-home education. They found “deep drops in assessment scores or below grade-level standing in key areas of learning. Black, Latino and other vulnerable children have been particularly hard hit.”

To see what that looks like on the ground, KCRW checks in with Aviva Alvarez-Zakson, who teaches world history and ethnic studies at Hamilton High School in Castle Heights, and Kristie Collette, who teaches third graders at Newcastle Elementary in Reseda.

Alvarez-Zakson explains why she thinks students are struggling right now: “Learning, despite our best efforts, was really de-socialized in the sense that students were not really working with each other or working around other people. And now they have to balance not only, ‘I have to keep up with whatever the teacher is instructing us to do,’ but ‘I have to also keep up with what's going on around me socially.’” 

She adds that if students are struggling in math and reading, the same goes for all other subjects too. That may be partly because of how different this school year looks compared to last year. Hours of instruction were shorter during campus closures, but now they’re longer. 

Collette agrees, but for elementary-aged students, the struggles are slightly different. She says, “The area that they are the furthest behind in is writing, because we never saw them write with their pen and their paper, we only saw written work … that they had typed.” So young students who utilized a computer during remote learning must now focus on cursive and spelling in classrooms. 

Alvarez-Zakson notes that most students, on average, were still behind last year but not necessarily critically failing, so throwing them back to seven hours of instruction five days per week is a big shift. 

Students’ lives outside classrooms have also changed. Alvarez-Zakson says, “Now I have more students who are working than ever. … Their managers forget that they are high school students and schedule them for really, really tricky hours. I have more students who are in charge of child care for their families than ever, more students reporting back just levels of exhaustion that I haven't seen before. It's hard to focus on things like college or graduating when we're trying to get through the day or the week.”

She tries to be more accommodating with deadlines, and treats her students with empathy and compassion to ensure she is not adding stress to their already busy lives. Alvarez-Zakson says, “I​​ had a co-worker say [something] that really resonated: ‘I just feel like a social worker right now more than a teacher.’ And that's kind of what it feels like sometimes. It’s hard to talk about the Enlightenment when everything is just a mess.”

Collette echoes similar concerns about her students. “I do feel like they are very emotionally needy, they need a lot of reassurance, especially when it comes to whether or not they're doing their work correctly. It's almost like they write one sentence, they want your critique on it. They do one math problem, they want you to make sure that it's correct. [There’s] a lot of emotional crying.”

But Collette is managing to get through it. She says, “I think like most teachers, we're hanging in there the best we can.” 

For Alvarez-Zakson, the stress and emotional impact of the year is wearing on her. She says, “This is the year I've wanted to quit the most.” 

She adds, “Truthfully, I'm trying to just be there for the students, but there's so many of them, and they have so much need and it's a lot.”




[This article was originally published by KRCW.]

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