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July 11, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 9

Lessons on Student Well-Being From "The Great Resignation"

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During the pandemic, many people rethought their priorities. We need to rethink students' needs as well.
Social-emotional learning
School Culture
Instructional Strategies
Summer 2022 Vatterott header image
Credit: JACOBLUND / iSTOCK
Over the last year, I watched the "great resignation" with fascination. In the last half of 2021, more than 20 million people quit their jobs (CBS News, 2022). The pandemic, like a cosmic whack on the head, caused nearly everyone to rethink, well, nearly everything. As workers reconsidered their priorities and the relative value of their jobs, they were awakened to the importance of family, friends, and both physical and mental health. As a result, millions of people decided their jobs were "just not worth it" (CBS News, 2022). The pandemic had awakened a focus on what psychologists have long defined as basic human needs—autonomy, flexibility, and control (Glasser, 1992; Hari, 2018).
When workers shared what they liked about their new jobs, autonomy, flexibility, and control were invariably part of the package. For educators, it's important to ask: Don't our students deserve these things, too? Our students have the same human needs that those workers—and all of us—have, and their well-being is contingent on meeting those basic needs. To be well, students need autonomy, flexibility, and control, yet so many of our school practices restrict student autonomy and prioritize compliance over engagement, competition over relationships, and academics over mental health.
When school culture becomes hyper-focused on achievement and test scores, it is easy to lose sight of the importance of students' social and emotional well-being. Although most schools have implemented some form of social-emotional learning, stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness only do so much if the school's culture is a major contributor to student stress.
Now is a good time to reflect on our school practices and the messages they send to students, rethink our priorities, and broaden our definition of student success. If we want to recalibrate the metric for student success from what Fullan (2021) calls "academic obsession" to focus more on well-being, we need to put well-being on equal footing with academic achievement. Some (including Fullan) would say well-being must be a higher priority than academics.
If we care about student well-being, we must show that it matters. What school practices might be changed or implemented that would facilitate student wellness? Here are four places to start—based on those human needs we've identified during this time of "great resignation."

The 'great resignation' should be our cue to initiate a 'great reset' in our school practices.

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Cathy Vatterott

1. Give students more autonomy in learning.

In a traditional teacher-directed classroom, the teacher retains all power and makes all decisions about learning. Learning is teacher-generated, with step-by-step instructions on what to do and how to do it, which was aptly labeled by Kittle and Gallagher (2020) as "helicopter teaching." In short, learning is often overdirected and overprescribed.
That lack of control is stressful for all students, but it leaves secondary students in particular woefully unprepared for college, where they are expected to be more independent learners, to generate and organize their own thinking, and to make decisions about their learning. To promote student wellness, the fundamental shift should be to a more student-directed classroom where "student voice and agency are not so much 'permitted,' but are deliberately activated as a natural byproduct of the culture built in the school and the system as a whole" (Fullan, 2021, p. 8).
Our overprescribing of learning tasks comes from the best intentions—after all, we know the learning goal that we want students to reach and we are confident we know which task will get them there. What we often fail to realize is that our tasks are not infallible—they may not work for all students. It's better to show students the learning goal, help them understand how they learn best, and give them some freedom to use teacher-designed tasks or structure their own learning tasks (Vatterott, 2015).
When we allow students choices in how they learn and how to demonstrate that learning, we give them opportunities to think about their learning and create strategies that work for them. Students feel more in control of their learning when they determine what they need to do to master the goals or demonstrate their learning on assessments. They are also more engaged and less stressed.
As students gain control, they learn how to self-assess. Then they can cite evidence that they have either met a learning goal or not yet mastered it. They can chart their own progress, conduct student-led conferences to demonstrate their learning, or set their own goals for improvement (Vatterott, 2018).

2. Give students more control over their grades.

When high school students were asked to rate their top sources of stress, grades, tests, and other assessments topped the list, with overall workload and homework a close second. These results were relatively consistent before and during the pandemic (Challenge Success & NBC News, 2021). Whoever controls the grades has a powerful impact on student stress, and traditional grading practices often leave students with little control. Many factors can impact how stressful grades are—if the marks are permanent; if they are averaged; or how much tests, quizzes, projects, homework, etc., are weighted. Particularly stressful are moment-in-time paper-and-pencil tests that require students to perform on cue. When teachers add or subtract points for behaviors such as meeting deadlines, getting to class on time, and bringing materials, the grade becomes more muddled, more uncertain, and more stressful.
The easiest way to give students more control over their grades is to adopt some standards-based grading practices such as:
  • Giving students choices in methods of assessment in addition to traditional paper-and-pencil tests. Consider alternatives such as performance tasks, papers, projects, or presentations.
  • Allowing multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning—whether through formative assessments, retakes, or revisions. What's important is that students reach the learning goal and can continue to improve their grade.
  • Grading in pencil. Replace (don't average) old information with the newest evidence of learning. Consider the most recent evidence to be the most accurate.
  • Using non-punitive formative feedback. Feedback should be free help—no grade or mark need be associated with it.
  • Using homework as ungraded formative feedback. Not grading homework further empowers students to self-assess and to complete only those tasks (or design their own tasks) that will help them reach the learning goals.
Teachers often voice the concern that some students need points for homework as a way to "save" them from poor test scores. But the save is unnecessary if teachers are allowing multiple opportunities to show mastery, if they are grading in pencil, and if they are replacing old information with new information. When these practices are implemented as a package, it takes the heat off stressed students (Vatterott, 2015; 2018; 2019).

Related Resource

For more on this topic, check out Cathy Vatterott's blog post, "What the Pandemic Taught Us About Education (That We Already Knew)."

3. Give students more control over their time.

Just like employees, students are less stressed when they have more flexibility in their schedules. One way to give students flexibility is to give them more blocks of autonomous time during the school day. Elementary students generally have some time for recess and free play, and students new to middle school often ask, "Why don't we still have recess?" Middle and secondary students can benefit from similar breaks where they can hang out with friends, take a walk, or just enjoy some quite time alone. While some may argue the lunch period fulfills this need, lunch is often too short to offer students much choice in downtime.
There are numerous ways to address this problem. James E. Dottke High School in West Allis, Wisconsin, for example, has implemented a "Flex 40" lunch. A typical 25-minute lunch period often confines students to a noisy cafeteria without access to solitude or other spaces. During "Flex 40," a 40-minute lunch period, students can pick almost any space in the school to relax and recharge. They might play music, shoot baskets on the basketball court, or just sit in a classroom.
Other schools use advisory or academic lab periods to give students a break from instruction and allow them the freedom to work on homework or other projects, meet with teachers for consultation or feedback, or visit with school counselors. Some schools extend the passing time between classes from the typical three minutes to seven minutes to help students feel less rushed and give them time to say hello to friends or use the restroom.
Teachers can also give students more control over time in the classroom by allowing short breaks from learning so students can stand, walk, get a drink, or just daydream for a bit. They can provide more in-class time to work on assignments and be flexible about the timing of in-class assessments. If many students indicate they need more time to prepare, teachers could consider delaying assessments.

4. Provide more support for student mental health.

In addition to practices that allow students more autonomy and flexibility, a well-rounded approach to student well-being includes explicit mental health support for students. Ideally, a shift in school culture would normalize mental health support, so it is as accessible as tutoring and other academic interventions. In the Tulsa Public Schools, Care and Connect Centers provide in-person spaces for students to work with adults for technology support, tutoring, or counseling services. Here are some other practices that are becoming more common as schools prioritize student well-being:
  • Granting students excused absences for mental health days.
  • Establishing a "Choose a Trusted Adult" program to assure each student has at least one adult they can go to for support.
  • Developing a peer counseling program. The Hope Squad at Hilliard Davidson High School in Ohio partners student volunteers with adults to serve as a mental health resource for other students. Students are elected to the Hope Squad by their peers—not as formal counselors, but to act as watchdogs and compassionate listeners. Hope Squad students are trained to spot peers with mental health struggles, persuade them to get help from a trusted adult, or in some cases, refer them to adult support (Gewertz, 2022).
  • Partnering with local care providers to provide free mental health support for students.
  • Educating students and parents about wellness issues like sleep, nutrition, or restorative practices.

Resetting Priorities

The pandemic reshaped our thinking about so many aspects of our lives, resulting for many of us in a reordering of our priorities. Just as the pandemic precipitated a dramatic shift in the job market, it is fitting that it should trigger an equally dramatic shift in education. The "great resignation" should be our cue to initiate a "great reset" in our school practices with a renewed commitment to student well-being. That commitment can begin by empowering students with the autonomy, flexibility, control, and support that they need to thrive and be well.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ In what ways could you and your school give students more flexibility, autonomy, and control?

➛ Is student mental health a priority at your school? Are you doing a good job communicating that it’s a priority?

➛ How else might we rethink student well-being in light of what we’ve learned from the pandemic?

References

CBS News. (2022, January 9). The big quit. 60 Minutes.

Challenge Success & NBC News. (2021). Kids under pressure.

Fullan, M. (2021). Wellbeing and learning vis-à-vis academic obsession. The right drivers for whole system success, 9–20. The Centre for Strategic Education.

Gewertz, C. (2022, March 1). Students train to spot peers with mental health struggles and guide them to help. Education Week.

Glasser, W. (1992). The quality school: Managing students without coercion. Harper Collins.

Hari, J. (2018). Lost connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression—and the unexpected solutions. Bloomsbury.

Kittle, P., & Gallagher, K. (2020). The curse of "helicopter teaching." Educational Leadership77(6), 15–19.

Vatterott, C. (2018). Rethinking homework: Best practices that support diverse needs (2nd Ed.) ASCD.

Vatterott, C. (2019). The teens are not alrightEducational Leadership76(8), 13–16.

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