By Elisabeth Yucis

The word “unprecedented” has been used so frequently since March 2020 that it seems to have lost all meaning. Yet, we remain in an era that continues to embody its definition: “never done or known before.” It’s been 19 months since the pandemic ended life as we knew it, and now we’ve begun a third “unprecedented” school year. There’s the familiar sense of hope in a new school year, tempered once again by undercurrents of fear and anxiety. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Many have used the term “learning loss” to describe what has happened to students academically since COVID-19 shut down school buildings. However, NJEA believes this term doesn’t accurately capture the nuances of our kids’ learning journeys over the past two school years. Accordingly, the New Jersey Department of Education has adopted the approach of “learning acceleration” to help guide educators forward. The first principle is to “provide conditions of learning that will foster social and emotional well-being of students, families, and educators.” In other words, human needs in the school community must be addressed prior to academic matters. Across the state, school leaders have accordingly pledged to emphasize social-emotional learning (SEL) this year.

After attending to the SEL needs in your classroom, your focus as a teacher will naturally shift to academics and the annual requirement of student growth objectives (SGOs). Some parts of the SGO process might feel like they have in other years, but you will have some new opportunities for innovation in light of the last two school years.

First, some background about SGOs: for the 2021-22 school year, SGOs will comprise 15% of teacher summative scores. As there is no median student growth percentile (mSGP) this year because of the cancellation of the 2021 NJSLA, every teacher will submit two SGOs by Oct. 31.

State regulations allow local practices to vary from district to district, but all districts are required to distribute all evaluation policies and procedures in writing by Oct. 1 annually. If you believe your district policies contradict the regulations, or if you do not believe your district has communicated them in accordance with the regulations, your local leadership will seek clarification from an NJEA UniServ field representative.

With so many interruptions to learning over the past two school years, this year’s students will undeniably perform differently than previous cohorts when it comes time to set your goals and establish student baselines. The lack of two years of available standardized assessment data, the variety of educational experiences your students have had over the past two school years, and the changes in your classroom routines are just a few examples of possible challenges. 

In the face of these challenges, identify what existing data you can access, such as prior year grades or other local assessments. Next, consider what additional data you already plan to gather in the early fall that might be able to inform student baselines. Start Strong Assessments, benchmarks, and routine diagnostic assessments are just a few options. Finally, fill in any other details with quick formative assessments that do not require grading time, using these quick snapshots to efficiently pinpoint strengths and growth opportunities.

From there, it’s time to plan your students’ journey. This year’s students have strengths other groups of students might not have had, so seize opportunities to capitalize on what your students do well. This is a great opportunity to brainstorm with colleagues, informally or in your professional learning community (PLC), and harness your collective brainpower.

Remember that no matter what, you are the educator best equipped to set goals for your students and guide them towards success. You, as the teacher, will have a great deal of impact on your students this year. No journey goes as planned, so expect the unexpected this year. When hiccups occur, remember that nobody is better equipped than you to bring your students across the finish line. Frequent reflection about your own practice and your students’ performance will serve you well through the rest of your career.

Elisabeth Yucis is an associate director in the NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division. She can be reached at eyucis@njea.org.

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