My Frustration with “Catch Up“ Language | Steve Barkley

My Frustration with “Catch Up“ Language

Time to catch up motivation message on concept clock for those who are late, 3d rendering

My frustration has grown as more and more conversations with educators have centered around people sharing their concerns about teachers’ and students’ wellbeing. They share concerns about teachers being stressed and contemplating leaving teaching. They describe students’ inappropriate behaviors and lack of engagement. Then, in the same conversation, they describe the need for students to “catch up.” A google search of “catching students up” will produce page after page of articles that also include the phrases “learning loss” and “back on track.” I sense it’s as if the connection between lack of wellbeing and a focus on catching up is not being recognized.

Larry Ferlazzo shared student voices in an Education Week article The Best and Worst Things About This School Year—According to Students.

One student shared: “I think the worst thing about this school year is how far behind everyone is with their teaching/learning. I have heard a lot of teachers talk about how they have to cram in lessons to catch up from what we missed when we were quarantined…… When we first got back from summer break, teachers would start teaching things that no one understood because of how we missed it last year. They then had to backtrack on lessons, causing them to have to fly through the lessons we are supposed to learn this year, meaning we are out of luck if we don’t understand it or seek help quickly.”

Catherine Gewertz shared teachers’ voices in an Education Week article Teachers Are Losing Hope That This Can Be a Catch-Up Year. A 2nd-grade teacher said barely half of her students are reading on grade level now. Before the pandemic, that figure would have been closer to 75 percent at this time of the school year. Recent interim test results showed lackluster progress among her students, too, she said. And even though her administration is reassuring teachers to just do the best they can, she’s plagued by feelings of failure. “It’s heartbreaking. The pressure is overwhelming,” she said. “I feel like a horrible teacher. I’ve been teaching for 22 years, and this might be the lowest self-esteem I’ve had.”

A BBC article Teachers advised to avoid ‘catch-up narrative’ summarized the impact of teacher’s language on students.

Teachers have been asked to avoid using terms like “catch up” or “missed work” to avoid creating “unnecessary pressure and anxiety” for pupils returning to school…”The ‘catch-up’ narrative can place unnecessary pressure and anxiety on children,” …..”Language is important and frequent references to ‘missed work’ or ‘lost time’ or ‘catch up’ will potentially increase pupil anxiety.”

My thinking is that while teachers are using these ‘negative image’ phrases they are not only impacting their students but equally the teachers themselves. Instructional coaches and school leaders have a role to play in changing this language. We need to focus on engagement in quality learning experiences that reinforce important beliefs and values for learners and for teachers.

Adeyemi Stembridge describing the need to build student resilience describes a strategy he calls Snapshots of Engagement.

One of my favorite strategies for supporting the resilience of students is to capture snapshots of their successful engagement in school so I can show them back to kiddos in a sort of highlight reel of their greatest moments in the classroom. I will literally use a smartphone or a tablet to take a live-action snapshot of my students invested in their learning. (It helps to have planned lessons that students will be able to see as interesting and engaging.) A snapshot of an engaged student—thinking, doing, talking, listening, it almost doesn’t matter as long as it’s clear that the kiddo is invested in the learning experience—becomes a text that can be further investigated. I can then show them that picture to frame a larger conversation that centers on what they were doing, thinking, and feeling in that moment. I find that I am able to get a lot of traction from a rich snapshot and the question: “Can you tell me what was happening in this picture?” Our students are more often able to retrieve their choices in a richer emotional context with the support of the image than without. I can then follow up accordingly to support the student’s understanding that they were responsible for the success and that future successes can be engineered similarly through their choices. After our conversation, I will often send that picture to other persons in the student’s trust network (in and out of school) so that the kiddo may have the opportunity to retell the story multiple times.

I believe this is an ideal example of focusing on what is most important in students’ futures, perhaps longer-term, success. It’s not about catching up to some preset line of performance tied to a calendar. It is about becoming empowered, resilient learners who will be able to plan and execute a needed learning plan to achieve a desired result. Teachers engaging and coaching students in rich learning experiences are likely to be finding increased satisfaction in the hard work of teaching. Perhaps Adeyemi Stembridge’s engagement snapshot strategy could be used by coaches and leaders for engaging teachers in conversations that build teacher resilience for continued impact on learners rather than on catching up.

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