Perspectives: Has South Met its Social-Emotional Learning Goals?

graphic by Kaila Hanna

Yes – Ali Jafri

No – Briana Butera

As I logged onto Zoom on Sept. 16 for the first time since June, I thought back to April, when we were thrown into distance learning due to the spread of COVID-19 — if you could even call it learning. While my peers cheered about the cancellation of MCAS and finals, I was worried about how South would handle online learning if the pandemic continued through to the fall. I doubted teachers’ ability to support students mentally, emotionally and academically through exclusively virtual means.

To my pleasant surprise, the new distance-learning format is actually supporting students mentally, emotionally and academically, particularly regarding social-emotional well-being, and even competes with a regular school experience.

This year, I’ve been receiving more help and support, both academically and emotionally, from teachers and deans than I ever did in person. In online classes, teachers can easily assist students who need more help by using breakout rooms. The breakout room feature helps teachers meet with students in small groups to gauge each student’s understanding, which allows them to provide individualized support.

In breakout rooms, teachers have a whiteboard at hand if students are stuck with a particular concept, which would not usually be the case in person. When I need help with an assignment in class while in a breakout room, I can press the “Ask for help” button, a great alternative to raising a hand for seemingly infinite stretches. Within a matter of seconds, the teacher will come to help me, unbeknownst to my classmates.

The administration’s approach to online school is notably less stressful than in-person learning, as it allows students to sleep and relax rather than spend long nights completing homework assignments. This inherently more comfortable learning environment combined with the administration’s successful efforts to address social-emotional needs is creating an extremely positive school experience amidst the pandemic.

All of these benefits can be attributed to the administration’s understanding approach to this year’s distance learning: they are taking active steps to prioritize students’ well-being over academic rigor, but at the same time, they are maintaining the academic rigor by teaching us the necessary material for the year. All the while, the school is ensuring adequate student learning.

Following South’s new approach, teachers are assigning minimal to no homework, and as any South student knows, excess homework can cause high-stress levels. Teachers show understanding of the unprecedented situation we are in and the range of realities students are experiencing.

The format of online classes further empowers students. While students may typically feel daunted by asking questions in class, Zoom classes are inherently less formal than in-person classes and offer alternative means of participation, such as private messaging your teacher. I find myself participating more often in discussions online than I did in-person, which makes me feel connected to my class community, a school goal this year.

The current school year has left me pleasantly surprised with the social-emotional support, as well as maintaining the academic rigor throughout the school year. I hope the administration maintains their high standard of support for students throughout the distance learning phase, and if we ever have an in-person phase, I also hope that support will continue to be prevalent throughout the year and beyond.

The last two months have left students doubtful about the school’s commitment to bettering students’ mental health. The pandemic, social injustices, political uprising and the school’s transition online have left students needing support. Despite these extenuating circumstances, students are expected to engage in learning.

During online school, students’ motivation to learn has deteriorated without peer-to-peer connections. Though an online environment makes tackling these problems more challenging, the administration has taken insufficient action to support its students. This year, many classes have become lectures void of student participation. School should be about learning and problem-solving while communicating with others. In classes where this has been the case, I have been able to connect with my fellow students on an academic as well as a personal level through conversations about the material.

Students also have limited opportunities to connect with teachers. I didn’t even know the names of my teachers until the third week of school, and judging by conversations with friends, I’m not the only one. Worse yet, if it weren’t for Zoom names, they wouldn’t know mine either. Though the school has emphasized community-building, and most teachers spent the first two weeks doing icebreakers, what I learned about my peers was limited to their favorite foods and animals; community-building has felt superficial.

Personal connections with teachers help students feel safe in the school community, but teachers and students do not yet know each other well enough to feel secure in those bonds. The administration should redefine community-building to foster real connections between teachers and students by implementing team-building activities rather than the 20-questions-like activities we have now.

The administration, understanding the transition to online school would be difficult for students, implemented a no-homework policy for the first few weeks of the year. However, they have not upheld their promises, and some teachers have still assigned homework with hard deadlines, even going as far to say that they won’t accept any late work. A strict deadline during this stressful time can be damaging to students’ mental health, putting unnecessary pressure on them in addition to the immense stressors of a pandemic. The administration should work to make sure teachers are following these guidelines or at least allowing students more time to turn in work.

The school has encouraged students to talk to their guidance counselors if they are feeling overwhelmed, but not all students are comfortable doing so. Knowing a guidance counselor has a connection to the school may make some students wary of speaking to them about topics unrelated to academics. Though some may think that the emotions and reactions that teens may have are overreactions, they must also take into account that high school is a stressful time and asking for help is not always easy.

We have grades, assignments, teams and social groups to worry about, and “not caring about what others think” isn’t always as easy as many adults believe it is. The school’s approach to counseling is flawed but repairable, and it’s the administration’s responsibility to understand students’ perspectives and modify their plans accordingly. If the school could find different ways of reaching students or directing them to other forms of help, the mental health of students at South could greatly improve.

It’s not too late to solve these issues. The school should shift its focus from trying to teach students to supporting them and prioritizing their mental health. Students’ mental health should always come before work, no matter the cost.