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Re-Engaging for Learning in the New School Year

Schools are community hubs. The school building is often used for community functions. Community members physically and fiscally support the school and educational system. Learning happens in many places throughout the community. This educational ecosystem is large. Re-engaging learners (and the community) after the last 18 months will take a multi-faceted approach.

The title of Hugh Vasquez’s article, “What if We… Don’t Return to School as Usual,” challenges us to consider doing things differently when it comes to educating our learners. He goes on to pose this question, “… are we willing to use this opportunity to create the kind of educational system we want?” Globally many of us are ready to seize this opportunity and ask the “what if” questions, then take the actions to disrupt the status quo.


A biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment; a complex, interconnected system – Oxford Languages.

3 Starting Points 

With so many opportunities this fall, we’ll narrow our focus to three: the environment, social-emotional learning, and academics.

The Environment

In the fall of 2020, an AISA blog focused on the safety of students and staff, the role (AISA member) schools play in the community, and the effective teaching of students. The post ended with, “We now know that in a changing world, they can learn anywhere, any time. And yet, they need those spaces to return to – spaces where they feel at home.” How do we make the school building and community places that provide comfort and safety?

We can take some cues from the hospitality industry. What makes you feel welcome when you enter a hotel or great restaurant? Is it warm and comfortable? Do staff make you feel invited to be there? Does the décor contribute to these feelings of comfort? And what happens when you enter your school building? First impressions do matter, whether décor or people. Those impressions set the tone for the experience, whether it is a day, a week, or a year. They engage you.

The top traits of hospitality professionals include listening, empathy, a sense of humor, being calm and composed, having local knowledge, and being flexible and patient. These seem to mirror what we want to experience when we first enter a school. Now consider what the world experienced in the past 18 months, what you may have experienced. How are we welcoming learners and the community when they enter our space this fall? What’s one area you feel that your school can improve on from the traits of hospitality? Start small and build on your changes over time.

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)

Social-Emotional Learning

The process through which we all acquire and apply skills to manage our emotions and maintain positive relationships. Consider SEL growing in importance as the need for specific skills presents itself in a person’s life. Some skills are foundational for others and learning the skills earlier than later appears to be easier. (CASEL, 2020)

The pandemic provided an opportunity to pause, reflect and figure out how to do things differently. The focus on social, emotional, and academic development (SEAD) (Aspen Institute, 2019) and SEL are gifts of the pandemic. This topic is firmly on our radar and is no longer an optional focus for educators. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has developed a framework and standards to guide how we support learners in building their SEL competencies.

Emotions matter. SEL is one way we empower children and adults to identify, understand, and process their emotions. Emotions:

  • Promote engagement or disengagement
  • Can hijack decision making
  • Allow us to regulate negative emotions
  • Empower or estrange our performance, engagement and relationships (Brackett and Cipriano, 2020)

These same emotions are some of those that contribute to the type of environment that engages learners when they enter a school.


One of the biggest concerns parents (and educators) have is what their child learned last year with the challenges of connectivity, device access, social injustice, educator preparedness, working from home, etc. Rather than starting with assumptions about what was learned, consider the use of pre-assessments or benchmark assessments to find the starting points for each learner. There are many forms of pre-assessments including an anticipatory guide or a synectic. Benchmark assessments are typically administered quarterly with the expectation that each quarter more of the learning is achieved.

Tips for Now

As administrators: Consider taking the pulse of your community with the adult APGAR. It’s been described as a barometer for looking at stress in a system.

  • Appearance: How does the person look? How are they keeping their energy up?
  • Performance: What about work feels hard? How are individuals handling their workload?
  • Growth tension:  What gives individuals purpose? What challenges are difficult?
  • Affect control: What are an individual’s coping strategies? How are they working?
  • Relationships: Who do people go to for help? Who are they helping?

As teachers: What worked best last year? Keep those tools, strategies, and practices and expand them to learning together physically. What did you wish you could try? Take a calculated risk and try it now. Tell learners you’re trying something new and elicit their help–partner with them in the effort. Be sure to get their feedback, offer yours, adapt, and try again.

As parents: Focus on developing and or deepening the partnership with both your learner and their teacher. Maybe it was as simple as helping your child organize themselves for learning. What worked or didn’t work last year? What did you wish you could try? Talk with your child about what they want in a learning partnership with you. Talk with the teacher. Communication is key.

Focus on a couple of small yet powerful pieces to change and engage. Treat your efforts like mini-action research. Innovate for change. Learn and adjust. “Now that we know better, we can do better.” Take this year to engage across your educational ecosystem.

This article was written by Kathy S Dyer.

Kathy Dyer is an innovative educator who has served as a teacher, principal, district assessment coordinator, and adjunct professor. She has a passion for learner-centered learning—opportunities for learners of all ages to learn with, from, and for one another. Believing that all learners can learn more and grow more, Kathy is passionate about helping schools and educators get better at what they do.

Kathy combines a deep understanding of adult learning with a passion for collaborative problem solving to help school systems improve student outcomes. Her work has been featured on eSchool News, Education Dive, Ed Circuit, Teach. Learn. Grow. blog, and Getting Smart.

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