Restarting School Post-Holiday Break: Some Warnings to Consider

How many times have educators asked their students one of the following questions after the holiday break? Did you have a wonderful vacation? Where did you and your family go? What was the best present you received? Did you enjoy the time with family and friends? What did you do on your vacation?

These questions have been asked thousands of times, and the motives have been well-intentioned: let students talk about their two week break from school. In fact, some of these questions are informed by educators’ own positive childhood memories of wonderful vacations.

Pause

Not all holidays are joyous (not they ever were). This particular holiday and year-end (2022) have followed a tumultuous 12 months. There were natural disasters, including those affecting travel during the holidays. There were illnesses and deaths. There were families that dissolved; there was increased abuse and addiction. There has been anger (good knows). There has been frustration and economic stress. There have been job changes, including partial returns to office. Relationships have frayed and some have ended. It was a year filled with stress.

It is for these reasons that the re-start of the school year needs to be handled differently. The usual questions educators ask students will serve to activate trauma, not connection. Not all is well and if we ask questions geared to fun and wellness and family closeness, we will alienate many students whose time away from school did not involve fun and frolic. Instead of students sharing amazing trips (for those who could afford them and manage travel), we need to help students get back their emotional balance.

Stated most simply, we need to start with the premise that being “home” for vacation is not always a vacation.

Now What?

Consider different questions and different approaches to the return to school. Give students a reason to return.

Start with welcome signs and greeting (personal) at the doorways. Educators welcoming back students can say things like: Nice to see you again. Welcome back _________(name to be supplied to personalize the exchange).

Instead of presuming a wonderful holiday, give students an opportunity to share openly and honestly. Give them questions that have room for all answers, not only positive answers. Allow students to see that they do not have to fib or hide that they had a hard holiday. To remember this, educators can picture the empty seat at the holiday tables of many across our nation — the tables of their own and those of their students.

Ask questions that are more along these lines: Share one good memory from this holiday. Share one person you saw this holiday that made you smile. Share one funny incident involving a pet.

And, allow students to draw or squiggle on paper; let them express themselves, even if those drawings are NOT shared or placed on a wall in celebration. Give students a place to breathe and balance and believe in the stability school can provide.

As educators, we can express things about our own holidays that were not perfect: the person whose plane never arrived due to the storm; the family member who was ill and hospitalized; the missing person whom everyone remembered told the best holiday stories. It’s ok for students to know that they are not alone in having mixed or bad experiences.

We’ve Changed

One of the problems with the start of this academic year was the belief that we were returning to normal. We haven’t and we aren’t. Too much has changed; too much pain has been incurred; too many changes have happened, including within our brains due to social distancing and masking (which is returning in some parts of the nation).

Let’s start second semester with a profound recognition that life in and outside of school is different. We are changed. The world has changed. And, if we can focus on that change and own it, we will do better navigating it.

We are in a position to recognize the power of honesty, the power of owning our feelings and the power of navigating troubling times. Like grief, if we don’t process it, we will never move forward in a healthy way. As students return, give them the time and skills to process their “vacation,” so they can re-regulate and prepare to learn with you in the coming months.

Sadly, too many students will return tomorrow or in the coming weeks with having had hard experiences. They need you — their educators — to enable them to stabilize. And yes, that is our job as educators even if it is not in any published teaching job description, whether one teachers pre-K or college.

Bottom line. Re-start school differently. We are different. Let’s own that.

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Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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Karen Gross

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor