Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

When I think of care, I think of counselors, therapists and programs to support student health — which can now be more robust thanks to federal Covid relief funds. I think of meaningful opportunities for community-building and self-expression in English classes like mine.

Care is also a serious aspect of education that grants teens organizational, critical thinking and communication powers to more effectively manage and enjoy their lives — an antidote to the helplessness and aimlessness that can plague young adults.

And so care can mean a reliable system for academic support in which students receive tools to meet the challenge of learning. In the education world, academic rigor and student wellness too often get characterized as opposing forces, like you can’t prioritize both, like one needs to balance the excesses of the other. Yet, when done right, they serve the same end.

I’m not advocating for some brutal, data-driven form of tracking and remediation that fails to account for students’ emotional needs, but for an entirely nonrevolutionary idea: a physical place where students can meet with tutors to get help with assignments. This is an obvious, research-supported move that’s too often left to the whims of individual teachers or departments. Importantly, it’s also too often divorced from wellness initiatives.

With districts enjoying more resources than usual because of the Covid relief, this is the time to invest in providing more academic support.

Graduate students earning credentials may be eager for part-time income. I would have jumped at this when I was at the University of California, Los Angeles 12 years ago. Qualified alumni who live nearby are community resources too. Plenty of recent college graduates piece together gigs as they weigh careers. With the start of quarantine in 2020, I suggested districts like mine capitalize on the number of grads doing college from home or staring down a bleak job market after finishing college. Call this work community service. It’s care in action.

Fingerprint these tutors, train them, figure out how to pay them, make a consistent schedule and assign them to grade levels. These should not be upperclassmen seeking volunteer hours. If using Canvas or a similar platform, teachers can even grant tutors “observer”-level access to class materials hosted online so they can see firsthand what students are doing without having to email teachers.

Last week, in a moment of touching candor, a ninth grader told me that he had done “nothing” in sixth and seventh grades. Then, after losing a few months of seventh, he spent eighth grade at home doing nothing because the nothing he’d done in sixth and seventh made it hard for him to do anything else from his bedroom. The pandemic wasn’t the start; it just amplified the pattern.

And here he was in ninth, vaguely itching to turn things around. But he was writing fragmented 20-word summaries of chapters in response to short essay prompts that asked for claims, evidence and discussion. He was reading “Of Mice and Men” in fits but felt challenged by the expectation that he move past surface-level comprehension, which was in part eluding him because he kept psyching himself out of trying to read. The stress was feeding the behaviors that caused more stress.

To supplement what I’m doing in class, I can have him stop by at lunch or during the 45 minutes a week already built into the schedule for support, but considering I have 150 students, that won’t be enough.

His situation isn’t unusual. Across my classes, particularly with the ninth graders, I see evidence that students are struggling to adjust. Under a different schedule, I used to host literature circles twice a week, with small groups of students reading and discussing assigned chapters together. It was productive but casual and fun; I built relationships with students who normally avoided interactions.

Without more time built into the school day, unless I clone myself or live at school and stop eating lunch, I cannot give this student and others like him the individual attention required to catch up. That upsets me because, without systemic intervention, the trajectory is clear. And when you can gaze into the crystal ball and see doors closing five years down the line for 14-year-olds, you question how much the school apparatus is providing care.

Tutoring is most effective when it happens during school hours. If a school schedule can’t accommodate that, an after-school tutoring center can fill the void. Sell students on it with a steady marketing campaign. Help is here, every week. You’re not alone. There’s a whole team behind you, eager to see you learn, grow, become self-sufficient — and then be in a position to help others.

It’s more than fine for a student under duress to put classes on hold, but this has to be a temporary measure. In a worst-case scenario, schools create a fuzzy alternate universe where showing up and trying is optional, pulling back expectations, with the result that 18-year-olds graduate with mostly Ds, spotty attendance records and few academic skills.

No one would explicitly applaud that result, but let’s just say it doesn’t harm graduation rates. Preaching wellness without providing meaningful support for learning is callous, not caring. It’s the short-sighted smoothing over of chronic struggle. Reduced academic rigor doesn’t reduce stress; it just defers it to the post-graduation setting, where students will have fewer mental health resources. If we care for them on all fronts, the fraying 14-year-olds of the present will thank us in the future.


Andrew Simmons teaches high school English at San Rafael High School. In 2020, he published Love Hurts, Lit Helps, a book for educators.

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