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Beating the Graduation Blues in 2021

Kids won’t get the graduation ceremony they deserve this year. What can we, as teachers, do to help them finish school on a high?

By 7 min read

We are slowly approaching (we hope) the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Japan plans to roll out the Pfizer Inc. vaccine for frontline workers and the elderly in March and the general public in May. Unfortunately, this comes far too late for this year’s graduating students.

Across Japan, graduation ceremonies for students in elementary, junior high and senior high schools will take place in the second week of March. We can likely expect heavily curtailed, socially distant ceremonies—a far cry from the fanfare and celebration teachers are used to and which our students have come to expect. This has got me thinking: Is there anything we as assistant language teachers (ALTs) can do to help our students cope with this upheaval?

First, we need to look closer at the problem we are dealing with.

Psychological impact

Classes are feeling a bit more gloomy.

As an elementary school teacher, I have noticed that preparations for graduation among my sixth-grade students are noticeably more muted than usual. My students seem demoralized and more than a little bit frustrated at being deprived of their moment in the spotlight. It seems especially unfair when we know that none of this current predicament is in any way their fault.

There has been much debate about the necessity to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus and the potentially fatal consequences of contracting COVID-19.

The elderly, frail and individuals with preexisting conditions make up the vast majority of fatalities worldwide. However, the coronavirus has the potential to kill anyone, even children. Social distancing, wearing masks, the cancellation of school events and reduced contact time are all unfortunate but necessary steps we must take.

However, to some extent, one aspect that has been overlooked is the psychological impact of the pandemic, especially on children.

Students in my sixth-grade class feel that they are being deprived of many of the formative experiences their older siblings enjoyed.

Studies compiled by the C.D.C. in the U.S. suggest that the pandemic has left children feeling anxious, uncertain, fearful, and, in many cases, depressed. Although Japan has been spared the total lockdowns seen in other countries, students have still had to contend with being denied many activities that are not only part of their regular social routine but are essential to their development.

There have been more than a few tears this year, as school festivals and field trips have been canceled and sports tournaments called off.

Students in my sixth-grade class feel that they are being deprived of many of the formative experiences their older siblings enjoyed. Unfortunately, being only 11 or 12 years old, many of them also lack the emotional maturity to understand that this is temporary.

What can we teachers do in these final few weeks to help alleviate the situation?

Here are a few ideas to consider. However, it’s important to remember that each class and each student is different, especially when it comes to mental health issues. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Some of the ideas I present may work for your students and some may not.

Give students some leeway

Maybe ease up on the kids, eh?

I’m the type of teacher who likes to run a tight ship. I am firm but fair when it comes to keeping my students in line. However, in recent weeks, I have eased off a little as I can see the frustration and a certain degree of mental fatigue creeping in among them. My sixth graders, especially, are quite irritable and sensitive at the moment.

Consider revising your disciplinary approach.

As an example, if you see kids not focusing on the task at hand or perhaps engaging in idle chatter, don’t come down too hard on them. Instead of raising your voice or calling out the bad behavior, try a subtler approach. For instance, stop the task and calmly ask everyone to be quiet and refocus.

Our overall focus needs to be on positively enforcing good behaviors rather than castigating bad ones.

Offering an incentive, such as the prospect of letting the kids play a game for the final five minutes of class if they can get the work done is also an effective incentive. Our overall focus needs to be on positively enforcing good behaviors rather than castigating bad ones.

This applies to all grade levels, not just elementary school ones.

In times like these, many kids who do not typically act up in class may acquire such bad behaviors as a coping mechanism. If you reflect on your own conduct over the last few months, haven’t you also had days when you’ve been more irritable than normal or struggle to concentrate on relatively simple tasks? I know I have. The pandemic affects us all in different ways.

The only areas where you shouldn’t ease off, though, are in making sure that kids wash their hands and keep their masks on properly.

Don’t be afraid to alter textbook lessons

Your school’s textbook will likely reference better with some lesson tweaks, such as when discussing travel, school events and seasonal activities. If delivered without sensitivity, it could exacerbate any current stress or sadness among your kids.

For example, I expanded the “what’s your best memory” unit to cover a broader scope. This section of the textbook teaches kids to discuss their favorite experiences from their time at school before the pandemic.

However, since the class could not experience a proper and complete school year, I felt it was insensitive to make them talk about these events. Instead, I taught some extra vocabulary to use the same target structure to talk about general life experiences.

Make some time for fun

This is the opposite of fun.

Hopefully, over the year that you’ve been working with your students, you will have learned which activities they enjoy the most.

Using these activities as an incentive to keep the kids focused through what can sometimes feel like rather tedious, grammar-focused lessons is often very effective. Of course, it depends on your Japanese colleagues’ cooperation, as they will always have the final say on how class time is managed.

My colleagues agree with me, though, that positivity is essential, so we always allow five to ten minutes at the end of class for a game or another fun activity that the students enjoy.

Choose a farewell message carefully

I wrote previously about the challenge of choosing an appropriate message to write for my graduating students in their yearbook.

In the years and decades that lie ahead, those words may become the only permanent memory that the students will retain of you and your lessons.

Current circumstances made this year’s choice a little easier than usual. I focused on a quotation that offered hope and encouragement for the future. In the end, I turned to the late, great Robin Williams for my yearbook quote for 2021:

“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”

Of course, you don’t need to go with a famous quotation. You can also use your own words, and perhaps your students may even appreciate that even more.

Make time for your students on their big day

Make their time with you matter.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your graduating class this year is taking the time to see them on graduation day.

There will probably be a somewhat somber mood. Each school will probably approach things slightly differently, but certainly, at my schools, the policy for this year is that only one parent for each student will be allowed to attend. Some kids will undoubtedly feel sad that mom and dad both couldn’t attend their big day.

So, while it will be a busy day for teachers too—if you can—please make an effort to see your students that morning. Say a few words of encouragement to them, and after the ceremony itself, as much as social distancing will allow, mingle for a while. Make yourself available to talk with the students and parents one last time.

It may not be the ideal graduation ceremony for your students this year, but with some effort, it can still be a memorable one.

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