American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

Challenges for High School Teachers of Sociology during the Pandemic

Chris Salituro, Stevenson High School
Hayley Lotspeich, Wheaton North High School

Almost overnight, K-12 schools across the country moved online. With little time to plan or any certainty about remote learning standards, timelines, or student expectations, students and teachers continue to adjust to this new content delivery system.

In some ways, the transition is similar to what college professors are experiencing. Both students and teachers need to learn how to adapt to new classroom routines and equip ourselves with new technological skills while also dealing with the upending of home and personal lives. We have students who are mourning losses—of the comradery of daily contacts with friends, classmates, and instructors; ceremonial milestones such as dances, graduation, and sports; and the predictability of daily routines. Similar to colleges professors, high school educators work to balance social- emotional learning with intellectual stimulation for students. 

While most high school teachers consistently deal with students who have adverse childhood experiences, most have never worked with so many different students experiencing trauma at the same time. Students who once counted on the school day to provide stability, constant adult support and encouragement and, often, nutritional needs, suddenly have lost all of those things. Many of our students have lost the ability to focus on learning at specific, designated parts of their days. Some students still don’t have access to the Internet (some districts do give out hot spots that sometimes work but often do not). Many of our students are sharing a single device with parents and siblings who also have school and work needs. In addition, many of our students are helping parents to provide for their families. They are working extra hours at restaurants because parents have lost their jobs, caring for younger siblings while parents work from home, and have a myriad other responsibilities. Many school districts are partnering with nearby foodbanks to provide meals at schools or bus stops. It is not surprising that many high school teachers, for the time being, have been asked to put content on the back burner and focus more on the socio-emotional and safety needs of students. 

Holding students accountable for their learning is a challenge. Many states have mandated  that work performed or missed may not harm course grades. So, if a student refuses to turn in any work over the many weeks of remote learning during a semester, his or her final grade cannot be any lower than what it would have been when E-learning began. 

One of the productive elements of this transition is that it has been easy to demonstrate for students just how relevant sociology is for understanding the world around them. The news is filled with articles about how the virus affects racial and socioeconomic groups differently. There are many ways to highlight interdependence and intersectionality. A sociological lens equips students as they analyze the roles of different institutions in the response to the pandemic. Students’ sociological imaginations can help them understand how they are reacting to the changes in their lives due to the pandemic. 

One thing is for certain; there is a vibrant and supportive professional learning community for high school sociology teachers. The ASA has a listserv that brings together over 450 high school sociology teachers from across the country. We have shared strategies, assessments, and resources through the listserv. Teachers have assisted each other by sharing activities such as “Sociology Can Help Us Understand What's Happening” and “Coronavirus and Sociologists in the News.” The ASA has allowed free access to TRAILS, a repository of peer-reviewed teaching resources, providing high school teachers with thousands more means to connect with students online. Finally, the ASA has a webpage for high school teachers, providing lessons from recent National Council for the Social Studies conferences and other relevant resources.

While we are all adjusting to delivering instruction online, we are learning that there are some aspects of the learning experience that cannot be replaced. Relationship-building through verbal and nonverbal daily interactions and the subtleties of body language and facial expressions are lost. While this transition may enable students to be more prepared for the technological requirements of college, we worry about the loss of the human factor in learning, such as adjusting to the range of learners in the room, negotiating personalities of classmates, and responding to social cues provided by teachers. It remains to be seen how this unprecedented time may shape public schools in the future, but if we are able to combine the best practices we used before the pandemic with the additional technological skills we are acquiring, the education system will survive and maybe be better for it.