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New Grads’ Pandemic Struggles Offer Valuable Lessons on Failure

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Rear view of the university graduates line up for degree award in the university graduation ceremony.

The first classes of students who spent most of their high school or college years in pandemic conditions are now graduating. Alongside honors won, credits earned and skills mastered, we should mourn the failures that we experienced along the way. Yet we should take comfort too, because we have learned just as much when we failed as when we succeeded.

Now we need to apply these lessons to the post-crisis phase of pandemic education.

During the past two years, many students learned less than usual, and some learned much less. Studies show that students experienced significant learning loss during the pandemic. And those who were already struggling more than their peers fell even further behind. The costs of this learning loss may reach $17 trillion worldwide. Some students will never catch up.

Students and teachers grappled with bad wireless connections and Zoom mishaps, with weak motivation and organization, and with the absence of the relationships with one another that help everyone in the classroom want to succeed. Too often, these challenges meant that students could not learn.

We suffered from social isolation. Although we enjoyed meeting pets over videoconferencing and cracking jokes in the Zoom chat during classes and meetings, our schools are poorer without the personal bonds of the classroom, the cafeteria, the library group study session, and the playing field.

We need one another to succeed in school. We need the knowledge and enthusiasm of other people to help us when we are too tired or confused to make sense of a new concept. We need the serendipitous connections of conversations in the hallway to address small problems before they get out of hand. Too many of those concepts never took root. Too many of those problems could not be solved.

Social anxiety and mental health problems have become rampant among our youths. School counseling resources are overwhelmed. Shamefully, Texas has the highest rate in the country of untreated severe depression among its youths. This problem has been building up for years, but it got much worse during the pandemic. It will take years to treat.

Teachers are struggling with our own mental health. As we mastered new technologies and pandemic teaching strategies, we also became front-line mental health workers for our students. But we can’t fix all the problems, or even respond to all the issues that students are experiencing. Too many teachers are exhausted from trying to stay afloat in a tidal wave of students’ suffering and loss.

But failure has also taught us valuable lessons. In the early weeks of the pandemic, when we failed and failed and failed again with unfamiliar technologies, how we failed became part of our classes. Did we see our failure as an opportunity to learn together? Or were we defensive, angry, or ashamed? How we respond when things don’t turn out well helps others learn how to fail.

Failing effectively is one of the most important skills that schools can teach. No one can learn well without failing well. And failing effectively transcends any one subject or grade. Our failures during the pandemic provided many great opportunities to practice that skill.

Failure is a value judgment not just about whether we succeed, but also about whether we value what we tried to do. Failure tells us what really matters to us.

From that perspective, the lessons of our pandemic educational failures are crystal clear.

It’s important that we provide our students with the resources necessary to learn. Most of us learn best in in-person classes. We need to respond to the mental health challenges of students and teachers. And we need to celebrate both the learning and the failures of the past four years. It’s not always clear which is which.

Deborah Beck is a professor of classics at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, Abilene Reporter News, Waco Tribune Herald, and the San Antonio Express News.

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