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The Struggle Is Real: A Partnership Dean Tackles This Fall’s Steep Social-Emotional Learning Curve

Fiona Chalmers is an experienced classroom teacher and the Academic Dean of St. Athanasius School in The Bronx. In that role, she’s helping students and teachers navigate the significant adjustment back to full in-person learning this fall, and she shares her insights on the challenges she’s seeing—along with the approaches she and St. Athanasius colleagues are finding to help.

The first month of school has been a struggle for many students to adjust. For students who learned remotely last year, being back in person means being back on a schedule and needing to have the stamina to make it through an eight-hour day where you are being told what to do for most of it and being asked to work hard for the entire day. More than anything, we’ve seen how kids are struggling to have appropriate interactions and make friends independently.

At the beginning of the year, I talked with my fellow Partnership Schools’ deans about what we anticipated the transitions for students, teachers, and school leaders would demand of us. I hypothesized that we would need “patient urgency.” Now, a little over a month later, we have a clearer idea of what that means.

When I think of the many examples of student behaviors that demand patient urgency from teachers and leaders, I think about a first grader who started the year with almost constantly disruptive behavior. He refused to do work in the first few days, was mean to his peers and teachers, and struggled overall to acclimate to our school. His behavior needed urgent change—but a patient approach. After we took the time to ask questions, we discovered that he thought acting out would make us call his parents so he could go home. It became clear that he loved his time in remote learning because both his parents were home with him all day, and he got to spend more time with them than ever before.

Most conversations with students regarding their disruptive behavior are direct; they focus on the behavior that needs to stop. This young student needed the time and space to talk about it, to get to the heart of the problem so we could move forward and address the real issue at hand. We were urgently clear that his disruptive and mean behavior would not be tolerated at our school, but we were patient enough to take the time to understand why he was acting out. Evidently he felt seen and heard, and since then he has really settled into his class.

Teachers have needed to prioritize like never before.


Teachers have needed to exercise their patience more so this year than ever before. Knowing that many students did not experience a normal school year last year, whether they were remote or in person in smaller, more informal classes, we’ve all had to be realistic about where our students are starting this year from the social and emotional standpoint, in addition to academics. Teachers have needed to prioritize like never before—to think hard about all the behaviors we are seeing that are not aligned with our values and root beliefs and to choose carefully which we strategically work on first. For many of our teachers, prioritization work has helped them lean further into their support system to help identify problems and set next steps for the students.

Like in any school year, this year has required teachers to be even more concise when they explicitly teach students their expectations. Patient urgency has also called on teachers to be realistic about the amount of support students will need to reach their expectations.

Every day, we’re calculating how to lessen the scaffolds to transfer more ownership onto students so that they are still able to reach the high expectations we set. For many of our older students, it’s been supporting students’ organizational skills. Although older students know how to pack themselves at the end of the day, we watched many teachers support students by carving out time to make sure all the books that were needed for homework were packed. As students have settled into this year, it’s become more routine to get those books out on their desk before grabbing their backpacks. For some of our younger students, at the beginning of the year the support was writing their name in highlighter so they can trace it correctly. Now students are able to correctly form the letters in their name independently. These supports have been instrumental for student growth, and strategically scaling them back is just as crucial.

As a leader, patient urgency is knowing things are not as clean or polished as we may have envisioned for this point of the year, but knowing that there are small wins each day for students, staff, and parents. Having patient urgency about the future is key. We know that in order to move fast, we first must move slow. We need to go back to basics and make sure we master those things before our students are ready to take on even bigger goals.

Most teachers are doers…and this pandemic has reminded us that there is a time to move fast and a time to move slow.


One of the ways I think we’ve been able to really support teachers in building their patient urgency is to first have a clear vision of what excellence looks like—first as a school, then as individual classrooms. Teachers have spent more time in collaboration with one another this year, and I think it’s extremely helpful for them to understand where students left off the year before and what comes after students leave their class. Knowing these things really helps teachers scaffold student ownership so that it is manageable for all students.

We’ve also continued a practice we really focused on last year: getting all the frustration out by listing our problems and identifying the things that are within our control and the things that are not. This most definitely does not mean that we let things slide, but rather that we have really focused our energy into the things that we knew we could change and into supports that were manageable from the school perspective. Taking the time to collaborate with parents and hold the expectations for them to be partners in their child’s education is also making a difference.

Most teachers are doers—movers and shakers—and this pandemic has reminded us that there is a time to move fast and a time to move slow. Being able to distinguish when each is needed is hard but necessary when it comes to having patient urgency.

We are holding onto patience that students aren’t where we want them to be, but we are also being urgent about how we are going to move forward strategically. Patient urgency is knowing that our kids are not there quite yet, but holding onto the belief that each of them will get there one day.