How Teacher Looping Can Ease the Learning Disruptions Caused by Coronavirus

 (Viktor Morozuk/iStock)

Aeriale Johnson felt a thrill as she pressed “send” on the Remind message. For about a week in late June, the second-grade teacher had been waiting for her principal’s green light to make an exciting announcement to her students and their families. “I had that feeling you get when you pop up from behind furniture as the loved one you’ve been planning a surprise party for finally enters the room,” she said.

The big reveal? This fall, Johnson will be moving up to third grade with her students, about half of whom she also taught in kindergarten. “The way last school year ended was harrowing for us all,” she said. “We were resilient, tapped into our radical imagination, and found a way to thrive, but it was most certainly not the way I wanted to culminate two school years together. ... I was happy to let them know we would have another chance to say hello and goodbye.”

After notifying her students that she would be their teacher again next year, Aeriale Johnson received many excited replies, including this one from Jonathan Anaya Valencia. (Courtesy of Aeriale Johnson)

Research has shown the importance of relationships to learning in a variety of ways, including student-teacher familiarity. A 2018 analysis of North Carolina elementary school data found that students who were taught by the same teacher for a second year saw greater achievement gains than other students. The effects were strongest for students taught by less effective teachers and for students of color. Johnson, who currently teaches in San Jose, California, first experienced “looping” when she taught at a small school in rural Alaska, where classes included students from two grades. She said having students for a second year enables teachers to understand children better and improve their practice as educators. After the upheaval caused by coronavirus this spring, and as school reopening plans remain uncertain and contested, the prospect of returning to familiar faces may be more appealing than ever.

Creating Coherence

Sometime in the late aughts, principal Jeff Gilbert attended a meeting at Stanford Graduate School of Education with his administrative team from Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, California. They were seeking input on how to redesign the school’s upper grades. Linda Darling-Hammond, a prominent education policy researcher who now serves as president of the California State Board of Education, made a remark that stuck with Gilbert: “She said the flaw in American high schools is their lack of coherence.” In most public high schools, students must adjust to a new learning environment every 45 to 90 minutes, understand the expectations and grading systems of about eight different teachers and navigate dozens of social settings throughout each day and year. “So how do you simplify? How do you make it more elegant? How do you decrease the number of connects and systems that students are trying to decode?” Gilbert asked.

Hillsdale students are looped, which means they have the same teachers for their four core subjects for two years. From May 2018: Teachers Danielle Robledo and Mike McCall have their weekly house meeting to discuss what's going on in the lives of their students in order to identify areas of need. (KQED/Samantha Shanahan)

At Hillsdale, looping became one of the answers. In their first two years, students have the same teachers for four subject areas — English, science, social studies and math. As juniors, they switch to new teachers, who, in most cases, stay with them until graduation. (Gilbert noted that there’s more variability in upper grades because of advanced placement classes.) This two-year looping process is part of a small learning communities model that the school implemented 20 years ago. It creates coherence that enables teachers and students to dive deeper into both academic and social-emotional learning. “It just really strikes you ... at the beginning of the second year where you see classes working just immediately,” Gilbert said. “This teacher knows every student. They know every family. Students are in groups. Students know each other. … It's really powerful.”

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That’s a particular advantage during the COVID-19 outbreak. Gilbert said he felt good about existing bonds among students and with teachers for incoming sophomores and seniors: “Even if it’s distance learning they’ll be able to get into a space where they are very comfortable with each other and they can talk.” Johnson, too, felt positive her class could start strong despite the pandemic. She already knows, for instance, several students in class have mastered parts of the third-grade math curriculum, so she won’t have to spend weeks assessing those skills.* She also knows various instructional and behavioral strategies that have succeeded and failed with each student so she won't have to build from scratch. “We can get started on the very first day of school.”

Building Community and Listening Deeply

The benefits of looping may derive in part from increased familiarity with peers, as well as with teachers. According to Gilbert, educators must play a proactive role in all of those relationships. Anybody can be a “purveyor of content,” he said. “You have to buy into the fact that you are also a liaison to the family, that you are an emotional support for the student, that you’re creating a community that lasts over time, and then you start to see those benefits of the students seeing themselves as a community that they can rely on.” At Hillsdale, community-building happens in class and in weekly advisory periods, during which students might explore career paths, share food and stories or play a game outside. This fall, with Hillsdale likely opening to smaller groups of students, Gilbert said the school will prioritize getting freshmen and juniors on campus since the sophomores and seniors already have a foundation of trust within their cohorts.

While some educators see community-building activities as an “extra,” Gilbert said that the bonds that form within cohorts have “a significant impact on their ability to learn and their sense of emotional safety.” For example, his staff does not see the same conflicts with group projects that are typical in most high schools. The trust that forms among looping classes can also create space to tackle tough topics. In the wake of this summer’s protests against racial injustice, Gilbert said he’s confident that his staff will be able to facilitate meaningful conversations on race. Johnson, too, said she’s excited to build on the foundations of anti-racism that she already laid with her third-graders.

Of course, looping is not a magic wand. Reaping its rewards requires listening deeply to kids and their caregivers — “not to hear what I want them to say, but what they are actually communicating,” said Johnson. When teachers do that, the learning is not unidirectional. One of the things Johnson has learned from her students, for instance, is “to confront my previously unconscious gender bias to be a more effective teacher of boys, specifically Black, Indigenous, boys of color.” Johnson also said teachers must be conscious not to relax into static views of themselves or their students. In the entryway to her classroom, more than a hundred photos cover the wall. When the building is actually open, her students marvel at the snapshots of their former selves, proclaiming “We were so little!” or pointing out big events, such as the first time they touched the inside of a pumpkin. If it sounds like being inside someone’s living room, that’s intentional. While many educators are wondering what school will look like in a few months, Johnson’s vision is clear: “continuing to grow together as a family.”

*Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly identified how many students mastered the math curriculum. We regret this error. 

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This story is part of a MindShift series that explores solutions for returning to school during the COVID19 pandemic, supported in part by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. MindShift retains sole editorial control over all content.