This year, we’re trying something new. Normally, at the end of the year, we round up our most popular articles, videos, teacher blogs, and social media content and write an article highlighting the top performers.
In schools and classrooms, of course, the sum of a year is far greater than a top-10 list of best articles.
So to wrap up 2023, we’re taking a look at the big themes that emerged in your comments and conversations across our channels. We’re digging into the ideas and solutions that you—teachers, administrators, counselors, and other school staff—praised and critiqued. We’re reviewing where you told us to do better and examining the stories, blogs, quotes, and clips we published that you shared with colleagues thousands—and sometimes millions—of times over because they resonated with you and your school community.
Here are nine big themes and conversations that lit up our channels this year.
Kids are (still) dysregulated
The post-Covid return to normalcy never materialized, and what to call the gap between what things were and what they are now was on the minds of educators in 2023. Many said it was “dysregulation,” and one teacher volunteered the term “disequilibration” before former sixth-grade teacher Matt Eicheldinger, after struggling to pin it down, struck the perfect note: “The cadence just isn’t there,” he said in an Instagram post that went viral in July. “The thing we’re dealing with most is behavior. We have these kids who are just so dysregulated, they become the priority, and you can’t teach.”
When we reposted Eicheldinger’s emotional message, thousands of teachers chimed in, sharing the post and commenting by the thousands. “I have been teaching forever, and I love how you are articulating the dysregulation I see every day,” wrote educator nibimom4. “Our kids need more help than we have training or knowledge or resources for. Still keep trying for genuine connections, but I wonder if I can realistically keep up this level of sustained effort.”
Can it be sustained? That question was at the heart of an article about dysregulation that drew tens of thousands of readers in the first three months of the new school year. “Kids’ behaviors are bigger, more intense, more disruptive than ever before,” said Lety Valero, a former teacher and school administrator. “And what I’m seeing is a lot of desperation among teachers. They’re exhausted.” To meet the incredible needs among students, Valero’s teacher training sessions are now focused on going “back to basics, back to what we know about the brain and how it works, focusing on creating classrooms based on safety, connection, and problem-solving.” For more urgent classroom management tactics, our audience turned to our list of teacher-tested strategies for calming a rambunctious class, reading it over 130,000 times.
Excuse me, is my positivity getting toxic?
At Edutopia we often talk about the importance of relationships in schools—and we’ll keep doing that because there’s overwhelming evidence that connecting to every child in school results in kids who “are engaged in more challenging academic activities, behave more appropriately for the school environment, are genuinely happy to see their teacher, and meet or exceed their teachers’ expectations,” according to a 2022 study.
Most of our audience emphatically agrees on this point, but this year, for some, the refrain started to sound a little stale—just one more thing to fix in an already overwhelming situation, teachers told us. “I get that Edutopia is looking to be optimistic,” wrote Brian Campbell, a middle school teacher who regularly joins our threads on Facebook. “There is a point, however, where it takes on a near-gaslighting posture: The reason your kids are misbehaving is because you haven’t built enough of a relationship, or cared hard enough to get this completely rational being to stop throwing things at classmates.” Beating the drum on relationships, meanwhile, doesn’t address deeper problems. “What would be more helpful is if school leaders created structures that allowed for teachers to connect with students,” Larry Heldman wrote in a Facebook thread. “Let’s start with a reasonable student to teacher ratio. Let’s get rid of the old way of one teacher per classroom. Then let’s provide students with a curriculum they can relate to and provide students with SEL…. Stop telling teachers that a vocabulary change is going to fix systemic problems!”
We get it: Relationships aren’t a panacea for what ails schools, and making relationship-building too transactional is “a recipe for failure,” notes high school teacher Larry Ferlazzo. The truth is, teachers can’t realistically nurture close relationships with every student, and some kids are difficult to connect with. Maybe by focusing on the aspects of relationship-building that are achievable under difficult circumstances—things like greeting kids at the door, for example, and carving out a few minutes for small talk or check-ins—we can honor the need without making it feel like an insurmountable hurdle.
In Defense of Pens and Pencils
When we asked, “What tech tool do you think more teachers should know about?” in November, you responded in droves on Instagram and Facebook, enthusiastically recommending apps like MagicSchool.ai, EdPuzzle, and Diffit, for example, the latter of which “uses AI to convert articles to grade level language,” wrote Instagram user @kdml.jpg.
And then, slowly but surely, dissenters appeared in the threads, speaking out in defense of more traditional classroom tools—old tech, if you will. “Pencils and scissors,” wrote @akbirchtree on Instagram, throwing a wrench in the gears and garnering 89 likes in the process. “Paper!” declared @piper.abernathy joining the chorus. “A mechanical pencil and spiral notebook,” wrote Facebook user Melba Harrelson. In retrospect, we should have known. There were clear echoes over the course of the last few years, with many teachers lamenting the loss of fine motor skills, others doubling down on the teaching of handwriting (even in middle school), and one drawing raves for praising the benefits of paper notebooks.
We’re big fans of tech, but it’s a balancing act, and kids need plenty of tactile opportunities to work with pen and paper in order to tap into the “strong connection between the hand and the neural circuitry of the brain,” says reading specialist Brooke MacKenzie. As students learn how to write letters, they get better at recognizing them—which leads to better “overall reading development.”
How to calibrate this in classrooms is an ongoing discussion, and many teachers in our audience are increasingly emphasizing the middle ground: “Chromebooks are powerful tools,” wrote @Mathcation on X. “But so are traditional methods and direct human engagement. Both have a place in modern education, but students definitely enjoy breaks from the screens.”
Cell phones in Class Are a Disaster
A few years back, a lot of teachers thought that students could learn to coexist with cell phones in classrooms—or even use them productively. By 2023, that felt like a pipe dream. “Some of my students are so addicted to their phones that they cannot separate themselves from them for more than a few minutes,” wrote teacher Peggy Nemeth on Facebook. “When I insist that phones stay out of sight, some of my students exhibit anxiety like drug addicts having physical withdrawal symptoms. They can’t focus on classroom activities because all they’re thinking about is the phone.”
She wasn’t alone. The consensus from our audience this year was unambiguous: Cell phones are a source of endless distraction in the classroom, severely inhibiting academic engagement and driving bullying and mental health issues. Even last year’s holdouts laid down their arms. “After decades of saying, ‘Let’s use this tool for good since it’s ubiquitous anyway,’ things have changed so much that now I am begging, ‘Yes, please, admin, take them away for the whole school day,’” wrote educator Suzanne Shanks on Facebook.
At the state level, cell phone use among students is so concerning that the government is stepping in. In Utah, a law proposed this year would severely limit the use of social media apps by kids under 18 in an attempt to hold social media companies “accountable for the harms being caused to our children.” Many educators supported the move, while some noted that monitoring phone and social media use should happen at home, too. “Let’s not forget, it’s a parent’s responsibility to monitor, guide, and take care of their child,” wrote one reader.
Many schools, meanwhile, have already made big changes to their policies, and the writing appears to be on the (virtual) wall. “For those of us who have had the privilege of traveling abroad, it’s apparent that there are many other bustling communities not nearly as tied to their devices as we are here in the States,” wrote Rahman Culver, an assistant principal in Maryland. “The data is clear about compulsive cell phone use and wellness—let’s turn the tide.”
This year, we sensed an openness and curiosity among teachers to change up the way they assess students. In one of our most-read articles, we suggested that the traditional A–F grading system was based on a “badly lopsided” scale that can result in discouragement, disengagement, and inequity.
Readers were ready to make changes. “I don’t often use [low-stakes] quizzes but this article is tempting me to start,” commented teacher Alex V. In an effort to make grading more fair, productive, and relevant, teachers at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Elementary are exploring ways to make assessment playful, an approach echoed by @Gratefuleducator, who wrote that she’s reducing busywork and “actually giving assignments that boost creative thinking.” Educator Lauren Sassafras, meanwhile, looks for ways to occasionally “forget to collect” certain assignments. “Kids will only read so much feedback before they just start staring at the summative scores,” so she’s purposeful about “which assignments will assess the particular skills they need,” Sassafras wrote. “If two assignments are similar in terms of tasks and skills needed, maybe only grade one.”
To reduce pressure and scaffold test-taking, teacher Mary Ellen Kanthack asks herself what each student assessment is really meant to accomplish: “Homework is practice, quizzes are practice tests and can be retaken. Tests are the ‘big game,’” she wrote. “If you did your job assessing homework, grouping, and attending to needs, no one should fail a test.”
Good Principals Are In Classrooms (And Some Still Teach)
There’s no substitute for the real thing. “A good principal never forgets what it’s like to be in the classroom,” said Arkansas principal Carise Echols, and readers agreed—to the tune of 11,000 approving reactions.
Staying dialed into the day-to-day in classrooms, a clear consensus emerged among teachers and school leaders, requires spending time inside classrooms or even carving out time to teach.
“The classroom changes,” wrote Ian Polun, a Connecticut principal. “It’s not about remembering when you were in the classroom in the past—it’s about making time to experience the classroom now.” When principals are frequent classroom observers, it reminds them just how difficult and unpredictable teaching can be. “My principal teaches a class,” wrote Texas teacher Kristin Shapiro. “Game changer for how she relates to me, and for her perspective. She gained so much respect among staff because she’s in the trenches with us.”
Meanwhile, classroom immersion helps leaders calibrate feedback so that it’s productive and realistic, teachers told us. “Challenge me by asking thoughtful questions regarding: my approach, style, and vision for my classroom,” wrote Dubya Frederick. “Visit my classroom one to two times a month to feel the energy and see the ongoing learning from within. And don’t just visit when there’s a complaint.”
How Do We Love Libraries? Let Us Count The Ways…
“Library kids are going to save the world,” said Mychal Threets, Solano County Library supervisor, on TikTok. Teachers agreed heartily, sharing Threets’ message more than 12,000 times and leaving thousands of comments in support of books and libraries.
His enthusiasm was contagious, inspiring an outpouring of library love that sounded, periodically, like homages: “Libraries, the people that work in libraries, and the people that frequent libraries are all mythical, magical creatures,” enthused Facebook user Rebecca Kay. “A lot of folks don’t realize how important libraries are and the huge impact they can have on someone’s life.”
Following the trend line, we tracked down and spoke to librarians across the country who are re-envisioning school libraries by making them hubs for community-building and connection, installing makerspaces and video production studios, and offering classes like digital literacy and citizenship. At the heart of this work is a concerted effort to give students a voice and build book collections that reflect the student body and their far-reaching interests. “This is innovative, creative, and right. Big ROI,” commented educational consultant Mike Rutherford.
In some states, the fate of libraries hangs in the balance. “Too bad our libraries in Florida have no books in them,” wrote school counselor Cristal Taylor on Instagram. In Houston, 28 schools serving predominantly Black and Brown students will lose their libraries next year as part of a state takeover of underperforming schools. The libraries will be converted to “spaces for disruptive students to watch lessons on computers,” reports J. David Goodman for the New York Times.
In the face of ongoing questions of funding and support, as well as increasing book challenges or bans, we found many librarians working tirelessly to maintain spaces that are welcoming, inclusive, and filled to the brim with high-quality reads.
The Importance of Brain Breaks
In 2023, we continued to spotlight brain breaks and their essential role in learning—highlighting great ones for high school students was one of our top articles of the year, for example, and our new video exploring the neuroscience behind brain breaks notched over 100,000 views. “Brain breaks are an essential part of my class’s day,” said fourth-grade teacher Ashley Nemeth, emphasizing that breaks are more than time off. “You can absolutely see a difference both in behavioral and academic performance if we happen to miss or skip it.”
After learning new information, “our brains continue to whir, using cognitive downtime as a virtual staging ground to process, organize, and integrate learned information,” wrote our research editor, Youki Terada. Breaks, though misconstrued as a period of rest for the brain, are actually crucial moments for “compressing and imprinting material to optimize storage and recall.” They’re also great foils to “cognitive fatigue,” which a 2016 study found can set in toward the end of the school day, “leading to a notable drop in test performance.” The science is clear: A classroom without breaks is a classroom where students aren’t learning as well.
With all the pressure to cover the curricular requirements, it can be hard to make space for brain breaks, “but I have found that if I do make time for a quick break, I get better focus from my students after,” says middle school English teacher Laura Bradley. Even 60 seconds can have an impact: “I only have a 45-minute block for each of my classes, and even though the time flies by, building in time for a one-minute physically active brain break has made a huge difference,” commented educator Vanessa Boone.
For Many Teachers, ChatGPT is a Lifeline
2023 marks the first year that generative AI tools like ChatGPT became widely used in schools. In the first fraught months, many feared they would sound the death knell for student writing, usher in rampant cheating, and put teachers out of a job. “We have to stop this. This will be the end of education as we know it,” warned Danny Robertozzi, a superintendent in New Jersey, sounding a common theme.
The dust around AI use in schools has settled a bit, and on Edutopia the focus has turned, unexpectedly, to teacher usage. “I’ve been using it for lesson planning, creating assessments, student handouts and worksheets, tables, everything,” commented history teacher Renee Davis on Facebook. Educators also report using tools like ChatGPT, Canva, Quizizz, and Diffit to save time, work more efficiently, and create engaging content and lesson plans. When it comes to reading, meanwhile, the technology is “super helpful for supporting kids in student-choice reading units,” writes a middle school teacher on Instagram.
The concern remains and is genuine, but current research shows that AI might not be as competent as we think—particularly when it comes to math. In a 2023 study, AI was asked to solve challenging math problems. The software could identify the right formula to use but consistently failed to identify the problem’s underlying assumptions, struggled at cause-and-effect thinking, and regularly flubbed basic mathematical calculations, researchers reported. Despite the hype about AI’s power, it turns out the technology may actually need us more than we need it.