With all the stories this week about how teachers went above and beyond this year, it’s tempting to see teachers as superheroes. But it’s important to remember that they’re not superhuman. Teachers need acknowledgment, gratitude, and, most importantly, support every single week of the year, so they can continue to do their critical work for our students and our communities.
When Stephany Hume arrived at the hospital for emergency surgery in December, she wasn’t thinking about herself. She was thinking about her fifth-grade students, and the book they had yet to finish. “I thought ‘I can’t leave these poor kids hanging,’” she told reporters, after her 11-day stint teaching from a hospital bed caught the attention of the media and warmed the hearts of a pandemic-weary public.
Her story is inspiring—and unsurprising to anyone who knows teachers.
If there’s one good thing to come out of this incredibly difficult year, it’s the renewed appreciation we have for the heroic work that our teachers do every day. As the often invisible frontline worker, teachers have persevered through unpredictable schedules, ever-changing guidelines, and unimaginable trauma to provide hope, stability, and support to their students.
This Teacher Appreciation Week, it’s more important than ever to recognize the selfless and critical work that teachers do for students, families, and communities. But appreciation is not enough—we must also listen to and learn from the teachers in our lives, and do everything we can to make the noblest profession as rewarding and empowering as possible.
There is a very strong sense of social solidarity at the moment; people recognising how we all depend on each other.
– Professor Tony Gallagher, Queen’s University Belfast
Learn from teachers’ resilience
Teachers are the greatest driving force behind learning. And they have taught us all a lot this year.
As a digital learning company, we had a front-row seat to many of the ways teachers used technology to meet students where they are and embrace and celebrate their differences. From teaching tactile concepts in a digital environment to orienting children to COVID safety protocols in fun and age-appropriate ways, teachers were masters of innovation and resilience. They found new ways to engage students who learn at different speeds and struggled to adjust to unsettling circumstances and new environments. “Instead of being so focused on making sure all the kids get the same thing,” said Amanda Brooks, Virtual Support Specialist Counselor at AVA in Georgia, “Individual kids get what they need.”
A recent study by the University of Texas at Austin on Trauma, Teacher Stress, and COVID-19 found day-to-day student connections are a big part of why teachers teach. And when schools went remote last spring, they really missed that connection. But teachers adapted quickly, using technology to scale their time with students and offer safe, consistent, individual support. “Our teachers are always in beta mode. So they're never done,” said Lesley Clifton, Director of Online Learning at Classical Academy in California. “They're always learning, trying, growing.”
While educators are increasingly confident that we won’t have to return to an all-remote model, teachers have seen firsthand how different kinds of students shine in different environments—and they’re adjusting their approach accordingly. “We’re learning that some students just need to learn a little bit differently than everyone around them,” said Jamie Max, Director of District 308 in Illinois.
When we talk about teachers and teaching, it’s not just the students they’re impacting, they’re engaging and impacting families and—by extension—whole communities.
– Kimberlin Rivers, Vice President, Instruction at Weld North Education
Uplift teachers as pillars of the community
While teachers are known for juggling increasingly difficult circumstances with magnificent grace, teaching is still undervalued.
An Ipsos/USA Today poll found that nearly three-quarters of Americans said that a teacher had a significant, positive impact on their life, and a majority believed teachers are not fairly compensated for their work. And their belief is borne out in the data, which shows that teachers in many parts of the country earn less than the family living wage. “The profession isn’t as respected as it used to be, when teachers were pillars of the community,” said Kimberlin Rivers, Vice President, Instruction at Weld North Education.
But the pandemic has introduced a shift in the public narrative around essential workers, and teachers are no exception. “During a crisis, assumptions start to fall apart a little bit and people start to question things they had previously accepted and taken for granted,” Queen’s University Belfast Professor Tony Gallagher, who tracked the shifting public perceptions of teachers during COVID, said. “There is a very strong sense of social solidarity at the moment; people recognising how we all depend on each other.”
We’ve always known that teachers have influence extending far beyond their stated role. The numerous roles teachers play for students and the community—mentor, coach, counselor, social worker—were brought into sharper focus this past year as the pandemic underscored many systemic issues in American education.
“When we talk about teachers and teaching, it’s not just the students they’re impacting,” Rivers said. “They’re engaging and impacting families and—by extension—whole communities.”
We need to find ways to embrace flexibility and give teachers more, not fewer, options for when and how they connect with their students.
Advocate for a more supportive, flexible future for the profession
While professionals in other fields benefit from pandemic-induced workplace flexibility, teachers will likely return to a more rigid schedule as they head back into the classroom. But schools can and should learn from this experience and find ways to use technology to create efficiencies and flexibility for their teachers.
In a piece titled “Why Schools Should Embrace Flexibility and Innovation Beyond COVID-19,” the Urban Institute argued that making flexible school options permanent could benefit many students, including the significant portion of students who work while attending school.
The same argument could be made for teachers, who are already dealing with enormous amounts of stress and burnout. According to the 2019 PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, half of public-school teachers were considering quitting their jobs before COVID. And the stress of the pandemic has only intensified the crisis. Retirements are up, morale is down, and schools are scrambling to fill open positions as their teachers decide not to return to the classroom in the fall. If we want to keep teachers in the profession, we need to find ways to embrace flexibility and give teachers more, not fewer, options for when and how they connect with their students.