There are few benefits from our experience of the global pandemic that has afflicted humankind for more than a year. We have, in the United States, seen nearly three hundred thousand deaths, millions of infections, economic disasters from state to state and an unraveling of our national sense of unity. We have, however, gained a new appreciation for elements of our society previously taken for granted. We have a new regard for essential workers, for health care specialists, grocery store staffs, delivery companies and restaurant servers. Perhaps another side effect of the pandemic might be that we will come to genuinely appreciate public education and the teachers and school staff who have put children first every step of the way.
Historically, the nation has repeatedly insisted that we value our children and their education as the highest priority. In practice, those priorities are not matched by either funding or an appropriate status for those who teach and support teachers. Even over the past nine months, as we bemoan the impact of our current context on children, it can be all too easy to overlook or undervalue the efforts of our teachers. At BCP we have seen what teaches can do and are doing to ameliorate the harshest impacts of 2020. Here is an incomplete list of what we have witnessed teachers doing:
· Creating new ways to use the virtual context
· Seeking and using new technology and new tools to connect with students
· Working with other people’s children while trying to provide love and support to their own families
· Delivering food supplies to families in need
· Delivering devices that children need
· Providing ways of celebrating student work despite social distancing and the other challenges
· Meeting together before and after hours to brainstorm new strategies
· Working on new curriculum
· Finding ways to connect with children who might want to hide or avoid
· Supporting social workers and, at times, being social workers
· Encouraging parents who might otherwise find everything just too overwhelming
· Fighting against being overwhelmed themselves!
· Teachers brand new to the profession in September are working in a virtual context that adds to their learning curve: they have responded like veterans!
· Organizing holiday celebrations for students and colleagues even when they are disconnected form their own loved ones
· Fighting their own fears about infection
The list is endless. Many of the items on this list are not new for teachers, these are things they have done out of the spotlight for generations. Added to their efforts are the endless hours spent by our school leaders to organize, respond, encourage, plan and cheerlead, all while responding to the chores added to their list by school district needs. This kind of work ethic and dedication is not unique to BCP schools: it is happening across Baltimore and across the state in traditional and charter schools alike.
However, we should note that teachers are struggling. A recent essay in Education Week (November 18) points out that demoralization has been an issue for teachers for many years and now we are adding “burnout” to the experiences teachers are having. While we are trying hard to provide “self-care” advice and support for our educators, getting back into schools won’t be the cure. It could be a new beginning where we address all of the things we need to provide to teachers so that they continue to do their effective work. That will include raising salaries and improving working conditions. There was a teacher shortage prior to the pandemic: the current circumstances might make that worse. We can fix that by retaining the high quality people we already have but that will take increased efforts to address the conditions that have made retention difficult.
Vaccines are being delivered across the country as I write this. This might be what Churchill once called “the beginning of the end” but when our schools re-open, we will have new beginnings and new challenges. We will ask our teachers to minister to trauma, to social discomfort, to gaps in student learning. There will not be a return to the “normal”, but there will be a new normal, a new context that has challenges and obstacles we don’t know about yet but for which our teachers and school leaders are already planning. What we do know is that we have educators for whom nothing seems impossible. As we reconstruct our social, political and emotional fabric, a garment so torn by fractiousness, rivalry and foolishness, let us ensure that our regard for our teachers, and other essential workers, is not diminished but increased and that we show them our respect by raising them to the first rank of our citizens.