Teacher Appreciation Takes on New Meaning in COVID-19 Era and Beyond
As I’m writing this, I’m listening to my six-year-old’s Zoom meeting with her first-grade teacher. They’re doing a feelings check, a math minute, and a vocabulary game. I can hear the joyful first graders’ voices as they see each other and their teacher on screen. Right next to her is my eighth grader, who is logged into Google Classroom, working on an English language arts assignment, cuing up a video from her math teacher, responding to emails from her teachers—checking in, asking if she’s OK, letting her know that teachers are here for her and they can help—and noting the time for her Zoom meeting with her science teacher.
Like many parents, I’m trying to balance working full-time, now at home, with caring for two children who need to be learning. My dining room has been transformed into the schoolroom, and our big mirror serves as a whiteboard with the daily schedule.
Some of my colleagues have said how great it must be for my kids—they have a National Board Certified teacher as their mom. Let’s be clear: I’m not teaching. I’m facilitating, directing, guiding, and mostly managing. This is only a fraction of what teachers do. The really hard work—assessing, planning, structuring, designing, instructing, engaging, evaluating, re-instructing, enhancing, correcting, engaging, acknowledging, praising, dialoging, questioning, connecting, synthesizing—is what I would be doing if I were teaching. I could go on and on about what teaching is and what it looks like. But it’s important for you to know that I’m not doing it. My children’s teachers are teaching, but in the most challenging environment they could have imagined.
I’m glad more and more people are recognizing what teachers do in terms of instruction and learning. If ever there was a year to make Teacher Appreciation Week the biggest celebration ever, this is the year. I don’t even know where to begin to say my words of gratitude to my own children’s teachers, my friends and colleagues, and all teachers across the country. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Truly Appreciating What Teachers Do
When this pandemic began, teachers were given little notice to shift very quickly to distance learning or e-learning, sometimes with little or no training. In many cases, they had 48 hours or a weekend to reinvent lessons for an already planned curriculum, learn new technologies, find non-technology solutions to student learning, and figure out how to keep students engaged. But teachers are struggling; like the rest of us, they have to balance home and work and how to do their life’s work from afar while simultaneously caring for students, grieving losses, and facing major disparities as they do their jobs.
How do we even begin to appreciate teachers in this current situation? We’ve seen celebrity tweets and photos and blogs that we must pay teachers more, maybe even a million dollars a year. While it’s unlikely in practice, the sentiment is right about the value of skilled professional educators.
If you are a parent, a community member, or a school board member, one of the best ways to appreciate teachers is to not forget what this experience has been like. A year from now, whether we’ve resumed “normal” school again or not, let’s put this greater understanding of the value of teachers to work by rethinking the policies and practices that affect educators.
Value Teachers by Involving Them in Policymaking and Planning
Schools are just beginning to think about how to safely bring students back to school. There are enormous logistical and pedagogical challenges to solve. Now is a good time to value teachers as professionals by involving them as partners in planning, decision-making, and engagement and communications strategies. Last year for Teacher Appreciation Week, I said that we must “give teachers the opportunity to be part of decision making, engagement about the direction of the school, the school improvement plan, and the strategies around those pieces,” which “creates a lot of good will. More importantly, it also drives real change and continuous improvement.” We are in the midst of great changes to teaching and learning with rapid continuous improvement cycles. Who better than to guide and direct the change than teachers, the very professionals who know what is and isn’t working and what will and won’t be practical in the future?
Districts and states are beginning to consider calendar, schedule, facility, and staffing changes. Students may come to school in shifts, with a half a day in school and half a day of virtual learning. Districts and states may need more robust virtual learning plans, in-depth professional development for teachers on remote teaching and learning, and time spent adjusting curriculum. They must involve their teachers. Listen to them. They have the best ideas. They will know the details about the best use of classroom spaces, ways to adjust curriculum, and how to helps students be safe and feel safe.
Strengthening the Teacher Pipeline and Teacher Preparation
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we saw recruitment and retention challenges for teachers. Districts and states should learn from that experience now by considering their policies to retain, recruit, and support top talent. If full-time virtual schooling or a hybrid of virtual and in-person instruction extends into the fall, teachers will need robust, deep, and substantive professional development in engaging students, reshaping curriculum, and varying instruction for kids who have been in wildly different situations this spring.
At the other end of spectrum are those newest to the profession, who might be emerging from teacher preparation programs without having the opportunity to complete clinical experiences this spring. These new teachers will be hired by districts—many of which were already facing teacher shortages before this crisis. The first year of teaching is always really hard, and the 2020-21 school year is likely to be doubly hard. New teachers will need much more support than districts typically provide. Mentoring and induction programs will need shoring up.
At AIR, we are already supporting teachers, districts, and states as they confront challenges now and yet to come. For example, a webinar series from the Center for Great Teachers and Leaders presents strategies educators can use for trauma-informed practices to care for themselves and their students, including tools and resources. Look for more information on these and other important topics in the next few months.
While we might not have a million dollars per teacher salary, the very least we can do this year for Teacher Appreciation Week is send an email, create a social media post, or leave a voicemail to say thank you to our teachers. A million thank yous can go a long way toward acknowledging and celebrating every teacher everywhere.
Gretchen Weber, vice president for Policy, Practice, and Systems Change at AIR, has always championed teachers and advocated for meaningful teacher appreciation every day of the year. A National Board Certified teacher, she now focuses on building and growing AIR’s work in teacher and leader development, college and career readiness, and personalized learning. She also works with states and districts on improving educator effectiveness systems through career pathways and teacher leadership, micro-credentials, STEM, and education technology.