When I made the transition from teacher to administrator, I received some very important advice. It was 25 years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday.
A star-eyed teacher in her twenties, I remember rushing down the hall of the school to find my mentor and department head, Ms. Shiftlet, to tell her that I had been promoted to vice-principal. I was expecting a huge hug and congratulations, and although I was greeted with a huge hug, the words she said carried a lot more weight.
She said, “Boy, you better take your teacher’s eyes with you.” Wherever you go in the administration ranks, you had better always have your professor’s eyes close by. “
I wasn’t sure what she meant at the time, but her opinion never escaped me; in fact, over the years, it has become my philosophical foundation in all the positions I have held.
Shortly after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic,
in March 2020, all U.S. public school buildings were closed. Things would never be the same again. A new era of teaching in the time of a pandemic has begun. This phrase “teaching in a pandemic” is now common, and I see and understand the frustration of teachers when they recognize that the rest of the world doesn’t understand. They can not. They don’t have professor’s eyes.
It is sometimes difficult to remember the first months of the pandemic. Businesses shut down, restaurants closed, and many workers struggled, figuring out how they would maintain their livelihoods in the midst of a shutdown. Each industry faced its own dilemma: supporting employees and achieving business goals. Many industries have made it possible for employees to work remotely, which for some continues today. A recent study from Stanford University reported that 20% of the workforce will work remotely after the pandemic ends, up from just 5% previously.
But not all professions are suitable for remote work, and teaching is one example. Within two months of the onset of the pandemic in 2020, teachers switched to distance education within weeks. No one expected high levels of learning to occur because, let’s face it, the scale and speed of the shift to Zoom instruction was the start of one of the greatest technological learning experiences. Of the history.
If you had asked me in January 2020 how long it would take Richardson ISD to transition to virtual classroom teaching, I would have planned at least a full year of planning and another year of teacher training. Instead, we turned everything we knew about education into two weeks. Two weeks!
At the start of the 2020-2021 school year, our teachers at RISD were unable to work from home. While the distinctive quality of a teacher is caring about children and their learning, teachers are also people with their own health and safety concerns.
To anyone who might read and who has been given an extended period of time to work from home, recognize that your employers did it to protect your safety. Much like hospital staff, municipal workers, police, firefighters, grocers and other frontline workers, the public education sector could not offer such safety options to its employees.
As a result, our teachers resumed teaching in person on campus in the fall of 2020, albeit with only half of their students in person. The other half were still learning virtually, in what were called “hybrid classroom environments,” a mixture of in-person and online instruction.
For teachers, it was basically like teaching two different classes at the same time. And it was exhausting. At the beginning of April, I began to assure and reassure my teachers that we would never ask them to follow a hybrid education again.
This assurance came as I prayed daily that the pandemic would take a back seat as we moved forward with cautious optimism and the hope of a normal return to school in August 2021. And it looked like it was going to happen, until ‘that this is not the case.
Delta is now the predominant variant of SARS CoV-2, and infection rates in school-aged children and adolescents have increased. Teachers are on the front lines again, although vaccines have provided some protective coverage.
But a new reality now challenges teachers far more than even blended education ever did, and it is evidence of staggering learning losses that are expected to persist for years to come. Data tells the story, and you won’t find a neighborhood that is free from it. While frontline health workers may see some relief in their waiting rooms, the pressure and urgency are only beginning to mount in our classrooms and teacher morale is low.
In a 2021 research meta-analysis, nearly 70% of all studies conducted over the past decade concluded that teachers with low morale (or those with the highest level of burnout) also had the lowest academic performance in the main subjects. In the same study, 75% of teachers said that the current educational environment prevents them from performing at their best in the classroom. Even the most positive and optimistic teachers experience unprecedented stress and frustration as they begin to close a success gap that can grow to unprecedented proportions.
It’s the start of a perfect storm at a time when we need teachers to be at their best to recover from the pandemic and keep sailing. As teachers strive to diagnose and accelerate action to remedy learning losses, we cannot ignore the loss of self-efficacy that teachers experience.
There is growing concern nationally about the shortages of educators. School districts are still on the lookout for many vacancies this year, including those who quit after the start of the school year. This is unusual for this time of the school year, and coupled with the phenomenon of the Great Resignation, it is now leading to a shortage of qualified educators to fill the positions. More than 3.2 million teachers, 91,000 principals and around 3 million support staff work for public schools, and 40% of national principals and school principals describe their current staff shortages as “Serious” or “very serious”, according to a survey conducted on September 29. to October 8 by the EdWeek Research Center.
A teacher’s individual belief in their ability to produce specific performance results needs to be realistic and sustained like never before. There must be an equal balance between expectations and concern for rebuilding teachers’ self-efficacy. Walking on water for the past 18 months has been extremely difficult. But it would be misleading of me to say that we’ve got past the hard part and that it’s time to start a new narrative. Teachers need more of us. They need more than good wishes and to worry about their health.
Whether you have been a teacher or not, it is imperative that we all see things through teachers’ eyes, as best we can. Teachers see all the hopes and dreams of every beautiful child in their classrooms. They see the bright future of our next generation. More than at any time since the start of the pandemic, they need to see the eyes of the world watching them with gratitude and a plan to restore the resilience of our education system.
Jeannie Stone is Superintendent of Richardson ISD. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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