In August, many Idaho schools resumed operations with the return of students, teachers and staff for in-person learning. Just over a year ago, these same teachers were welcoming students through a computer screen. This year, there were no more ‘mute’ buttons. The busy hallway chatter and classroom buzz were welcome sounds.
Anyone working within a school has witnessed the work and dedication that teachers have put in over the last year. These professional educators practically had to reinvent their own jobs as they learned how to use new technology platforms and change pedagogy to meet the needs of students who joined online lessons from varied environments such as homes and daycare centers. The workload for educators increased significantly. It wasn’t enough to show up on a screen for students. Teachers were making phone calls home to check on absences, provide mentorship for struggling students, provide individual feedback through written or audio comments, and countless hours creating supplemental materials and screencasts to manage absences or unreliable internet connections. Last year was extraordinarily difficult, but teachers rose to the challenge because they knew their students needed them to deliver.
In the short period of time since the first day of school, student and staff attendance has been dropping. These absences are accompanied by unanswered questions and concerns – is it for a COVID test? Is it COVID? Is it a cold? Uncertainty and inconsistency in the learning environment is leading many to question how long we can remain in person if staff and students are unable to show up. This is coupled with news reports of teachers hospitalized or dying.
In return, we are witnessing school board meetings and social media posts filled with divisiveness, uncivil behavior, and flippant statements about the health and safety of school staff. A desire to return to normal is often expressed and any measures to help ensure we can remain open are rigorously debated. The narrative that last school year was somehow wasted and that children learned “nothing” has been perpetuated. While online and hybrid learning formats certainly exposed flaws in the system, teachers should hardly be made to carry the entire burden. This narrative is also wrongly assumed as a complete truth, when in fact, some of the outcomes from pandemic schooling have resulted in greater attention to student needs.
When members of a school board cannot express concern for safety or recognize the work that teachers from their very own organization have put in, it’s demoralizing, and it degrades the entire system. For years, studies have shown the impact of a high-quality teacher on students’ education. When we don’t care about teachers, we don’t care about students. And make no mistake; when school employees feel undervalued and unsafe, particularly by their own leadership and communities, they will start to opt themselves out of this career.
Why remain? Rising tuition at colleges and universities has made majoring in education seem like a folly. For those who pay this price, along with hours of unpaid internships, they are rewarded with the message that they must carry the entire burden of society upon their backs, possibly give their lives along with their hearts and pocketbooks, but they shouldn’t complain because it’s “for the kids.” The teachers are not OK. Let’s begin by recognizing this, and demand change from those who continue to apply impossible pressures and demeaning messages that will drive out our best educators.