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Navigating Survival and Transformation

Needed: Support for Teachers on the COVID-19 Front Line

Posted on: February 11, 2021

Written by Sally J. Zepeda (Ph.D.) and Philip D. Lanoue (Ph.D.), authors of A Leadership Guide to Navigating the Unknown in Education: New Narratives Amid COVID-19.

First and foremost, a shout out to our frontline health workers who have put their lives in the path of danger to save others. Their courage and relentless efforts will never be more valued nor forgotten. Unfortunately, the frontline of COVID does not limit itself to our country's hospitals. From grocery store employees, police, and emergency officers to business and manufacturing workers across the country, the risk remains of great concern to prepare for the aftershock of COVID-19.

No different than other industries, the return to school post-COVID will not be one of business as usual. The work needed to create healthy and safe working conditions alone will change the normal as we have come to know it when students once again walk through the schoolhouse doors. With 56 million students or ⅙ of the US population enrolled in our nation’s schools, the efforts to maintain and support teachers is of great urgency.

Leading the New Nation at Risk- Our Teachers

With all that said, a more hidden challenge is emerging at tsunami levels. Of grave concern is the health and welfare of our educators. Our teachers are at risk as they have been at the center of the many shifts as a result of the pandemic. With numerous shifts and the rapid-fire nature of decision making that leaders had to engage, school and system leaders will need to understand the dynamics to take deliberate actions to support teachers. The toll for teachers is multifaceted due to the social context of schools. The research is quite prevalent that teachers have the largest impact on student learning gains, but teachers impact so much more than learning—they socialize students, they nurture them, and they love them. What have teachers lost due to COVID-19?  Teachers have felt the loss of seeing their students, interacting with their fellow teachers, and collaborating with one another in person.

The Social Aspects of Teaching

People are by their very nature social. They grow, thrive, and make sense of the world through interacting with others. The social emotional and physical toll on teachers caused by the current changes in educational delivery and concerns for their students and colleagues grows by the day. Without deliberate efforts by leaders to support them, our teacher workforce has the potential to dwindle to a depth of no return. The turmoil being experienced is mounting due to confounding factors that have complicated their ability to be teachers for all students. As systems and their leaders prepare to combat the loneliness that this pandemic has thrust on teachers, they should consider:

  • Reaching out to check in on teachers as they need support, encouragement, and affirmation for their efforts.
  • Creating opportunities for teachers to interact with one another throughout the day by purposefully finding and using time and the virtual space.
  • Engaging teachers in decision-making about their work environment.

Because teachers are leading instruction in their classrooms, their voices need to be heard and their solutions considered. For leaders, transparent communication is needed.

What Today: In-Person, Virtual, or Hybrid Classrooms?

No question that the quick response to move fully virtual last March 2020 created an intensity to change education like no other force in our history. Leaders and teachers quickly employed a virtual educational system, with limited preparation and varying success. As schools approached the fall, new in-school start dates signaled to teachers that they could begin planning for a return to in-person instruction with new safety protocols. However, as teachers prepared to return to class, leaders were commonly put in positions to delay start dates. Start, stop, and repeat was the pattern. These starting dates were moving targets predicated on the level of COVID spread in a school community. Teachers could not settle into a pattern of predictability.

The challenges teachers face responding to changing learning environments—either in school, virtual or hybrid models—requires a unique ability to “code switch” teaching strategies as the learning approaches are so different. Additionally, it was not uncommon to see some students present in the classroom while others joined in by Zoom. Also embedded in this environment was a significant sense by leaders and teachers of students falling behind academically resulting for too many, a widening achievement gap.

We know the work of teachers pre-COVID was intense, and this intensity increased exponentially with the onset of COVID-19. Changing instructional delivery models has created a burden that cannot be overcome easily. School leaders must understand the wear and tear on teachers as they often are required to make shifts often on an daily basis. In many ways, teachers have been asked to engage in work that is just not sustainable for the long-haul. They need the support of leaders in

  • Rethinking schedules and teaching loads.
  • Creating instructional support as teachers move back and forth between delivery environments.
  • Reviewing and evaluating instructional models to make necessary modifications in practices based on experiences that support the local context.
  • Engaging teachers in professional learning and then providing appropriate follow-up that could include coaching and informal classroom observations with frequent feedback and discussion.
  • We know that teachers want to do their very best, and it falls to leaders to provide support that enables them to engage students.

Teachers Want to be Teachers

Teachers have always played an instrumental role in a child's development through personal interactions and learning opportunities designed to build both intellectual and social skills. However, when schools shut down and moved into the virtual space last March, the uncertainties created by COVID have shaken their world. Leaders now realize the challenges of teaching in a virtual environment and the anxiety and stress as teachers are experiencing because they no longer feel adequate which is tearing at their hearts.

Though teachers showed many acts of kindness and provided creative opportunities to see their students such as caravans and distanced social events, the realities have begun to set in and it is now taking its toll. Teachers are struggling to engage their students, and they know it! They often feel paralyzed and even hopeless to the point they no longer have the confidence to be the teachers they want to be.

Also, teachers are facing an even more uphill struggle as they witness achievement gaps widening at exponential rates despite their best efforts to create access and opportunities for their students. They know some students have even “disappeared” off school attendance rolls and realize the dire situations these students are in; yet, they persist and struggle to find solutions. Leaders are seeing first-hand the erosion of teacher passion to see students succeed which may be the single most impacting factor on their professional and personal lives. Important practices for leaders to keep the inner beliefs that drives teachers include:

  • Listening to their personal and professional needs.
  • Working with school counselors and others to provide on-going emotional supports.
  • Supporting their work with students with identified learning needs.
  • Ensuring students have adequate learning materials using current delivery model(s).
  • Providing technology tools so students can effectively access their education.
  • Adjusting schedules so teachers have the time to reach out to students and their families. 
  • Enlisting the support of school counselors, social workers, psychologists, and others not only to provide the types of services students need but also to reach out to teachers as a way to reassure them that their work is important and valued.

Leaders must become a visible presence to their teachers, reassuring them as they teach in ways that are new. Communication is what teachers need and want.

Teachers Want and Need to be Safe

The challenges to meet the social, emotional, and learning needs of students has created tremendous upheaval; however, a new reality has now set in—the safety of their students, colleagues, families, and themselves. Leaders are well aware of this need as schools attempt to reopen. Teachers know the importance of seeing their students in person, and they realize that transmission of disease between students and themselves is always present. They also fully understand the risks of being  physically in the classroom could mean the difference between life or death. Leaders struggle to open schools to meet the needs of their students while also knowing their teachers are being put in an untenable position. Simply put, in many instances teachers have to choose between their own safety and the safety of their families. Although reeling from the threat of being classified as essential workers, teachers feel no closer to being classified in such a way to be eligible for the first rounds of the COVID-19 vaccine. As a result, teachers with families are experiencing the emotional toll of possibly being exposed to the virus without knowledge of how, when, or where.

Compounding the work of teaching are new responsibilities. The responsibilities to maintain new safety protocols and diligence in social distancing are difficult. Further impacting their responsibilities is knowing that students could be showing no symptoms and the risk of transmission to families even their own are definitely possible. As leaders take steps to create and maintain safe physical spaces in schools, they need to be aware of the emotional strain on teachers that now exist beyond their teaching responsibilities. Attention to safety needs is predicated on purposeful attention to:

  • Procedures based on recommendations made by health agencies that support safe work environments. These procedures will help create a level of comfort and safety.
  • Processes for teachers to report unsafe working conditions.
  • The emotional needs (in-school and virtual) of teachers and the support that can be accessed vis-a-vis counselors, social workers, psychologists, and employee assistance programs.
  • Well-being by encouraging teachers to maintain work-life balance.
  • Although there is an abundance of information about COVID-19 and its spread, there are many unanswered questions. Leaders must make every attempt to keep current on new thinking and the processes and procedures to ensure teacher, staff, and student safety and well-being.

Our Teachers

Until COVID-19 shuttered schools, the work of teachers and their impact was mostly invisible to the general public. When the daily patterns of students attending school changed abruptly, parents, guardians, and caretakers and now politicians discovered just how much work teachers do every day.  We know the situation we are in is extremely complicated. Teachers are our superheroes, and it befalls school leaders to continue taking care of and nurturing their hearts and spirit. Without such efforts, teachers will not be able to do the work they want to do nor provide students with the support they need.