I am a professor of education, so I keep myself attuned to what is happening in schools. When working with prospective teachers, I rely on my years of experience as a high school teacher to impart advice to them that may not be captured in textbooks. Throughout my career, this experience has been my greatest tool in preparing teachers. But COVID-19 changed that.
Throughout the history of education in the United States, there have been inflection points that force a fundamental change in the ways that we think about education. The Brown v. Board of Education decisions in 1954 and 1955 that required the desegregation of schools “with all deliberate speed” and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 were two such moments. I see the COVID-19 pandemic as such an inflection point.
Amidst all of the uncertainty, one thing is sure: education post-COVID cannot look like it did before. I am not the first to say this. We are different. Students, teachers, school staff, and communities have experienced immeasurable loss and trauma. It is not possible to press “play” and proceed. I am an “expert” in education and I am not sure how to advise educators and communities in this moment. But I do know whom I now see as the experts: teachers.
At the height of the pandemic, there was endless praise for teachers. We all saw how tough the job is and, for a moment, due respect was given. During the summer of 2020, things shifted. Employers wanted people back to work and families were understandably exhausted. Any resistance that teachers offered to returning to school for fear of risking their own health and that of their families was met with vitriol. Teachers went from being lauded as heroes to being labeled as lazy and unwilling to work. Now, when they express their own exhaustion, frustration, or trauma, they are told to take care of themselves one moment and to step on the gas the next moment to pick up the slack for perceived “learning loss” and vacancies in the profession often caused by burnout.
But the truth is that teachers have an experience that gives them a picture of education that the rest of us do not know. They have learned things about teaching, learning, and understanding children that those of us who study education are just beginning to access. They have always been the experts in their own experience, but this situation has elevated their expert status, and we must acknowledge this.
As our children head back to school, take the time to show their teachers true appreciation. While they appreciate the sweets, Starbucks gift cards, and Bath and Body Works sets, they crave your support and solidarity. Support for teachers looks like recognizing that you are on the same team. Most teachers are dedicated to your child’s success and are doing their best to support your family’s goals. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Never stop advocating for your child, but try to seek collaboration over confrontation. Let us make Madison a community that openly and tangibly values its educators. This will set us on a path to retaining our excellent teachers and attracting new ones. Dedicate yourself this year to encouraging your teachers and I will continue to dedicate myself to preparing new teachers who will be equally committed to this community’s children.