Early on in the pandemic, the hope for “reimagined” education and an overdue acknowledgment of teachers’ heroism dominated narratives about schools. Educators across the country were indeed heroic in their response to the pandemic, yet the empathy expressed for educators has seemingly waned, even though the burden on them has far from dwindled. Many are indeed attempting to reimagine education all while executing rigorous initiatives to address students’ academic needs, mental health, and safety.
In February 2020, the To&Through Middle Grades Network (MGN) was launched to support six public schools on Chicago’s South and West Sides that sought to create more equitable and supportive environments where their middle grades students could thrive. These practitioners took on the charge of reimagining students’ educational experiences right at the pandemic’s onset, and over the past two years, we witnessed their unwavering dedication to this challenge.
Last year, our MGN team focused on students’ pandemic reflections, but this year, we conducted empathy interviews with educators at our schools to capture theirs. We stuck to open-ended questions about their experiences—mostly, we just held space for our teachers, counselors, and school leaders to talk, cry, and laugh.
What we heard leaves us both concerned about the profound levels of exhaustion educators have experienced and moved by their deep commitment to students, families, and each other.
We are sharing excerpts from those interviews because we want others to hear their voices and recognize that teachers’ work is far from easy, and perhaps more important than ever. In their quotes below, four common themes emerged that provide insight into how educators are navigating the long-term impact of the pandemic on their work, their lives, and the field.
Centering Student Voice and Experience
“The pandemic offered a chance to connect with students and truly show them that I was/am available to support them, listen to them and offer them valuable resources … it was valuable to have a quick check-in where students could receive virtual support that encouraged them through whatever issue they were currently facing. The value and importance of this is genuine and has helped form relationships that have now grown even more that we are back in person.”
“The power dynamic is shifting towards students. That’s good, but part of it is because they realize that they can do what they want … Students realized “they need us.” If we don’t answer a question, then nothing gets done. Or if we don’t volunteer, then class doesn’t keep moving. It’s good that they have power and autonomy, it’s just hard when they take advantage of it.”
“...making student voice a priority and putting it at the center of our decision making [has] opened educators' eyes to the fact that students have a voice and that it matters. It has given our kids a sense of worth that they are in this game too. And have a say in their education.”
—Dean of Students
Educators are people too
“[The pandemic] was absolutely terrifying. People forget we are human beings and people with our own families. People forget we have the same stressors and concerns they have … During the pandemic, I homeschooled my daughter who was home from daycare, helped a 4th-grader with e-learning, and cared for a new baby while teaching 75 kids.”
“...as a leader, there is no one else to pick up the pieces. Teachers call in and say, ‘I’m sick and not coming in today,’ and then they are done thinking about it. I don’t just get to say that I’m not coming in today. The buck stops with us [school leaders]. It has really come true that there is no one else to pick up the pieces, and that’s why I’m so tired. It’s very lonely.”
“The real struggle was balancing personal life with the classroom because it had transported right into my own dining room with my own children. Plus my own fear and anxiety living through a pandemic and trying to put a lot of that aside so I could be an effective educator.”
“Schools are more than brick and mortar”
“I am so worried that districts will focus only on the ‘academic’ growth of students because of the pandemic, and forget that these kids need nurturing, patience and guidance through continued social-emotional learning and counseling if needed.”
“I wish people knew that we were so much more than just educators during the pandemic. I drove around the city for two months trying to find kids who weren’t logging on. We were distributing diapers and food, setting up Wi-Fi hotspots in people’s homes and calling internet companies. We reached out to families to find out who needed food and everyday supplies. We worry about so much more than just academics.”
—Dean of Students
“In March 2020, we realized that society depends too much on schools, and so when they closed it was a huge problem. Schools had to make sure kids had internet, rent assistance, Wi-Fi, vaccinations and we are still doing all of those things and trying to get students back on track. … I think school should be a hub for families, but right now we are not equipped to do those things and now they are even more critical, instead of just a nice-to-have.”
The Future of Education
“I’m worried about this public distrust of what happens in schools and in teachers and teaching. It’s inaccurate and not healthy. Schools are already underfunded, and this is going to drive more people away … This is going to hurt the kids. No one wants to be a teacher, and the quality of education is going to go down.”
“When they talk about burnout in teachers, it is very real, especially now … We are so many things to so many people, but we don’t have the resources to be all of that to everyone. This is the first year where I’m not sure how long I can do this—in the 18 years I have been doing this—it has changed dramatically but especially in the last two years.”
—Dean of Students
“I think the thing that worries me most is when people talk about going back to normal. We will never go back to normal. We need to restructure how we are looking at things. We have to deal with issues in students' social-emotional learning and the learning loss … We have to think about how we provide the services that our students so desperately need and how we close the academic gaps. We have to think about how we deliver instruction. We also have to think about equity. We need to move away from traditional assessment and the way that we are leveling schools, and think holistically about what students need and how schools can incorporate all the different facets of education beyond just the academics. We are about more than instruction.”
These reflections remind us how important it is to listen to educators and continuously update our understanding of their needs so they can meet the changing needs of their students. As one teacher noted, “We love our students and we want what is best for them. But we need help. Not extra work, but grace and understanding.”