WRITTEN BY MARY RYERSE, MANAGING DIRECTOR OF SCHOOL SUCCESS, AND DR. LAUREN J. BIERBAUM, MANAGING DIRECTOR OF DATA, RESEARCH, AND POLICY
Teachers are the lifeblood of our educational systems. They work tirelessly to make sure our students are supported, learning, and engaged in their futures. In many ways, teachers pump life into our schools by constantly working to care for our students and each other. In remote learning—and in hybrid learning—our schools and our students have never needed teachers as much as they do now.
In remote learning, teachers are facing unprecedented challenges. They are working tirelessly to solve inequities within their schools, create meaningful lessons in the confines of virtual learning, and build care and trusting relationships with their students. To help delineate why it’s important to support teachers in this historical moment, we’ve decided to look at the issues confronting educators as we move further into the fall semester. In this piece, we hope to take a look at the national context and hold up encouraging examples of schools, districts, and states supporting students this year.
Why Supporting Teachers Matters Now
Every day, we continue to learn more about the COVID-19—how it spreads, who’s most at risk, and how we can all work together to flatten the curve. Recent findings suggest that children and young adults are no less likely to carry the virus than older people. This finding changes our understanding of the risk that teachers, schools, and entire communities put themselves at when school buildings re-open.
At the heart of teachers’ concerns about reopening schools are the health and safety risks of in-person teaching—and many of our nation’s school buildings are not equipped to handle the recommended safety measures. Schools in the U.S. do not have space for adequate social distancing and a recent report by the Center for Cities and Schools notes that almost no schools, anywhere in the U.S., have the high-quality infrastructure to maintain the air filtration standards necessary to prevent airborne COVID-19 transmission. Similarly, the U.S. Government Accountability Office notes that high poverty districts spent $1 billion less on capital construction in 2019 than low poverty districts.
However, even if proper air filtration existed, it’s become clear that ensuring the safety and health of our students and educators does not rely solely on curbing COVID-19. The school closures early in the spring created a cascade effect in regards to the safety and maintenance of school infrastructure. For example, plumbing systems, which were already degraded by years of deferred maintenance, were under-utilized in the spring and summer, increasing the risk of Legionnaires’ disease and lead poisoning.
The timing of COVID-19 compounds existing educational crises—as inequities between students become starker and as our demands of teachers move us deeper into an existential teacher shortage. Since as early as 2016 we’ve had data that we are on the brink of teacher shortage. More starkly, a 2019 report from the Economic Policy Institute predicted that by 2025, the supply of qualified teachers will be 200,000 teachers short of demand. COVID-19 will undoubtedly drive teachers out of the profession at even faster rates.
Indeed, strikes or threatened strikes in Detroit and NYC, sick-outs in Arizona and Florida, and calls for solidarity with teachers across the nation indicate how little confidence our communities have in the protections their schools have put in place.
Additionally, it is critical that schools not only retain qualified teachers but also strengthen and diversify their teacher workforce. The 74 Million notes “one of the most important factors in ensuring a quality education for every student [is] the quality of our teacher workforce.” Education leaders across the nation are pinpointing “problems and inequities, especially those that manifest along predictable racial and socioeconomic lines, compounded by the pandemic, as cases in point for the need for immediate reform.”
Acknowledging the realities of COVID-19 and the compounding issue of teacher shortage, you may be wondering how you can help teachers feel protected and supported during this time—here are a few examples of systems and schools working to build comprehensive support for educators.
Promising Examples of Systems and Schools Supporting Teachers
There are multiple challenges that hinder us from supporting teachers in the short-term and in retaining and recruiting a high-performing, diverse, and dedicated teacher workforce in the long term. Budgetary constraints limit recruitment and teacher pay, as well as the professional development that teachers need to grow and achieve as professionals. Teacher preparation remains inconsistent across the field, with too few opportunities for young people interested in education to develop their craft, to find mentorship, and to enter and sustain in the field. And the research is clear—all students, not just BIPOC students, benefit from having teachers of color, but far too few teachers are BIPOC themselves. While school financing and teacher professional development are perpetual challenges, the current context makes them all the more complex and urgent.
Given the constantly evolving situation—nationally and at the state and local level—it is difficult to craft specific recommendations that will work for all teachers in all schools. All we can do is watch and listen closely to understand what is really needed. We want to signal clearly to our partners—that we stand ready to support them and to hear their creative solutions. And we know that the right solution will in many instances be tailored to local circumstances.
We care about caring for teachers because it’s the right thing to do—because teachers are the lifeblood of our schools. We believe that supporting teachers is necessary for supporting students and key to an equitable environment. And every educational system—Higher Ed, State and Districts Systems, and K-12 schools—is adapting to support teachers better during remote and hybrid learning.
K-12 State and District Systems
Teachers and schools aren’t alone in responding to the current moment. Districts and states are working to create systems and standards that support schools, teachers, and students in staying safe so that learning can happen.
Rhode Island has continually proved to be a leader in remote learning. For instance, in the K-12 system, the Rhode Island Department of Education has taken a few notable steps to support teachers: transitioning to a statewide school calendar, which allows for faster mobilization if fall or winter transmission rates require a rapid response by schools statewide; creating time for additional professional development; and providing professional learning at no cost, so teachers are supported in implementing hybrid and remote models. Further, Rhode Island has created a statewide substitute teacher pool, so that teachers who need to exit the classroom can do so.
Meanwhile, the New York City Department of Education is working to scale up rapid onsite testing, although doing so for 75,000 teachers and over a million students is a herculean task. The district has also faced massive cuts to ancillary supports, although as of now, direct school funding is still relatively stable. And, in New Orleans, the city government is holding back on reopening in almost every sector except education, in order to focus on student learning and teacher safety as the community’s first priority.
K-12 schools across the country are taking innovative approaches to remote and hybrid learning. We are finding that while schools are centering teacher safety in their reopening plans, we’ve found that three themes emerge when we look at the schools successfully accomplishing learning this fall: safety, professional learning, and positive culture. Here’s a look at how a few schools are getting it done this fall!
- Brooklyn Laboratory High School is an example of a school promoting teacher’s safety through creative use of time, space, and technology. Brooklyn Lab is among many aspects of New York City trying to rethink practices in work, leisure, and culture. In fact, Brooklyn Lab was highlighted in the recent New York Times piece “The Hottest Commodity in New York: Fresh Air.” The article spotlights the school’s unique use of the outdoors as an airy reception area outside of its building. The area will allow students and educators to take safety precautions in the safety of open air. Additionally, Brooklyn Lab’s collaborative Equity By Design Toolkit shares more unique ways of mapping a safe journey from home to school. Better yet, this work not only focuses on safety but also on important topics such as student identity and agency.
- PSI High in Seminole County Schools has added full-time instructional coaches to support a hybrid approach (virtual and in-person classrooms) to help make sure educators are reaching students and helping keep them engaged. The school has also added co-teaching opportunities. Notably, PSI staff held “practice sessions” with their teachers to model instructional strategies and test distance learning.
- Crosstown High School, an XQ school in Memphis, Tennessee, is coordinating frequent check-ins, implementing a tech troubleshooting team, personalizing staff development, and delivering care packages along the way.
- Brooklyn Academy of Global Finance teacher, Angela Filarakos, said even if or when she is in the classroom she won’t have all her usual “teacher” moves to care for her students. “When you don’t have those little teacher moves there is more concern for the kids who are most at risk. When I feel better about how I can support kids, I feel more supported myself. I just want students to hear every single day, that they do these amazing things, and bring all this value to our space.”
- Latitude 37.8 High School, an XQ school located in Oakland, California, continues to work to advance its strong mission centered around hands-on, real world learning. Before the start of COVID-19, Latitude had already ingrained its sense of purpose into the DNA of its school. The culture at Latitude reinforces the importance of empowering students to ignite their career interests and collaborate with professionals through extended learning opportunities. Through their innovative design, unified passion, and focus on being lifelong learners—the team lifts each other up while preparing confident leaders, for college and beyond.
Continue Listening to What Teachers Need
As we’ve learned over the past six months—nothing is static, everything is in flux. The world at this moment is constantly evolving and accelerating. To adapt to that ever-changing world properly, we need to create ways to tease out what is working and stick to the established science of human learning and development. Yes, COVID-19 has required us to rethink how we deliver education, but we’ve always known what makes for a good education, and that hasn’t changed. Reconciling a need to meet the moment and a need to stay true to educational practices is a gargantuan task. We know that XQ cannot give you all the guidance, but we promise to monitor and study what’s happening in schools across the nation. Importantly, we will need to continue to partner with other organizations to do so. Together, we can protect students and educators in all during this time. We acknowledge that many of the examples we are sharing come from within our XQ network—we’d love to hear from you about what you’re doing! Please share your story with us at [email protected]
Calling all educators! We started a new community on Instagram highlighting the voices, learnings, and bright spots from teachers across the country. Check out @BestOfTeachers on Instagram!