The 2020–2021 school year is like a giant trust fall. Yet instead of deliberately falling backwards while hoping to be caught, we’re trusting schools to provide the best and safest educational option for our kids, be it in-person learning, virtual learning, or a mix of both. Beneath the worries, relief, and frustrations parents are feeling during an especially unique school year lies an amazing opportunity to let go and support teachers. Even though it's hard, we can send children to school, virtually or in person, with full faith that teachers, curriculum, and protocol will create a safe environment primed for learning.
As contradictory as it sounds, this wild COVID era of education is the perfect time for parents to back off. Never before have educators analyzed the school day as explicitly as they have this year. Never before has the pressure to teach efficiently and effectively been greater. Teachers know every moment of in-person learning is precious and can end at a moment’s notice. They also know that students learning virtually need information in a way that’s accessible, clear, and easily dissected.
Unless you’re an educator, you can only imagine, but never fully grasp, the monumental effort that’s been happening behind the scenes to safely teach kids around the world during COVID. As someone married to an elementary principal and who has a lot of teacher friends, I want to take a moment to give a peek at what it looks like from behind the scenes. I think it's important we, as parents, recognize all the work and energy they're pouring into the school year. While I know it can be hard to step back and watch it all unfold, your child really can benefit from you trusting the system. It's important that we support teachers.
Teachers are working harder than ever for your kids.
“I am working constantly,” says Holly Werra, a veteran high school math teacher in Wisconsin. “Not just on the typical grading and planning that I’ve always done, but on adding things to my new learning management system (LMS), to make my lessons as thorough and clear as possible for my students.”
Many school districts now rely on LMS, like Canvas, Blackboard, SeeSaw or Google Classroom, to manage in-person and virtual learning. This is new and intricate technology that most teachers had to navigate on their own and in a short amount of time. They also had to teach their students to use the program independently so parents wouldn’t need to assist. While this keeps the responsibility of learning on the students and lightens the load on parents, preparing a lesson in LMS requires hours of prep work for teachers.
“I teach in-person and virtual students simultaneously,” explains Holly. “I have to make sure all of my students have the same level of understanding they would’ve had in my class during a typical year, which means I’m always adding videos, assignments, notes, etc., to Canvas to clarify or add more detail to lessons for virtual learning days. It's so much more prep and requires multiple computer screens and a smart board.”
The extra hours are long and unpaid.
Courtney Dearinger, a high school English teacher in Oregon, who teaches 100% virtually, shares a similar experience as Holly. “Virtual learning, while definitely the right choice for my community, triples the amount of hours it takes to plan a lesson.”
“Teaching is like being a Broadway actor," she adds. "Just like actors put in hours of preparation for opening night, teachers put in hundreds of hours of planning and practice to do their jobs well. Virtual learning throws all of that into chaos, as teachers have to create completely new ways to engage with and monitor students and teach effectively. We’re doing it, though, even if it takes four hours of prep work to accomplish virtually what would’ve been done in 30 minutes of classroom time.”
This study shows 82% of teachers say this is their busiest year ever, and they've put in dozens or even hundreds of hours of overtime. (By the way, teachers don't really get paid overtime, which shows just how much we don't support teachers.) Teachers are pouring extra time into lesson plans and virtual office hours to ensure students understand new material without input from parents and to create a learning experience that mimics a typical school day. In short, teachers are working hard with the expectation that their students will work hard, too, and that parents won’t be involved in the work at all. Aside from offering occasional guidance, moms and dads need only be witnesses to their child working through challenges on their own or with help from their teacher.
Someone else has already fretted over your child’s safety at school.
Not only have they fretted, administrators and teachers spent months agonizing over every detail of students' and teachers’ movement through the building and how to keep everyone as contained or distanced as possible.
I know this because of my husband's planning for his own school, which opened in person. Instead of sleeping most of August, he spent his evenings evaluating, reevaluating and re-reevaluating how to keep everyone in his building as safe as possible while also keeping things feeling as normal as possible. Copious hours were spent in meetings discussing the details of safely conducting speech therapy, recess, music, and even hanging up backpacks and jackets.
As a fellow parent, I understand that it’s hard to quiet COVID fears. Rest assured most schools are maintaining sterilization measures that would be hard to duplicate at home. (Thank you, janitors and cleaning staff for working diligently to keep schools sanitized.) Please also keep in mind that teachers have to enforce new social-distancing and handwashing guidelines. This is on top of the routines and procedures that typically happen in a day.
Know that during these stressful times, a team of people have strategically tweaked the school day and implemented protocols designed to minimize exposure. While in-person schools can’t completely prevent COVID transmission, they’re practicing extreme risk mitigation, reducing the need for parents to fret over school safety and cleanliness.
Teachers are worried about COVID, but they’re more focused on your kid.
“I'm in a lot of online teacher groups. As teachers found out about going back to school face-to-face, I saw a lot of posts about what they were worrying about. It wasn’t getting sick,” explains Holly. “Most teachers are worried about not getting through all the material this year. Or that we won’t have enough instructional time. And even that we can’t work closely with our students."
No doubt, teachers are concerned about COVID and possibly bringing it home to their own families. “Most teachers put those fears behind them because they didn’t have a choice—they had to go back to work,” says Holly. “But those teachers, even though they’re scared, are still showing up every day for their students. They are doing the best they can in whatever teaching format their district has chosen.”
For Courtney, teaching virtually means her concerns center less on COVID and more on finding new ways to connect with her students. She has 44 juniors alone in one literature class (they take up three Zoom screens she has to toggle between). “The only way I can get to know them is by talking with them through Zoom. I set up 15-minute, one-on-one conferences with each of them. It’s my effort to replace the casual conversations I would normally have with students before or after class or in the hallways.”
There’s no way around feeling the differences of such a unique school year. Despite the worries and challenges of a new way of doing things in the real or virtual classroom, teachers will always find ways to connect with their students. It’s their favorite part of the job, and not even COVID can stop those efforts.
School districts are making the best choices for their communities.
As a parent, you may oppose or applaud your school district’s plans for the school year. Whatever your opinion, it’s important to know they made plans thoughtfully. They tried to keep the entire community’s best interest in mind.
“Even though it's really hard for lots of reasons, I am so thankful that I get to do my job from the safety of my home and that my kids are learning from the safety of their bedrooms,” says Courtney. “I feel lucky that my community of colleagues and parents have been so supportive. We all know it's hard, sad, and not ideal for so many reasons. But we continually remind each other that this is the right thing to do.”
For Holly, teaching dual in-person and virtual classes is definitely more challenging, but “things are going pretty well in my classroom,” she says. “Students have been fantastic, and parents have been supportive. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback in our district. However, we already have kids and teachers testing positive. I often wonder how long we can continue with in-person learning.”
Whatever avenue your child is using to learn, embrace it. Parental support makes a world of difference to educators these days. A positive attitude only helps kids feel better about their own situation.
Teachers are doing their best to support your child, so let's support teachers.
COVID has forced teachers to rethink and reinvent the way they do their jobs, and as anyone can tell you, creating a brand-new, yet effective, system takes an incredible amount of time and effort.
“Teachers are stressed out of their minds trying to accomplish all the work that needs to be done,” says Holly. “Some handle stress better than others. I personally am doing okay. I've only had one mini breakdown. Others are literally sitting at their desks crying at lunch. This level of work and intensity is not something we can maintain.”
“Teaching this way is stressful, exhausting and time-consuming,” adds Courtney. “But what I hope parents see is that teachers are stepping up to the plate day after day with their child’s best interest in mind.”
“I want parents to know that I'm doing the best I can,” says Holly. “They are also under a lot of stress, and I'm trying to have grace on my end. I know how hard it is for parents to keep track of everything. I have three children of my own.”
For teachers, “doing their best,” means not just providing an education. It means offering emotional support to kids who are struggling right along with the adults.
Making the best of it means everyone helps out.
This global pandemic has forced teachers to reinvent the way they do their job. Yet they remain wholeheartedly committed to their students’ education and well-being. Simply knowing—and believing—that your child’s teacher is working their butt off is so important. It gives teachers grace and faith as they make their way through the hardest year of their career.
However, it’s important to point out the limits. Even as schools and teachers do their best, they may not be meeting individual students' needs. Parents feeling frustrated should express concerns, but do so realizing schools are still in limbo. They're still in crisis planning mode as they overhaul the way everything is done.
Rather than bringing educators a list of complaints, consider how you can be a critic and offer support. Provide thoughtful feedback that leads to growth and considers the delicate psyche of those you’re approaching.
Finally, remember that the realities parents face—child care challenges, job loss, health issues, financial concerns—are the same for teachers. Many teachers, like Courtney, are doing their jobs with their children at home with them. We are all facing the same struggles and in need of the same grace and patience.
Somehow this year keeps getting crazier. Working together will help us get through it. Just like parents need to know they can rely on educators to help catch their kids in times of struggle, teachers need to know there are outstretched hands ready to catch them, too. After all, a giant trust fall only succeeds when everyone gets caught.