When I think back to my time as a teacher, the images that come to mind first are students huddled together over a favorite shared book, individual high-fives as a morning greeting as the kids filed into the classroom, and the feeling of chalk on my fingers at the end of the day. Today, due to COVID-19, the ideas of classroom, educator, and schools have fundamentally changed from my memories, perhaps for a very long time.

For many families, educators are the most direct line of communication as they navigate these uncertain times.

As I’ve sheltered in place with the rest of the country and world over the past two months, I’ve reflected on how grateful I am to those who are still keeping the world moving: health workers, grocery store and restaurant teams, transit workers, parents, and—last but not least—teachers. According to a survey by Be Clear commissioned by the Schusterman Family Foundation, 90% of American families have transitioned to remote learning, and 63% of them are receiving guidance and resources directly from their children’s teachers (compared to ~25% who say they’re hearing from their school districts or principals). For many families, educators are the most direct line of communication as they navigate these uncertain times.

To wrap up Teacher Appreciation Month, we wanted to celebrate and highlight stories of educators who are playing a critical role in supporting and teaching their students. As funders of teacher preparation and professional learning organizations, it makes us incredibly proud to see the positive impact that teachers continue to have during this difficult time. 

These stories remind us that human connection and relationships are central to the work of teaching and learning, regardless of whether it happens in or out-of-school. 

Working harder than ever

Not going into a school building may be saving teachers a bit of time, but it’s clear that most teachers are working harder than ever before to support student learning and needs. From increased communication with students and their families to navigating new technologies, increased instructional planning, and a deeper focus on supporting students’ basic and socioemotional needs, a teacher’s workload has become heavier and more expansive during the pandemic.

Many of us experienced a shift in our “work-life” balance when work moved into our homes. Teachers are no different; many teachers have made themselves frequently available online in order to support students’ needs during this time. This has often meant being flexible about traditional “work hours” given that not all students have access to the Internet at the same time. And even though they are no longer seeing students in school buildings, teachers are still prioritizing in-person connection. EdWeek found that more than “1 in 5 elementary teachers… have communicated with their students in-person, with social distancing, through car parades, neighborhood wave-and-walks, and other approaches.”

Jimmel Williams

Jimmel Williams with students in his classroom in Charlotte, North Carolina

Jimmel Williams, an expanded-impact teacher at a Public Impact-supported Opportunity Culture School in Charlotte, North Carolina, has risen to the challenge of staying deeply connected to 212 students now learning from home; in the first week and a half at home, he sent more than 2,000 emails and created 45 instructional videos, on top of the library he already had, all while supporting other math teachers at his school. He uses videoconferencing for live instruction of small groups or individual students, and he surveys his students to see how his techniques work for them. One survey showed that “they really miss their peers; they miss being able to just laugh and cut up. They’re also very concerned and very anxious, [but] a lot of students said it makes them feel less anxious when they are doing work.”

Maintaining consistency for students

In the early days of the school shutdown, Fred Hoffmann, a multi-classroom leader in High Point, North Carolina, focused on providing strong support for his teacher team through Zoom meetings and personal emails. As a high-performing teacher within the Opportunity Culture model, his job was to help the team of teachers he mentored to plan a consistent workflow that maintained the habits and routines they had already established for their students. Using the school’s online platform also allowed him to co-teach with more junior teachers for more intensive support in the online classroom. “I’m excited for the general public to really, really see the type of employees and the type of people that educators are, and hopefully from all of this they really see how valuable this profession is, and they’ll invest in it a little bit more,” he said.

Jodi Grindol

Jodi Grindol, a teacher from Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, has taken her high-quality curriculum from the classroom to remote learning.

Models like Teaching Lab, which focuses on aligning support for teachers with the use of high-quality instructional materials, provide educators both the foundation and the confidence to sustain consistent distance learning with their students, leading to fewer interruptions in the curriculum and more ability to meet student needs.

Teacher leaders like Jodi Grindol, who supports teachers in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, continue to use their existing high-quality curriculum even when teaching remotely, taking the guesswork out of what to teach and freeing up time for student support. “Instead of spending time in multiple places to gather information for my students, hoping it will be the right thing, I am able to efficiently use that time helping individual students obtain mastery of the material.”

Focusing on relationships with students and teachers

In their series “On Teaching,” which features interviews with veteran teachers across the country, the Atlantic found that teacher-to-teacher collaboration was key for teachers navigating instruction and variable student needs during this time. Teachers were able to learn from each other and share best practices and challenges that helped their colleagues. 

Teaching Lab’s “cycles of inquiry,” a model of applying what teachers have learned in professional development and then evaluating their students’ learning as a result, is also designed to boost collaboration within teacher teams. This built-in collaboration and support has been critical when adjusting to remote teaching for educators like Doreen Solimine, who teachers kindergarten at Baychester Academy, P.S. 169.

Having teachers see themselves as students is, “a humbling experience often when thinking about school from the perspective of a student and a family,” shared Solimine. But this mindset shift also makes teachers better at building strong teacher-student relationships, which are critical for successful learning.

Amy Pearce

Amy Pearce (right) worked with her school's leadership team to support teachers by preparing schoolwide instructional materials, and students through regular phone calls and texts. Maintaining routines virtually for both groups has proven critical.

Similarly, teacher preparation programs like Alder Graduate School of Education, which focuses specifically on preparing teachers for the communities in which they will serve, create deep connections that are likely to help teachers during a time of virtual learning. Anita Rodriguez, an Alder alumna who teaches at Aspire Central Valley in Stockton, California, cited the strength of her collaboration with an experienced teacher and students as a major benefit of the prep program. As a co-teacher for the entire school year, she was able to “build amazing relationships with [my] students and families, as well as colleagues. You really become a part of your school community.”

Amy Pearce, another multi-classroom leader at an Opportunity Culture school in Edgecombe County, North Carolina, has been pleased to see her school’s work to build strong student relationships paying off, even as students were sent home with limited internet access in her rural area. She and her school’s leadership team supported teachers by preparing schoolwide instructional materials, and they are supporting students through regular phone calls and texts. Maintaining routines virtually—such as regular teaching team meetings and consistent class assignments—has proved crucial. “The exciting thing is our kids want this work, like ‘I finished this; when am I getting my packet, when is the next thing?’ Our kids need that normalcy, too,” she said.

Looking forward

More than ever before, parents and other caregivers now have a front-row seat to the incredible jobs teachers have done and will continue to do on a daily basis for their children. During this time, we’ve seen increases in teacher appreciation and a better understanding of the difficulties of the job. A new poll from the National Education Association found that 88% of parents approve of how their children’s teachers are handling education during this pandemic. And new research from OnePoll and educational company Osmo found that 77% of parents believed that teachers should be paid more than they currently are; 80% of parents also said they have a newfound appreciation and respect for educators after guiding their own child’s learning during the quarantine. 

Since its launch a few weeks ago, 100Kin10’s Love Letter to Teachers has been signed by over 200 leaders who believe in the importance of teachers and pledge to improve teacher professional support and development, classroom resources, and leadership. We at Overdeck Family Foundation are proud to have signed alongside our colleagues at Heising-Simons, Amgen, and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundations.

Through our Exceptional Educators portfolio, we support teacher recruitment, preparation, and professional learning organizations that empower teachers to unlock students’ excitement for learning. We invite you to join with us in honoring, celebrating, and advocating for the teachers who are doing incredible work to support children’s learning and well-being during these extraordinary circumstances.