“Because we combine strong instruction with consistent and authentic engagement, our students are truly making academic progress during this pandemic. Their scores on early literacy assessments have significantly increased, shocking test administrators in this challenging learning landscape.” – Tiffany Dunston, a fifth-year teacher with Urban Teachers who teaches first grade in DCPS.

Last year, we celebrated Teacher Appreciation approximately two months into a pandemic. We could not have imagined that we’d be here a year later having had not one but two school years impacted by a global crisis that has reconfigured all aspects of our lives–including that of our schools and classrooms.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 school shutdowns, we saw the tireless efforts of educators who went above and beyond their job descriptions. School walls came crumbling down as parents received a front row seat to what teaching required, and what many teachers were doing even before the pandemic. Many parents, and some celebrities, called for compensation that aligned with the demands of a job they could now see firsthand in their own homes.

A year later, we’re no longer cheering our frontline workers every night, even if we know that many of them are still working tirelessly to save lives. School reopening conversations across the country have included a high level of anxiety for all parties and, in some cases, a lot of contention about when schools should reopen and how. As a former classroom teacher I can see how challenging it must be to navigate the constantly shifting landscape, worrying about my own personal health while also deeply wanting to support my students. 

As we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week in 2021, I think we can all agree that pre-COVID education left too many students behind despite the best efforts of educators. And while teaching during COVID has been challenging, it has shown some bright spots. Here are three themes we see continuing in a post-pandemic world.

Purposeful, impactful use of technology for teaching and learning

The pandemic forced us all online. Teachers, students, and parents have spent more than a year learning remotely, in a hybrid setting (in-person and remote), or in-person but in a socially distanced and masked setting. Prior to COVID, many teachers, like myself, taught in classrooms where there was one ancient desktop computer. A classroom full of laptops was rare and a shared resource for an entire school. Nowadays, we use Zoom as a verb, and teachers toggle between Google Classroom and Nearpod with ease; some teach in classrooms with half of their students in front of them and the other half on a computer screen. EdWeek’s recent teacher survey found almost half of teachers (49%) said their use of technology had “improved a lot” during the current school year.

Deondre Moultrie, a first-year teacher with Urban Teachers who teaches first grade in Baltimore acknowledged the additional time teaching online requires and the benefits it offers. “[Virtual teaching] is not an easy task but seeing that I can still have a positive impact on my students and positive interactions with families in the virtual space makes this all worthwhile.”

Seventy-four percent of educators expect that teachers will be asked to integrate technology into future lessons given the large-scale purchases and rollout of devices over the past year, meaning we’re only seeing the beginning of tech-enabled learning. But incorporating technology into the classroom, or having it be the only classroom, is no easy task. Educators have had to learn not just the logistics of use, but effective pedagogy. 

One of our grantees, Relay Graduate School for Education, had built out an entirely online campus three years ago with a set of best practices specifically for teaching online: 1) focus on building community, 2) foster active engagement, 3) pay attention to inclusion, and 4) differentiate learning activities to best leverage technology in service of creating an effective virtual classroom. In response to the pandemic, the professional education team at Relay created a set of two-hour interactive trainings designed to provide teachers and school leaders with the tools and resources needed to lead effective and engaging online learning experiences. To date, Relay has led over 10,000 educators across the country in these sessions, with 88% of the professional education workshop participants saying that the workshops positively impacted their virtual teaching and facilitation skills.

Enduring strength of teachers’ identities

Learning how to effectively teach online improved teachers’ skills, but it also required additional work and time. At the start of 2021, The Evidence Project at CRPE found that the spike in teachers’ workloads in March of 2020 rose high and stayed there. 85% of teachers reported spending more time than they used to on planning and preparation; on average, teachers were working six more hours per week than before the pandemic while morale continued to fall. For teachers teaching online or hybrid, the majority reported working an additional 900 hours (equivalent to more than one additional month) since the pandemic started.

Despite the work-life challenges, Educators for Excellence found in their latest Voices from the Classroom survey that 85% of respondents reported they are likely to spend their entire career as a classroom teacher. Exploring the strength of teachers’ identities as lifelong educators is what inspired our grantee Roadtrip Nation to launch their Teachers Community Hub, which brings together educators to share stories of what inspired them to become teachers and why they stay. 

Image provided by Roadtrip Nation

“Education is a huge focal point for Roadtrip Nation,” said Mike Marriner, president and co-founder of Roadtrip Nation. “Teachers are role models and inspirations to so many of us, and in an era of unprecedented challenges, we wanted to create a space for educators to connect, be inspired by real-life stories that center the importance of equity and representation, and share insights about how to adapt to the new obstacles of today’s classroom. It’s a place where teachers’ stories can be told and, just as importantly, heard by others in the field, as well as by students looking to pursue a career in education themselves.” 

Roadtrip Nation hopes this project is able to not only bring attention to the critical work that teachers do, but also connect educators across the country and help them build connections, navigate the classroom’s challenges, and embrace their passions for the profession. 

Stronger relationships in and out of the school building

Strong relationships within a school and a community may be key to keeping teachers motivated and satisfied. And these relationships will likely look different in a post-COVID world.

Our partnership with the Center for Public Research and Leadership has recently found that remote and hybrid learning systems in use during the pandemic have highlighted that the instructional core (historically between teachers, students, and high-quality instructional materials) has a fourth key player: the family. As a part of their research, teachers shared the importance of this fourth partner: “It’s amazing how when you partner with families the students are so much more successful,” said a public school teacher from a New England city.

Another grantee, Instruction Partners, found that relationships build the foundation for learning—not just between teachers and students, but also educators, families, and one another. In conversations with experts and practitioners about what it will take to accelerate student learning, a key takeaway was: Relationships and learning are inseparably connected. The Education Trust also sees building trusting relationships as critical to addressing the months of stress and missed classroom instruction.

This school year, Teach For America (TFA) recognized the unique importance of building strong relationships and supportive, inclusive, and rigorous classrooms, whether virtual, in-person, or hybrid. TFA used the first 90 days of its program as an extended onboarding period from its Virtual Summer Teacher Training program, providing corps members with intensive coaching that improved teaching and strengthened teacher-to-teacher relationships. Dina, a first year middle school science teacher who taught in a virtual setting in Brooklyn, reflected that, “Teaching during this experience has changed my perspective and priorities of teachingcentering on knowing my students, building positive relationships, and focusing on academic and social-emotional needs within my instruction.”

Looking forward

With vaccination distribution continuing to roll out, many teachers report feeling more hopeful. When asked about Fall 2021, 48% of the teachers surveyed said they want to teach in-person while 34% hoped to teach online. Regardless of where the teaching occurs, it’s clear that it will be different. 

Technology will likely be used for both teaching teachers and students, teacher-student relationships will likely engage the family, and teacher-teacher relationships may be stronger and more purposeful than before.

Like all of us, teachers have adapted over the past 14 months. We’re excited to celebrate them this week and all year for all they’ve done and continue to do for students and families across the country.

Photos for this post provided by Teach for America. Thumbnail image was taken by Tamara Fleming.