Educators balance the demands of teaching, parenting during a school year like no other
“So many things are unknown, making it difficult for teachers to know how to prepare. We’ll still be building the plane as we’re flying.”
As a high school English teacher and parent of a middle school student and elementary school student, E4E-New York member Ife Damon has had to process her school reopening concerns from many different angles. After the sudden transition to virtual learning in the spring, she had the same worries as many parents. How could she find time to support her third-grade son with learning new math skills, while also working with her own students all day? Even though her daughter was able to do more self-directed work, was she growing enough as a student? Her experience as a parent affirms that of her students’ families: “Parents and caregivers need support helping their child learn at home,” Ife says.
Despite these challenges, Ife says her preference to continue her family’s teaching and learning remotely this fall came down to simple logic. Ife was diagnosed with cancer in January, and her daughter has an ongoing health issue, placing them both at higher risk during the pandemic. Due to Ife’s own health status, she was approved to continue teaching remotely through 2020. But she worries about so many of her teaching colleagues who were not approved for digital learning, even though they have family members with health risks or unmet needs for childcare.
Middle school teacher Jasmine Byrd falls into that latter category. Working from home is something Jasmine never thought she would experience as a teacher--and certainly not while also caring for her nearly two-year-old daughter. On one hand, virtually inviting students into her home this spring was a welcome opportunity to connect with them during the “very depersonalizing reality of the pandemic and quarantine,” Jasmine says. On the other hand, she acknowledges the challenges that come with simultaneously parenting and teaching. “Being a parent and a teacher are very personal experiences,” Jasmine says. “You have to make sure that you’re giving each one their due time.”
Finding a path forward for this school year has included many long-overdue discussions about the teaching profession, Jasmine says. But some important conversations still aren’t getting their due time, especially about racial injustice issues in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Educators have had to redefine professionalism in so many ways while connecting to their colleagues from home, and yet, as an educator of color, Jasmine says she’s constantly dealing with a feeling of double consciousness. “It’s like I’m living in two realities,” she says. “Everybody is aware that we’re going through these crises, but it’s unspoken. Nobody is talking about the implications that it has for teachers as professionals.”
These issues impact student mental health and well-being, too. Jasmine is currently enrolled in a trauma-informed instruction course in order to better equip herself to meet her students’ needs this school year. “Being a parent makes me hyper-aware of what my students might be experiencing,” Jasmine says. “I want to help them feel safe and provide a space where they can talk about what’s going on around them.”
Teachers want to spend more time on academic instruction and social-emotional support when it comes to distance learning, according to Voices from the (Virtual) Classroom. And Ife and Jasmine agree that, due to all the challenges that students and teachers are facing, this school year is truly an opportunity for teachers to innovate. Ife has spent the summer collaborating with her assistant principal and department head to redesign their curriculum. Ife says that, in addition to sorting out technological concerns and finding the right balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning, there is also an important opportunity to engage students by weaving current events into their learning, especially long-overdue conversations about equity. “We’re planning to recreate our curriculum so that students can delve into the history of racism in America and explore how, as 21st-century learners and citizens, they can fight for change,” Ife says, who specializes in community-based learning.
Jasmine says this school year is an opportunity for students and parents to partner in the learning experience, and for teachers to rethink how they structure learning environments. She says that building a sense of community will be more important than ever, including time for extended check-ins with students. “This crisis has pointed to the fact that you don’t only need mental health supports during a crisis. I’m hoping this attitude will persist past the pandemic.”
It would make a difference for leaders in education to engage their staff in healing and supportive community-building opportunities, Jasmine thinks, which would acknowledge our unique challenges during this time, give an opportunity to connect on a meaningful level, and co-construct this new approach to education with intention.
In order to successfully transition to hybrid or virtual teaching, Ife emphasizes that teachers will also need support for their academic planning and use of virtual platforms. “It’s important for schools and districts to have experts accessible to turn-key this information to teachers.”
This school year can be successful for teachers, students and their families--but it needs to be planned well, and that takes time and resources, Ife says. “This is an opportunity for us to change what education looks like, and delve into the 21st-century skills that students really need."
“Parts of me are excited because this is an opportunity to restructure and reimagine education,” Jasmine says. “But in order to truly progress from this moment, we have to build, not remain the same. If there ever was a call to action, it is happening now and it has to do with valuing humanity and innovating our school communities.”