Opinion: Thank the teachers who supported our children through the pandemic
Teachers went from ‘heroes to zeros’ during the pandemic and return to in-person learning. Let’s make them feel like heroes again
Since 1984, the first full week of May has been known as Teacher Appreciation Week. Recently, and rightfully so, the staff who support our teachers and students have been included. I propose that appreciation come not just during one week in the spring, but year-round, and that it should extend to all those who work in Utah public schools.
One of the great blessings of holding the office of the state superintendent of public instruction is the opportunity to visit schools throughout the state and observe the hard work and dedication of the adults serving our children. From Navajo Mountain in San Juan District to Flaming Gorge in Daggett and Snowville Elementary in Box Elder, I have observed educators and staff in every corner of this state caring for the welfare and education of students.
My visits are a chance to meet with teachers and staff who have a passion for their jobs and a drive to see their students succeed. The best data about the impact of caring adults comes from conversing with the students themselves. Without fail, students share concrete examples of how adults in their school have made a positive impact on their education and well-being.
When schools closed to in-person learning at the end of the 2020 school year, we watched our entire system pivot to online and remote learning. All adults in the system worked together to get materials, technology, meals and mental health support into homes to aid families with at-home learning.
No preparation program or professional development prepared our schools for a pandemic. Yet, as is typical, our educators and staff found creative ways to support students academically, socially and emotionally. Because of the impact on most students and families of at-home learning, our state committed to reopen schools for the 2021-22 school year. Once again, our educators and staff stepped up to take on additional roles to ensure students could learn in person. While the year was stressful and less than ideal, having most of our students learning in person helped provide families and students with a greater sense of normalcy and helped our economy stay strong.
Despite these heroic actions, this school year has been even harder on many of our teachers. In an attempt to be more involved and aware, some parents, pundits and politicians have challenged the intentions of our great teachers. This negative messaging, in addition to our teachers spending many additional hours ensuring their students are ready to succeed and lead, has contributed to a system of educators and staff who feel exhausted and underappreciated. Many teachers have said to me that they feel like they went from “heroes to zeros” in the eyes of the public, while remaining unwavering in their dedication.
Teachers are called upon to do a lot. They must be subject matter masters. They must be pedagogical experts to impart that subject knowledge to their students in a way students — and each individual child — can understand. They must unpack student data to see where to begin each year with a new group of students and where problems are arising with this year’s class. They must stay abreast of the latest technological innovations and prepare their students for the digital world we live in. They must stay on top of an increasingly complex legal background that surrounds the education world.
Those tasks are important. They are the nuts and bolts of the education system. But the heart and soul of education is born out of the care teachers and staff have for their students. School teachers understand that parents are the first and primary teachers of their children. They also understand that they, as educators, play a supporting role in helping students become their best selves.
They fulfill this role not only by having a firm grasp on the subject matter they teach, but also by maintaining an awareness of the societal issues so often reflected in today’s classrooms. Teachers see these issues reflected in the faces of their students: a kindergartener whose mother is terminally ill; a sixth grader who has just experienced prejudice for the first time; a ninth grader who comes to school in tattered clothing and has no idea where he will be sleeping tonight.
Teachers and staff strive to mitigate these tragedies while also focusing on the triumphs of what students know and are able to do. They get to see the light come on in a child’s eyes when they read their first sentence fluently, conquer a challenging math problem, weld a perfect bead, perform a piece of music with perfection or understand a difficult passage from a work of poetry. Teachers and staff relish these moments of success and show up each day hoping for and working towards success for each student.
So, for the first week of May, at the very least, I invite you to join me in celebrating Teacher and Staff Appreciation Week. Let your child’s teacher know you appreciate them. Thank those who work in supporting roles in our schools. Even if it’s been a while since you were a student, let one of your childhood teachers know you still appreciate them.
Better yet, let’s show appreciation for our teachers and those who work alongside them by leaning in to be true partners in public education on behalf of each and every student. While we have room for improvement, working together from a perspective of appreciation is key. Our economic success, civic engagement and societal well-being depends on it.
Sydnee Dickson is the state superintendent of public instruction and has been serving in that role since June 2016.