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Iconic Teacher Leader on Coronavirus Response

By Rick Hess — May 06, 2020 8 min read
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As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we’ll be looking to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

Maddie Fennell is executive director of the 28,000-member Nebraska State Education Association. Maddie chaired the NEA’s Commission on the Future of Teaching, launched the Teach to Lead initiative while she worked at the Department of Education as Teacher Leader in Residence, and boasts 27 years of classroom experience. I reached out to Maddie to see what she’s hearing from her teachers about how educating during the coronavirus is going. Here’s what she had to say.

Rick: What has all this been like for teachers?

Maddie: Intense! Educators are completely redesigning instructional delivery while constantly being thrown new rules. It’s like “flying the plane as you build it,” then strapping on a parachute and jumping to a new aircraft in flight! And many educators are doing this while parenting their own children and going through their own emotional turmoil.

Rick: We’ve seen plenty of inspiring examples of teachers doing amazing work amidst the uncertainty of the coronavirus, but I’ve also heard lots of frustrated parents saying they’re not seeing their child’s teacher doing much of anything. What’s really going on?

Maddie: Teachers are not sure what they are and aren’t allowed to do. One district says “Zoom is great; use it!,” and the neighboring district says, “Zoom is not safe. We will not allow its use,” while a third district has no platform ready at all. Some districts are grading assignments and trying to conduct business as usual; others are only doing review. And in some districts, the answers aren’t the same building to building! I completely understand the frustration of parents and assure them that teachers are also struggling to do the best that they can with what they have and what they’ve been told they are allowed to do.

Rick: What are some of the biggest frustrations and obstacles that teachers are dealing with?

Maddie: In Nebraska, we never actually shut down schools. Our governor said students were to stay home, but educators could report to buildings at the discretion of their school district. Our teachers were initially concerned with how they would be kept safe while still reporting to work. As we moved to “continuous learning” from home, and most districts had teachers working from home, they were frustrated with the lack of answers and continuity. Teachers were also struggling to completely change their instruction with no professional development and little direction. Students aren’t all attending virtual sessions for a variety of reasons—from lack of access to the internet or a computer to family members who are ill to apathy. Many teachers I have talked with are concerned about the students who may not have adequate food or are in unsafe living situations.

Rick: Can you give us a window into what teachers trying to do this work are experiencing?

Maddie: They are exhausted—physically and emotionally. They are grieving not being able to see their students. Many are trying to meet the needs of their own kids while also helping their students. They are worried about what their students aren’t learning, about their emotional health, about the gaps that are going to grow between learners. They worry about learning recovery in the fall. And many are worried about funding cuts to education that will hurt their students and could even leave teachers without a job.

Rick: What kind of supports are teachers getting—or not getting?

Maddie: Strong administrators are doing what they always do—communicating clearly, often, and admitting when they don’t have all the answers. They are delineating the paths for decisionmaking and involving teachers as much as possible. They are talking with their union as a collaborator. Teachers need everyone to TAKE A BREATH and realize this is a marathon, not a sprint.

Teachers need STRONG professional development on synchronous and asynchronous online instruction. We also need every student to have access to online learning with internet access and computers at home.

Some teachers also need help with internet access. We have one teacher who has to drive out of town to the top of a hill to get internet service on her cellphone. She has had the state patrol pull over to help because they think she is having car trouble, and they end up holding her phone so she can tape a lesson!

Rick: What advice would you give to educators right now? How about parents at home trying to wrangle their kids and squeeze some education in along the way?

Maddie: To both I say give yourself some grace and do the best you can with what you have. If you are struggling, reach out—to colleagues, to friends or family, or to your mental-health provider if possible. To parents—do your best to keep your kids happy and healthy without driving yourself crazy. EVERYONE is struggling right now in one way or another. No one is doing this all perfectly.

Rick: As a state union director, what are some of the issues that you’re dealing with?

Maddie: Communication. Teachers want honest and accurate information. We have worked closely with our commissioner of education and other stakeholders to address issues proactively, to get answers, and to amplify accurate information. We have also had to intervene when people are making poor decisions that aren’t based in good pedagogy or common sense. You can’t expect teachers to be teaching from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day online AND answer all calls and emails within 15 minutes! We are also beginning to address the safety issues around return to school—whenever that occurs.

Rick: Do you have any frustrations with how policymaking in the state around education and coronavirus is going?

Maddie: We have a great relationship with our commissioner of education and chief medical officer, who have been very forthcoming with information. We are also working closely with state senators and other key stakeholders to keep information flowing. I think my greatest frustration has been with those districts that were more focused on getting things done fast instead of doing things well. Those districts that took the time to take a step back and think for a week or two had a better transition than those who just raced into action.

Rick: What should policymakers in Washington or the states be doing that they’re not already?

Maddie: We are going to need significant financial support to continue retooling education delivery even as our states and districts face tremendous financial pressure. We need Congress to replace the lost state and local revenue to public education. We also need policymakers to help close the opportunity and equity gaps widened by the crisis and provide the necessary resources for personal protective equipment (PPE) for all educators and school staff who interact with students and their families.

Rick: Can you share a couple examples of what you’ve seen districts and schools doing particularly well?

Maddie: All the models are telling us that we are only in the first wave of this pandemic. School districts need to be prepared for additional learning outside of our traditional schooling models, and they need to be preparing for that now. On May 4, the Omaha public schools board of education voted to use its CARES funding to purchase 54,400 iPads for all OPS students; the district is also closing schools a week early to be able to provide professional development in online instruction for all staff and is working on ensuring internet access for all students. Those are crucial steps to long-term instructional equity.

At the request of the Kansas commissioner of education, Kansas teachers of the year Cindy Couchman, Tabatha Rosproy, and Dyane Smokorowski led a Continuous Learning Task Force comprised of Kansas teacher leaders. Over just a few days (and with little sleep), they produced a 70-page report providing guidance to administrators, teachers, and parents on learning during this crisis. State policies that respect, value, and include teacher leaders lead to more effective and meaningful policies.

Teachers of the year in Nebraska, Kansas, Maine, and New Jersey joined their colleagues to partner with local and public broadcasting television stations to produce lessons for students across their respective states. They focused on providing high-quality instruction for students who may not have access to internet or computers.

The Millard public schools (in Nebraska) partnered with the Millard Education Association to send a joint email to staff, thanking them for their work, offering resources, and encouraging them to “be proud of what you have done and know you have made a difference!”

School districts in Omaha meet weekly via Zoom with food banks and other service providers to coordinate services, making sure that families can access food, cleaning products, and meet other basic needs.

Rick: What is the most heartening thing you’ve seen come out of all this?

Maddie: The joy on my son’s face when he gets to see his teacher and classmates on Google Meet. It just reiterates to me in such a real way that education is about the relationships you develop. I’ve always told new teachers, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” The fact that my colleagues turned the Titanic not on a dime but on a grain of rice to continue to meet the academic, social, emotional, and physical needs of students in the most extraordinary of circumstances proves to me that teaching is both a profession and a mission.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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