Elisa Villanueva Beard, Teach For America’s renowned chief, is taking over RHSU this week. Elisa started her time with TFA as a 1998 corps member in Phoenix. After joining the staff in 2001 to lead the organization’s work in her hometown in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, she went on to become chief operating officer, and in 2015, she was named CEO. Elisa will spend the week reflecting on what’s at stake for students in low-income communities as they head back to school amid the pandemic, sharing what she’s hearing from TFA’s network of alumni and corps members as they address this forced disruption, and describing TFA’s response to COVID-19.
As we start the school year, parents, students, teachers, and staff members are focused on two essential challenges: how students will be able to have real educational opportunities this year and how schools can provide the safety, basic needs, and support required for students to be successful. This is not the “back to school” we idealize—the reality is this will be an incredibly difficult year for students, families, and teachers. But it cannot be a lost year. A year of learning means so much—and when that learning doesn’t happen, the damage can last for years. While we know face-to-face instruction in a classroom is the most effective, we must do everything in our power to ensure students are engaged and learning this school year.
At Teach For America, our first promise is to kids: to provide them the equitable and excellent education that they want and deserve. My conversations with our corps members and alumni educators, school leaders, and system leaders these past months highlighted the inequities widening in real time across the country and the work they are doing to change that reality for our children.
Our educators, like so many great teachers across the country, have shown up for kids in some unprecedented ways inside and outside the classroom.
In the South Bronx, alumna Jessica Nauiokas, a middle school principal, teamed up with school staff in the early weeks of the pandemic to help get cash and food into the homes of the school’s most vulnerable families. When dozens of parents needed help grocery shopping, she and her staff stepped in and shopped for families.
Sam Lim, a high school teacher in Atlanta, stayed in contact with students who scattered across the Atlanta metro area when the pandemic hit. Sam learned some students lacked access to running water and other basic needs. With members of the Atlanta Prism Coalition, Sam mobilized a network of partners, including Atlanta Pride, to connect students to basic resources like food and water.
Alonna Berry, founder of a new high school in rural Sussex County, Del., refuses to let the pandemic get in the way of deep learning. She is already rethinking her school opening plans by hosting webinars with parents, students, and community members to prepare for on-demand hybrid learning models. To close the technology gap facing her students, she’s engaging unlikely partners in local philanthropy to fund the tools students need. Aligned with her goal of creating a service-learning high school, she also plans to offer a mental-health clinic in her school, slated to open in 2022. It’s these sorts of wraparound supports and connections that will get students through this moment.
These are educators who have put equity at the center of all they do. That’s the kind of love, support, innovation, and commitment that enables our students to lead, learn, and thrive.
This fall, our incoming corps members, like all teachers, will have extraordinary tasks ahead to meet all the needs of their students. They will have to find and engage their students and their students’ families, many of whom lost contact with school last spring; assess where their students are academically and social-emotionally; and use innovative strategies to deliver effective instruction and learning opportunities to engage them and to help close the learning gaps. That will all be essential to ensure this is not a lost academic year.
Learning from the experiences of our educators this spring, we knew our first-year teachers entering the classroom this fall would need different preparation and training to meet our mission of equity and excellence. So we changed the way we bring teachers into the profession and hosted our first-ever Virtual Summer Teacher Training. In partnership with Springboard Collective, the Teaching Channel, Spring Up, and others, we quickly changed our entire training program; we built, iterated, improved, and implemented a model to train and support teachers, centered on instruction, learning environment, and diversity, equity and inclusiveness.
Our corps members developed a vision for student learning grounded in knowledge of child development, trauma-informed practice, social-emotional learning, and systemic racism. Using this knowledge, corps members developed a foundation and skills in relationship-building, self-awareness, and systems thinking that are required to work as a teacher against systemic racism and toward educational equity.
Great teaching this fall will require being grounded in the needs of students and families today. Back in April, one estimate found that as many as 27 percent of middle school students had essentially disappeared during the coronavirus school closures. Finding and contacting students and their families is a must before anything else. Only then can teachers begin to assess students’ learning from the last few months and decide what to prioritize—whether it’s academic or related to social-emotional health or trauma—and develop a plan for each student. Once teachers have connected with and assessed their students, the work of teaching will require more innovative approaches to learning in remote and hybrid settings.
There are so many needs to address right now, and we must get it right. But it will not be enough just to get our students through this harrowing moment if we don’t also reimagine what’s next. We can’t wait any longer to make changes to the entire system that will bring about equity and excellence in education. In my next post, I’ll share what we must do as a country—and what we at Teach For America believe must change for kids—in the next decade and how our organization is evolving to meet this moment and beyond.
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.