The past school year has challenged teachers like never before.
They’ve had to create online classrooms and adapt to new ways of teaching in person, find ways to build relationships across distance, and support their students through social upheaval and natural disasters, all while weathering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic themselves.
“I think that in the short term, the impact on the profession is going to be pretty devastating,” said John Arthur, a 6th grade teacher in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a finalist for the National Teacher of the Year award.
The four finalists spoke with Education Week in a virtual round-table discussion on Thursday, hosted by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which administers the program.
Along with Arthur, the finalists are: Alejandro Diasgranados, a 4th and 5th grade teacher in Washington, D.C.; Maureen Stover, a 9th and 10th grade science teacher in Fayetteville, N.C.; and Juliana Urtubey, an elementary special education teacher in Las Vegas. The national winner is usually announced in the spring.
Despite the difficulties this year brought, the teachers said they were hopeful: for kids returning to physical classrooms, for potential policy initiatives in a new White House administration, for a future in which—maybe—the events of the past year spur a greater societal investment in schools.
“Another key element to acknowledge is the gratitude,” said Urtubey. “I as an educator feel an immense amount of gratitude for the families who are just going above and beyond to make sure their kids are learning.”
Education Week spoke with the teachers about how they’d like schools to respond to the unprecedented challenges they face now, what they want to see from President Joe Biden’s administration and his education secretary nominee, Miguel Cardona, and what the profession will look like in the pandemic’s wake.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
This past school year has brought constant crisis and social upheaval, from the pandemic to this past summer’s protest for racial justice, to multiple natural disasters. Amid all of this, what do you think that students need right now from their schools?
Arthur: Our kids, our families, our school communities need reassurance as much as they need education or instruction right now. Of course, as teachers, our first obligation is to provide our students with the best educational opportunities possible. But given the fact that we’re trying to educate them in the middle of a disaster, they need to know that if they’re learning at home … they’re going to get the kind of education they need to be successful later in life. If they are coming into our school buildings, we need to reassure [parents], let them know that their kids are safe, and that we’re not taking for granted their health as we try to make in-person learning happen.
Stover: I think that this is a real opportunity for us to shift our focus to the social-emotional learning needs of our students. We know that our kids get so much more from school than just academic education. And as teachers, we fill a lot of roles for our students, besides just being the imparter of knowledge.
Diasgranados: We will need to really dig deep and make sure that we are providing students with social and emotional assistance and support when they return, in giving them that space to talk about these things, and the opportunity to connect with teachers and connect with the community again. Because in our community, we were such a tight-knit community. And our school building, Aiton Elementary, is such a beacon of hope in our community. Us not being in that building, we miss out on so many great opportunities.
There’s been a push recently from the White House, from state governors, from some parents to reopen school buildings as quickly as possible. What do you think about these efforts?
Stover: I think as educators, we’d all agree that the best place for our kids to be is in classrooms, but we need to make sure that we do that safely—safely for our students, safely for our faculty and staff, and safely for the families. And so I really applaud the state governments that are coming up with really robust plans that are addressing those [concerns]. I know, in North Carolina, our governor has left that up to each individual county, because we all have unique things going on in our counties, we have different numbers, we have different populations, we have different size communities. By empowering each local education agency to make a determination that’s best for their local kids and for their local families, we’ve been able to bring our kids safely back into our schools.
Arthur: Safety, obviously, is the first priority. I love that our government, our new administration, is aspirational about the idea of getting kids back into the buildings. I’ll tell you as a teacher, there’s no place I would rather be than in my classroom with kids all around me. … I have returned to my school building. I get the pleasure of spending all day with my kids. And I know that we can do it safely. I just would always want to make sure that we’re not letting the goal drive the decision-making that we always make sound choices based on the information that we have.
Urtubey: First of all, we never closed. I think teachers have worked double time. I know I have since that weekend in March when Nevada had to physically close our schools. We’ve realized that classrooms exist wherever the learning and the community of a classroom is.
I think that there’s a way to move forward, being considerate of everybody’s needs, because there’s no two communities that are alike, no two families alike. ... Across the country, just like in Las Vegas, brown and Black communities have been hit much harder with much harder rates of COVID, and unfortunately, COVID deaths. And so we need to come to terms with the fact that we have to individualize resources, and really prioritize our equity based on how we see this holistic impact of COVID.
What do you hope to see from the Biden administration on education, and what you hope to see from Biden’s nominee for education secretary, Miguel Cardona?
Urtubey: As a bilingual special education teacher, I am thrilled with the possibility of having more accessible bilingual education. … In terms of the Biden administration, I’m really grateful to lean into this idea that teachers are leaders from their classroom. Cohesively, at our schools we can advocate for these changes. And now there’s more of a space for us to collaborate with policy because policy really needs to be informed by what teachers see every single day. ... We need to [make sure that] teachers have a safe teaching environment so that our students can be safe. Also making sure that our schools are fully staffed. I know a lot of schools are having to look at very difficult budget decisions.
Arthur: One of the main areas that I’ve been concerned about is making sure that our teaching profession reaches the same level of diversity that our student population has. And the only way to do that is to make sure that there are initiatives, grow-your-own teacher programs coming from both the state but also the federal level, to encourage teachers from various communities—not just teachers of color, teachers with disabilities, LGBTQ—we need representation from immigrants, refugees. ... [Cardona] will prioritize, hopefully, making sure that the teachers and those of us who have gone through the process of trying to get public service loan forgiveness, ... that they will get help from the Department of Education, rather than a wall or rejection letter when it comes time to try to collect on the promise that was made to us.
Diasgranados: Before I was teaching in Washington, D.C., I also substituted in the Connecticut area. And I remember that Cardona was bringing a number of different initiatives to make the teaching force a lot more representative of the community there in Connecticut, and I’m excited that he’ll be able to bring that to a national platform. … That’s so important for our students to see, and our next generation of leaders to see them, their faces being represented in the front of the classroom, especially as they enter a more globally and racially diverse world.
Stover: One of the things that I would be really excited to see the White House support and bring back is the Troops to Teachers program, which is currently slated to sunset at the end of this grant year. That is a really fantastic way to help active duty members transition from their military service into service in the classroom. And we’ve seen some really fantastic teachers come through that program. They offer a lot of life experience; they also, a lot of times, can help us with teacher shortages and shortfalls that we see in our classrooms. And they are also a really great way to help bring a more diverse teacher population into our public schools. …
Another thing that I would really love to see the federal government help us with is the resources for us to be able to have trauma-informed instruction, and to have more school psychologists and more school counselors in our public schools. …
I would love to see the administration take a stand on the way we use the data from the federally mandated tests. Right now, that data many times is used as a gotcha. And teachers feel like they are being told that they’re not doing things correctly, or students feel like they are not successful if the data doesn’t show that they did well on a test. I would really love to see a shift in that data, where we begin to use that to help us inform instruction. And I think this will be critically important as we do bring our students back to face-to-face instruction.
What are your thoughts on the U.S. Department of Education’s decision to go forward with state testing this year, while allowing for some flexibility in how those data are used?
Stover: I do think that the testing is important at a macro level, because I think it gives us a really good idea of how much our students learned over the past several months, and it also gives us an idea of how effective our instruction was in blended and remote learning environments. I do not think, though, that we should use that data in a micro sense to determine an individual student’s abilities, an individual student’s progress, or an individual teacher’s progress.
Arthur: I do understand the benefits that you could get from running these end-of-year tests. But I personally feel like the juice just isn’t worth the squeeze. Right now, our kids have been through a ton of trauma, and they’ve suffered from learning loss. And the last thing you want to do at a time where someone is desperately in need of something is to reduce the amount of that thing that they’re going to get. So our kids need more time learning, and end-of-year assessments take a ton of time. They’re logistically complicated to implement. We don’t have any data from last year to compare to, so the usefulness of that data has already diminished. And more than anything else, our kids need time getting instruction from their teachers.
Urtubey: I agree that I wonder if [testing is] the best use of our students’ time and energy. … I think it’s also really important to know that students that are at schools that are classified as Title I schools are highly over-tested, meaning the end-of-the-year tests are not the only tests we’re taking. We’re sometimes taking monthly tests, or sometimes quarterly tests. And to have done that all-hybrid or all-virtually has put a big tax on our students.
What do you think will be the effect of the pandemic on the teaching profession?
Arthur: I think that in the short term, the impact on the profession is going to be pretty devastating. We’re already in the midst of what many experts agree is the worst teacher shortage in history. Yet on top of that, the way that teachers were depicted this year? It was great last spring, when we were the heroes, that was a beautiful time. But we continued our hero’s journey, and it felt like a lot of the public turned on us when we resisted reopening, for example, here in Salt Lake City, and people wanted to be able to send their kids back to school. I think that those narratives are going to cost us people who would have chosen to become teachers. I think in the next few years, it’s gonna be hard to recruit.
That’s not to say that I’m not hopeful, and I’m not positive in my thinking about where we’re going forward, because I feel like the teachers coming out of this, the students coming out of it, the families, everyone is both more empathetic, because they’ve lived through experiences that they otherwise would not have had to. And we’re more resilient, we are stronger, badder teachers than we were before. And we’re going to use that to make up for any learning loss, we’re going to use it to elevate our profession.
Urtubey: These issues were here before COVID, and it’s going to take a collective action to be able to ameliorate some of the tensions. ... We need to be creative about how we recruit and retain teachers, particularly teachers of color. And there’s lots of ways to do it, like teacher incentives. [When I talk] to college students, kids of color, they’ll tell you that the reason that they can’t go into education—not that they don’t want to, that they can’t—is because they can’t take an unpaid internship, they have to be able to balance family responsibilities. So there’s creative ways, and as I said, let’s put our money where our values are.