In many ways, the first 16 months of the COVID-19 pandemic created a Rosie the Riveter moment for the teaching profession. During World War II, Rosie stood for all the American women who went to work in occupations previously reserved for men. Entering the workforce in record numbers, women developed new skills and capacities under difficult circumstances. In their successful contribution to the war effort, they expanded what counted as “women’s work.” Rosie the Riveter became a post-war symbol of feminism that heralded widespread changes in labor norms linked to gender.
Similarly, the COVID-19 school building shutdown created an educational need to expand what counted as “teachers’ work.” The crisis called on schools to trust teachers with a level of initiative unprecedented in recent American history. When the whole world ground to a stop, teachers were asked to step up, figure it out, keep connected to students, and, somehow, continue to teach through the shutdown. And they did.
The spring 2020 need for an all-hands-on-deck educational response changed the nature of teachers’ work—at least for a bit. Teachers determined—based on the needs of their students, the community context, and their own experience—the instructional-delivery formats, content, and even the timing of school lessons. They did this with little direct administrative oversight. As teachers worked to figure out how to make school happen, they turned to one another for the professional learning they needed.
Teachers were an essential part of the pandemic response in spring 2020. They worked hard, felt part of something important, and believed their worth was seen and recognized.
In fall 2020, as the pandemic continued, many teachers questioned the return to precrisis structures, routines, and priorities. Often, they found their professional assessments fell on deaf ears. They felt sidelined and silenced, demoted from driver to back-seat opiner. That proved demoralizing and, for some, a blow to their commitment.
Many objected to hybrid instructional-delivery models they knew—from firsthand experience—would not be effective. Additionally, teachers resented not having a say in determining the conditions under which they would be expected to return to in-person teaching. Some objected to what they considered an inattention to teachers’ level of risk. Others wanted to be back in the classroom sooner. At a time when much was uncertain, teachers’ fate was debated publicly in a politicized context that tied decisions to ideologies. To many teachers, it seemed that people who knew less about schools and students than they did nonetheless had more say about working conditions there.
Often, when people call for teacher voice, they do so in a way that implies there is some united voice of teachers that can be relied on as the authority. Or alternatively, that the voice of one teacher will do—say, on a leadership committee.
Neither the unilateral nor the token teacher voice is the one that teachers experienced in spring 2020. Rather, it was the somewhat chaotic voice of a diverse and varied profession working out solutions to educational challenges. It manifested itself in teacher solutions to classroom-level pedagogical needs and in the emergence of professional knowledge networks. It is a voice that anticipates and allows for variation of practice and trusts the ability of teachers to collectively cultivate the conditions of good teaching.
Although there are schools where teachers feel heard, teaching as an occupation has not encouraged professional voice. Teachers often struggle to influence the policies and practices that affect their students. But if this year showed us anything, it is that teachers, like the Rosies, can rally at a time of crisis and quickly develop new capacities.
Teachers often struggle to influence the policies and practices that affect their students.
In the midst of a historical crisis, teachers learned to use a range of digital tools and came to understand both the affordances and limitations of technology. They learned which lesson adaptations could aid student learning and which ones were a weak substitute for in-person activities. They developed new ways of supplying social-emotional student support, and they gained new insights into the challenges many students navigate. They prioritized meeting the needs of the most vulnerable students and worried aloud (or expressed hope) about tackling inequities in the future.
It will be a while before we know the full implications of this pandemic school year, though “experience loss”—the loss of experienced teachers from the profession—is already a looming reality. The effects of major crises tend to become apparent only in retrospect. Even Rosie put her rivet gun down at the end of the war when gender norms were reasserted and women were ushered out of the workforce.
Looking back, however, we can see the drop in employment for women was just a lull. Within a decade, women’s labor-market participation had surpassed wartime rates. Similarly, the pandemic may have seeded a change in teachers’ professional voice the full import of which we will see unfold over time. It showcased what schools stand to gain by expanding decisionmaking to encompass teacher expertise.
As we move into the second back-to-school season affected by the pandemic, school leaders would do well to look to their teachers for guidance. The new competencies teachers developed and the insights they’ve garnered over the past year are the very resources schools and districts need—if they will only capitalize on them.
Teachers deserve a seat at the table—and we deserve schools that make the most of teachers.
I recently did a follow-up interview with “Leanne Edwards,” the Texas middle school teacher I wrote about in the second installment of these essays. (I don’t use her real name because of research-subject anonymity.)
Edwards is exhausted from the workload of pandemic teaching, she told me. Even more, she is demoralized by both the decline in voice she has experienced this past year and the ideological split that divides her community. She shared that some parents tell her principal they don’t want their children in her classroom because of her pro-vaccine and pro-mask positions.
Also disheartening is that the district responded to low state-test scores that weren’t supposed to count against schools or students with a new packaged curriculum. Edwards said she is unhappy with the choice: The new curriculum not only specifies the scope and sequence of the subject matter, according to Edwards, it also prioritizes siloed subjects over integrated ones.
Edwards has resigned from all her school-level leadership roles and has told the central office and her principal that this is her last year at the school. One-third of her teacher colleagues have resigned this year, and two weeks from the start of school, 11 percent of teaching positions were still vacant, she told me. Edwards said she is only staying because she has a child in the school.
Her hope is that she can find a curriculum-leadership position that allows her to help return teacher voice to decisionmaking in her district. But if she can’t, then she is prepared to leave the district and perhaps the profession.
This is the final essay of four on the work of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. It draws from Lora Bartlett and colleagues’ “Suddenly Distant” research project.
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2021 edition of Education Week as Will the Pandemic Produce a New, Bolder Teacher?