by Karen Sams, 2020 Texas Teacher of the Year
It seems like just yesterday and also years ago since I was last in my classroom with my students. I still remember the beginning of that week in March. With one week remaining until our spring break began, we jokingly shared memes and laughed about how we could expect the trifecta of all teacher nightmares that week: daylight saving time, the Worm Moon supermoon, and Friday the 13th.
That all seems so cute looking back now. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that on Friday, March 13, with just hours remaining in the school day, I would receive an email that in response to recent developments in the fight against COVID-19, my district had made the difficult decision to close our physical doors and was exploring distance learning opportunities for students. Never in a million years would I have guessed that Friday afternoon would be our last day together.
Usually, the feeling teachers get right before spring break is one of joy and excitement. That time of year can be challenging, when spring fever is in full swing and anxieties are high as we gear up to prepare our students for state standardized testing. But instead of elation, I felt serious anxiety as I scrambled to prepare my students for this news while frantically trying to anticipate in less than three hours what they might need to learn remotely from home for the next few weeks, or possibly longer.
I prayed for each child in my class as I stuffed their backpacks with workbooks, activities and brand-new chapter books to read along with a smile and a hug to provide them comfort during the weirdest dismissal I’ve ever had in 16 years of teaching. As I watched my students walk out of my classroom door that day, knowing I would not see them for nearly a month or more, I felt it in the pit of my stomach. I worried about my most vulnerable students who don’t always have access to regular meals, a secure or loving home environment, or access to digital learning. No one knows better than educators just how much some of our children depend on the love and support that they receive at school. Teachers don’t just teach curriculum; we wear many hats in today’s ever-changing world. We are counselors, nurses, bonus parents, social workers, advocates, mentors and more to the kids we teach.
Over these last months, I have been in awe of how quickly educators have problem-solved, adapted and even embraced major change. It never ceases to amaze me the lengths that teachers will go to reach their students, no matter the barrier. We have completely revolutionized the way that we care for students and deliver instruction, and we did this with almost no notice.
From districts coordinating and distributing meals to students and their families, to schools passing out Wi-Fi hotspots and technology devices, from teachers becoming YouTubers overnight, learning to connect with their students in a digital world, to virtual proms and innovative graduation ceremonies, along with staff parades through neighborhoods with signs waving and horns honking, all to let our kids know how much we love and miss them. In 16 years in education, I can honestly say that I have never been more proud to call myself a teacher.
I have always known that teachers are by nature innovators because we are used to doing a lot with a little, but during this uncertain time in our nation’s history, a giant spotlight has been focused on just how indispensable public schools really are.
Unfortunately, over the last several years, public schools have gotten a bad rap. We have allowed others to change the narrative of what we do every day in our classrooms, schools and communities and many have been convinced that all public schools are failing. Teachers are constantly criticized for standardized test scores and are on the front lines of many of society’s problems.
But as this time of national emergency has revealed, our schools are not “failing institutions” that need to be “reformed.” Public schools are essential to our American way of life.
Educators provide vital community services such as childcare, regular meals, counseling, social services and even healthcare in addition to providing each child with a high-quality education in a safe and nurturing environment. We do this in an underfunded education system and yet, we always find a way to make things work because that’s what teachers do.
We are certainly living in unprecedented times, and I don’t envy our officials who are faced with making very hard calls while utilizing every available resource to do what’s best for the 5.4 million children who attend our Texas public schools. But when our school doors open again and we welcome students back into our arms and our classrooms, we must recognize how crucial public schools and teachers are to our communities. We can no longer judge them by standardized test scores alone, but instead we must value and support public education for the critical role it plays in safeguarding our nation’s well-being, safety and security.