Opinion: With almost zero notice, teachers rallied, stepped up during pandemic

Education professor says teachers went to extraordinary lengths to ensure equitable opportunities for kids

Katie Wester-Neal is an assistant professor in the school of education at Gordon State College with a focus on elementary and middle grades literacy.

In this guest column, she heralds the efforts of teachers to ensure equity during the COVID-19 pandemic. She credits teachers for making access to learning for all students a priority.

By Katie Wester-Neal

Teachers haven’t always been valued by everyone in our culture. As an education professor, I often hear comments about how teachers aren’t an especially well-qualified, intelligent, or hard-working group.

“Teachers get summers off,” people explain, and “Anyone can teach,” others say. The job is easy.

After spending many years in the classroom, I know firsthand how incorrect these generalizations are. If the proliferation of memes and social media posts about the difficulty of pandemic schooling is any indication, many parents who are struggling to teach their own children might now agree.

In the past few weeks, I’ve encountered many examples that illustrate the extraordinary lengths teachers will go. With no extra funding and almost zero notice, teachers across our state have stepped up to provide equitable options for their students to continue learning and feel supported.

Teachers are serving as a bridge to equity for Georgia’s children. Equity in education is about providing access. Equity means that all children have a chance to attain a high-quality education and an opportunity to learn. Equity is not just about providing laptops; it also includes ensuring internet access to connect to online lessons and setting up food deliveries, so students don’t go hungry. Perhaps, now more than ever, equity is a useful concept for thinking about the importance of teaching.

I am in contact with teachers, both current and future, in multiple districts across the state. From them, I have learned that these unprecedented times are reinforcing the value of their efforts. Many teachers and districts around the state have taken localized approaches to equity.

In Lamar County Schools, for example, teachers and administrators created a hybrid plan for learning to account for the lack of internet connectivity in some areas. Students in the district with internet access can connect with their teachers’ lessons and resources online, while those without it can obtain printed learning materials at their school sites.

To serve the children in the Atlanta Public Schools, the widespread availability of internet access meant teachers planned mostly for online learning as the district has tried to connect all students with devices and internet hotspots. I hear from teachers in both districts who are working to engage all their students in creative ways while accounting for the variations in students’ home lives, and these are just two examples. Rather than slacking off, teachers are promoting equity in difficult, uncharted waters.

Recently, end of the year testing was cancelled. This year, teachers, no longer constrained by the imperative of testing, are not spending their time comforting and supporting students anxious about performance. They are spared from weeks of intensive preparation and meetings needed for implementation.

Instead, they have more time and freedom to focus on their students’ varied needs and contexts. Moving in the direction of equity, teachers are using this time to assess their students’ social and emotional needs along with academics to help every child access learning.

Teaching for equity is a difficult task even in the best of times. It requires an understanding that not all kids bring the same backgrounds, needs, or interests with them to school. It means building strong relationships with kids and letting curriculum and instruction follow from there. It includes knowing when and which kids in the class need some slack or extra encouragement.

Every day under new, extraordinary circumstances, teachers have continued working toward equity for their students with approaches that focus on their students’ humanity along with academics. In this light, it’s time to reconsider equity and the work of teachers.

Rather than going back to exactly the way things were before, these unprecedented times offer an opportunity to change how we think and talk about teaching as a profession going forward, and I hope we take it.