Educator Jessica Faith shares how even without a formal leadership role, teachers can access opportunities to advocate and lead on behalf of students.
I spent the first three quarters of the 2019 - 2020 school year working through the normal challenges teachers face: balancing instructional demands with administrative tasks, planning lessons on the weekends, and making time to care for myself and my family. When COVID-19 hit, I found myself (like all fellow educators) scrambling to adjust to teaching virtually. No matter what our experience level, my colleagues and I had never dealt with anything like the pandemic before. In an instant, everything about teaching changed, and it was clear that what was “normal” would be no more.
The world shut down in the middle of my spring break, and my district quickly moved in-person classes to a remote learning platform. I am grateful that student and teacher safety was a priority in those uncertain times, yet I can also acknowledge that the shift to remote learning came with challenges and unintended consequences.
Many of my students did not have access to technology to participate in remote learning. For those students who were able to log on, the online materials I was required to use were nothing like the standards-aligned, grade-level appropriate materials my students were used to seeing each day in my class. I was also given lesson plans from the district that weren’t created with my unique students in mind. The readings were generic and weakly aligned to standards. The activities were unengaging, and there were limited opportunities for students to write with a purpose.
Even with less than ideal materials, my students were still making efforts to learn. Early on, one particular student, Miguel, was a real inspiration to me. Despite his parents losing their jobs and not having access to a computer, he found a way to engage in learning using his mother’s cell phone. He would take pictures of handwritten assignments, submit them using apps, and text me to get feedback.
Miguel’s persistence reminded me of how important it was to make my voice heard in the midst of all the challenges and changes we were facing. I knew I had to find a way to ensure all of my students had access to the materials, resources, and supports they needed to feel safe and continue to learn even if we were no longer sharing a classroom together. But how?
As teachers, we often have little say in many of the decisions around content and instructional materials our districts make. This is despite the fact that we are the bridge between materials and the students who benefit from them. Many teachers across the country are asking themselves the same questions I was when the pandemic began: How can I advocate for higher quality materials or better supports for my students while simultaneously planning remote and hybrid lessons? How can I lead if I have challenges in my classroom that take up most of my time? How can I be the best teacher for my students when I don’t have what I need to be successful?
Now that students are back in school, a “new normal” for education is being defined. Districts are exploring new ways to offer instruction, and that means new ways of teaching and using materials. We are at a unique moment in time, where teachers can use their voices to shape the future of our field. I’d love to share some tips that helped me use my teacher voice this past spring to better serve my students.
1. Know what your students need. District leaders continue to try to figure out how to ensure instructional materials and aligned content can be accessed, even in remote or hybrid environments. This is a time where teachers can leverage their expertise to help inform decisions that are being made about materials. This can be done by collecting data on both student learning as well as student well-being. Last spring, I invested a lot of my time doing exactly that. Having the data allowed me to communicate to my administrators and campus support staff where the gaps in resources were and what students needed on an individual level.
2. Stay connected with fellow educators. Strengthening relationships with colleagues is even more essential as we all face the challenges of the pandemic. When you aren’t in the same building, you can’t just pop into a colleague’s classroom like you normally would. However, you can schedule a Zoom with fellow teachers or simply pick up the phone. It is so important to maintain lines of communication to derive strength and share best practices. This is especially important for having conversations related to materials that are working for students.
In March, when I was struggling with the transition to remote learning, I continued to be actively engaged in my department’s (virtual) professional learning community meetings and found ways to collaborate with my fellow teachers. Although we had to follow the district plans, together we found ways to divide and conquer the workload of moving materials online. Collectively, we asked our administration for room to innovate within the parameters of district expectations to make learning more accessible.
3. Find opportunities to develop leadership and advocacy skills beyond your school building. Going beyond the education space to learn universally applicable skills can help you grow as a leader and bring new expertise to solve the challenges you’re experiencing. During my first few years as a teacher, I joined organizations, volunteered, took on leadership roles, and developed skills that have helped me throughout my career. The communication and capacity building skills I leveraged during the spring were cultivated in non-education spaces. There’s tons to learn within our field, but there’s even more outside of the “education bubble.”
Don’t get me wrong, I know it can be a challenge to balance teaching responsibilities with outside learning—especially right now. However, if you can participate in even one activity, class, or group, what you learn can be an invaluable support in future years. Whatever you choose, find what will continue to develop you as a leader and give you energy and joy.
4. Take time for self-care and reflection daily. In addition to what you are doing to advocate for your students, don’t forget to think about how you are developing and taking everything in. Taking the time to acknowledge the chaos, reflect on my learning and growth, and do things that made me happy (even in isolation), allowed me to stay in the right mindset to keep strong instruction, high-quality materials, and the social-emotional well-being of my students as my priority.
My experiences teaching during the pandemic will forever change how I see my role as an educator, leader, and advocate. Although I had no formal leadership role, I used my teacher voice to elevate student needs and got them met. As a teacher, never doubt that you know your students and their needs. You have ideas to contribute, solutions to challenges, and a voice that you can amplify on behalf of your students. Don’t be afraid to use it.