Minnesota’s schools are now shuttered for the year, altering the lives of families, students and teachers. We spent the last month interviewing elementary school teachers who teach for diverse suburban public schools to see how they’re faring. We found them taking on expanded roles in an effort to care for Minnesota’s children and families in a time of crisis. While their work is admirable, it also indicates more robust, integrated systems of care in our state are needed. We suggest this upheaval may eventually provide opportunities to build back better: As we think about post-pandemic Minnesota, how might we reimagine our educational, social and economic infrastructure to more evenly distribute the weight of care currently being shouldered by teachers and schools?
As teachers work to provide a sense of normalcy and promote academic growth through distance learning, they understand that for most students, the total upending of their daily lives has been hard. Finding ways to support student mental health, already a concern for Minnesota’s teachers, has become many teachers’ top priority. Teachers note that “we can’t reach our students if they’re not healthy and safe and secure.” They describe offering support through calls, videos and even chalk messages left at students’ homes, explaining: “I love my kids and I hope that they can feel that from me.” Some teachers weave caregiving into their academic work. One kindergarten teacher explained, “We can practice language skills while also taking care of their emotional needs.”
Empathetic with families’ struggles
Teachers are empathetic with students’ and families’ struggles with distance learning, with one noting how “we’re in the wild west now.” Most teachers have aimed to ease into academics slowly, given steep learning curves and glitchy technology. A teacher recounted a parent calling to say their young child was overwhelmed and refused to do any work that day, to which she responded by acknowledging “that is a very real feeling. This is hard.”
Teachers worry that distance learning will exacerbate inequities. They are concerned for children with developmental delays or health concerns, the youngest who still need extensive in-person support, children experiencing homelessness and children of essential workers, among many others. Knowing that school is some students’ safest place, some teachers describe not sleeping, fearful for children in situations of violence, abuse or food insecurity. One gathered food donations from local businesses to drop off at families’ doorsteps. Teachers worry that some students will return to school traumatized, asking, “How much emotional cleanup will we have when this is all over?”
Their concern extends to colleagues whose jobs are on the line — paraprofessionals, food service workers, custodians and bus drivers. Some teachers’ spouses have lost their jobs; others know budget cuts threaten their own jobs. Some fear for family members’ health. Many juggle teaching their own children while simultaneously teaching their students online. And while most describe supportive school leadership, a few expressed frustration with expectations for “business as usual” inconsistent with the realities of teaching from home during a pandemic.
‘The opportunity to expand our ideas’
Yet in the face of challenging circumstances, teachers are already reimagining how school may improve when this pandemic has passed. “This has given us the opportunity to expand our ideas,” noted one teacher who said the learning and assessment plans his colleagues created for distance learning had “superseded” his expectations. Many teachers mentioned this emergency has pushed them to come together and try new approaches, and they celebrated how “everyone seems to have each other’s backs.” They hope increased innovation and collaboration become their new normal.
Teachers are caring for Minnesota’s children and families at a time of crisis with creativity and professionalism. As teachers reach across the digital divide of distance learning to keep children from falling through social, emotional, academic and nutritional cracks, they reveal areas where Minnesota’s fabric is stretched thin and in need of our collective care. How might the weight of supporting Minnesota’s children and families be more evenly distributed across systems and integrated into policies, programs, and funding streams in the future? The teachers we talked with are shouldering their increased care burdens with grace and a steadfast commitment to having Minnesota’s kids’ backs; strengthening Minnesota’s social, economic and educational systems in the post-pandemic future will show that we have theirs.
Laura Wangsness Willemsen, Ph.D., and Elisheva Cohen, Ph.D., are former teachers and current educational researchers at Concordia University in St. Paul and Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, respectively.
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