As Massachusetts teachers, we’re used to Augusts filled with back-to-school shopping, planning meetings with colleagues, and nervous dreams about the first day of school. And as Massachusetts Teachers of the Year, we’re also well-versed in the nuances of education policy in the state.
That’s why, in a time already marked by anxiety over how to ensure that learning in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic is effective, joyful, and, most important, safe for all students, we were disappointed to read the guidelines issued by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. They called for educators to return physically and conduct remote learning sessions to students at home from buildings deemed unsafe for full-time, in-person learning.
These guidelines show an alarming lack of concern for the safety of our learning communities as well as disheartening disrespect for educators as professionals.
First, demanding that teachers report to buildings to perform our duties disregards not only our safety but also that of our community. Many school committees have chosen a fully remote model to limit COVID-19 transmission rates. Unfortunately, such decisions have been necessary given the fact that many learning communities are unsafe due to poor building air circulation and cleaning resources, high transmission rates, lack of protective equipment, or inadequate measures to ensure successful social distancing. Requiring teachers to return to these buildings to record lessons and meet with colleagues will increase the risk of getting sick or spreading sickness to others — especially if we follow the misguided suggestion to bring our own children to school with us. These dangers are amplified in already high-risk and high-need communities, putting the most vulnerable in even greater harm’s way.
Nearly as unsettling as the dismissal of our safety is the way these guidelines belittle the integrity of the teaching profession. We appreciate the desire to ensure that learning needs are met for all students, but these guidelines reveal a theater of accountability that fails to trust and recognize teachers as professionals worthy of respect.
Everywhere we look, people are being asked to work from home whenever possible. It is ironic that when the rest of the world is being trusted to get their jobs done from home, teachers are being held to a different standard.
Teachers do not require micromanagement to do our jobs well. We won’t slack off just because we’re doing our jobs from home. In fact, the teachers we work with are working harder than ever. Facing maddening indecision from policy makers in the past several months, we have thrown ourselves into mastering new skills that will facilitate students’ academic and social-emotional growth in the coming year. No one told us we had to do this. It wasn’t required by the state or our districts. We did it because we care about our students, and we want to do right by them.
While we agree that students benefit from consistency, it is not seeing the physical classroom in the background of a virtual lesson that will give students this sense of consistency — it is a safe and supportive atmosphere that enables them to build strong relationships with teachers and peers. Virtual or not, we will do what we always do and make connections with our students and colleagues, regardless of what is on the screen behind us. We know that it is these relationships that will make any model we use successful.
Rather than fretting about whether our classrooms are featured in our Zoom backgrounds, policy makers should be working to ensure that teachers have opportunities for meaningful professional development that will help us do our jobs well. They should give us time and space to collaborate with one another that doesn’t require us to put our own safety on the back burner.
As Teachers of the Year, we have been feted in the State House as representatives of our colleagues all across the state. We have been asked to give our opinions and share our expertise because teachers’ voices matter. We encourage the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to talk to teachers about what we need to do our jobs well — because this is not it.
Educators have always worked to make the most out of our situation. Time and time again we have used our own resources and gone above the call to meet the needs of our students. This fall, we urge the public to trust us as they did in March, knowing we will continue to improve, and to believe in us like the heroes they said we were.
Sydney Chaffee is the 2017 National Teacher of the Year. Takeru Nagayoshi is the 2020 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. Jamil Siddiqui is the 2019 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. Cara Pekarcik is the 2018 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. Audrey Jackson is the 2016 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year.