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First-Year Teacher 'Hopeful' Despite COVID-19

Earlier this summer, abolitionist-educator-author Bettina Love put into words what many teachers are thinking: “Why did it take a pandemic to see the humanity in teaching?” 

As a first-year teacher, her comment made me pause and reflect. 

Since March, teachers in the United States have struggled to transition to e-learning as they tackled issues of student access, standardized testing and personal health – all with minimal direction from the system meant to uphold quality school environments. Unfortunately, many teachers – especially those in less-affluent communities – faced these same issues well before COVID-19 was a blip in the news cycle. And yet, when the problem became universal, solutions became visible. Districts that repeatedly said there wasn’t funding for 1-to-1 technology access were able to give all students computers; teachers were allowed more flexibility in their classes and were asked to put empathy above all else; and standardized testing was no longer expected to measure a student’s worth. 

It’s easy to be frustrated. As someone who attended financially limited schools from middle school onward, and is now teaching in the same setting, I understand the feeling. However, I’d like to propose a necessary perspective – actionable positivity. In other words, what can we say worked well during spring’s e-learning that we can reframe? Which Band-Aid solutions can become a framework for long-term change? 

These questions must spark conversations centralized on equity. COVID-19 closures have made it clear that our previous solutions didn’t provide enough support for students who need it most. We talk about the importance of returning students to brick-and-mortar schools this fall, neglecting to admit that those physical learning environments were failing some students. 

Even before the pandemic, students had varying degrees of access to technology to complete their homework or online courses, such as those that Florida has mandated. Schools executed Zero Tolerance policies that disproportionately targeted Black and Latino students. Standardized testing meant that teachers were teaching to the test instead of to the needs of their students. These problems, as well as many others, are the ones we should be considering if we’re truly looking for equitable schooling. 

None of these problems have easy solutions, but the greatest positive that has come with the pandemic is that we no longer perceive education as inflexible. Clearly, education can be remolded; otherwise our schools would have completely fallen apart in the spring. So, I suggest that we continue to remold our students’ futures by thinking: What needs to go, and what can take its place? We know standardized testing isn’t working, and we know students need better access to technology. We should use our testing budget to fund technology integration. We know Zero Tolerance policies aren’t working, so instead we could use the School Resource Officer budget to fund restorative practices. 

These big goals can become actionable when we break them down. In my Knowles Teaching Fellowship, we often used a protocol to ensure effective, structured conversations: gather data, make objective observations, interpret, propose informed solution.

The interpretation step is critical. It’s not enough to objectively observe that students in lower-income households are less likely to have reliable access to an Internet connection and an Internet-ready device. We must understand the tolls that takes, adding, “At-home computer access must be an emotional burden for those students, and they are likely to fall behind because of that stress.”

We can only reach transformative solutions when we consider the full impact of an issue. 

The issues we are struggling don’t have immediate solutions and won’t be resolved in a few conversations. There is one sure truth though: Teachers should be at the forefront of these conversations. 

Schools are places of learning for all students, so the government and the general public also have an obligation to help create these spaces and to be a part of these critical conversations. 

Effective teacher education programs, like the UTeach program, have worked to build those spaces. In a project led by the National Math and Science Initiative, a new “HBCUTeach” initiative will make sure more Black educators have that space, too. 

As the 2020-21 school year starts to unfold, it’s hard to predict how anything will look. Each state and district seems to be trying something new to tackle an issue with no easy solution. I expect it will be a difficult time for new teachers and veterans alike. 

At the same time, I am hopeful. I have heard conversations about equity, access, meaningful learning and “compassion over compliance.” I have seen resources funneled to where they’re needed. The shift in our country’s education is finally here. We just need to continue with that momentum. 

In the words of Bettina Love, “They played their hand and we have to say we’re not going back.”

Karina Bhutta is a first-year science teacher at Howard W. Blake High School in Tampa, FL – her alma mater. She is a recent graduate of Florida International University, where she participated in the FIUteach program, earning her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences while also receiving hands-on, immersive teaching experience and her teaching certification.