Through dark times, our teachers light the way.
As we continue our Heroes series, we turn this month to our teachers. Think back to those early days in classrooms. The morning light pouring in softly through the window, those first tentative steps away from your parents, the first friendships that may still run strong, games and songs and laughter, and the teacher smiling in the corner, warm, patient, and steadfast. We hold these warm memories in our hearts, and they age along with us until they form into an idealized version of what teaching is. This comes from most of us never actually being teachers, only students. We don’t see the other side, what’s behind the desk, what’s taken home, slipped in between the pages of the binders and the grade books. The reality is that teaching is hard, intense, sometimes messy. Yet, despite the difficulties, teachers keep showing up to class.
While these past two years have been tough on all of us, teachers have been hit harder by the pandemic than most. They have been required to adapt to new techniques to address unprecedented challenges overnight. They have not only been shoulders to cry on for their students but also for struggling parents. They have been asked to keep moving forward, keep fighting in the face of it all, and they have stepped up to the task, all while facing the same personal struggles we all have. It is for these reasons that we have chosen to focus on teachers as our heroes for this issue.
I talked to three teachers from Boulder Valley School District and three from St. Vrain Valley School District, and not one of them had considered the concept of themselves as heroes. Beth Jackson, a 2nd-grade teacher at Alicia Sanchez Elementary School in Boulder Valley told me:
“I wouldn’t consider myself a hero, I guess. But I think that maybe teachers as a collective feel more like heroes. Because I alone wouldn’t be able to do this, but having such a great community, I think we’re more heroic than I could be by myself.”
This sense of community Jackson described is strong. Teachers have long had to rely on one another for support but never so much as during COVID. Beth Cerrone, Instructional Cybersecurity and Technology Manager at the Innovation Center in St. Vrain Valley said, “Nobody really understands that teaching is a different field. It’s always been a very, very strong community. Most of my friends I talk to about my job are people I work with because they understand. I think it’s that kind of thing. I think we’ve always been tight-knit, but I think it just really brought us together and brought us closer, at least here in our building.”
In addition to this sense of solidarity shared with one another, each of the teachers also shares an unwavering devotion to what it is they do. On Feb. 1, 2022, a study conducted by the National Education Association concluded that 55% of teachers today are considering leaving the profession in response to COVID, attempted school board takeovers, and many other issues. This is a drastic change from a Gallup poll published in 2013 that found teaching to be in the top three happiest professions. While being a teacher is vastly different today than it was 10 years ago, the teachers I spoke with are committed and have met the challenges facing them with strength, compassion, bravery, and humor.
For Patrick Burns, a first-grade teacher at Red Hawk Elementary School in St. Vrain Valley, teaching is integral to who he is. He told me, “It’s my calling. If I wasn’t in the school building, I’d still be in education in some capacity because I feel it’s that important.” Before teaching in a classroom setting, Burns was an outdoor guide and educator until a major injury caused him to have to relearn how to walk and rethink his life. His time as an environmental educator allowed him to recognize that the future of our species is in the hands of the generations to come and how important it is to create a strong foundation for these potential leaders. “It’s about impacting a future generation,” he told me;
“It’s about developing critical thinkers, future stewards of the planet, people that are going to be making those choices for others.”
This sentiment was echoed by every teacher I spoke with. Each said that the kids were the most important part of the job, being there for them, helping them as much as they can day-to-day, setting a base for their students to grow into well-rounded human beings.
Wendy Buffer, a kindergarten teacher at Coal Creek Elementary School in Boulder Valley said, “I definitely think of it as a gift I have been given, to be able to come in and be with [the kids].” She marveled at the prospect of seeing her students grow up.
“I just heard one of my students from a while ago is going to go to college. It’s just so amazing to know that you were a part of the very beginning of their formal education.”
COVID required teachers to adapt to new ways of educating, new technologies, new ways to keep their students engaged. Priscilla Arasaki, a music and orchestra teacher at Sunset Middle School in St. Vrain Valley faced particular challenges due to the interpersonal nature of her subject. She told me, “Music is really fun because kids get to play together. Online, we couldn’t do that at all. So, it was just really a challenge to figure out how to connect for the kids. Usually, it’s so easy in the music classroom. We can connect with them through music and later, playing together. And so they feel that bond.” That being said, Arasaki has also been able to appreciate the impact that music can have to overcome adversity. “I still feel out of everything, music has helped me so much through difficult times. That’s where I got my friend groups in school. I think it’s really important to continue. Especially after COVID.” Since returning to the classroom, Arasaki has created a mariachi program for her district, signifying her belief in innovation and diversity in regard to traditional musical education.
With the abrupt switch to online, Sarah Hargadine at the Boulder Universal Online School in Boulder Valley is unique among the teachers I spoke with. She was teaching online before COVID hit. Her school focused largely on secondary education until COVID required them to build an elementary program in a very short window. This put her in an incredibly difficult yet important position in that many teachers and students alike turned to her and her school for assistance. She told me:
“We went from 200 students to like 1500. And when I moved over to elementary programming, in the end, we onboarded 14 teachers and almost 400 families in the course of about two weeks, and a lot of the teachers, in fact, I think all of them got the call to attend the professional development training the night before.”
Not only was Hargadine helping students and teachers adjust to this new format, she was also doing so while her own children were struggling to adjust to their new reality. She spoke to me about the idea that building this school and supporting her fellow teachers was an act of love that caused her to sacrifice aspects of her own personal life. “I’ll never forget those nights where it was 2am emails, where you’re just trying to keep your head above water because there are so many people drawing on you. It’s not just about setting good boundaries. You do have to create a work-life balance but in the initial transition of everything, it was kind of sacrificial. Love can either be like setting boundaries, or it can be sacrificial. This season, it was sacrificial. We were just laying down our lives to love people.”
Not everything that came out of COVID was sadness and hardship. In addition to the increased solidarity with their peers, it gave teachers a chance to connect with themselves and discover what self-care looks like to them. For Hargadine, she found strength in her family and in her church. Burns embraced the music he loves and found solace in nature. Cerrone turned to the tennis team she has captained for 25 years and all the friends she has made in that time. Arasaki’s lifelong love of music, listening to it and creating it, helped her through as it always has and will continue to do. Jackson indulged her desire to create, trying her hand at everything from painting and drawing with charcoal to brewing kombucha and growing fruits and vegetables in her apartment. Buffer embraced laughter. She told me:
“I think using your humor and having humor brought to you is also just the best way to defuse and to feel good.”
COVID also required teachers to adopt new approaches that have served to improve the ways they teach now that they have returned to the classroom. For example, Jackson had to find new ways to keep students engaged while she was teaching online and now uses the techniques she learned. She told me, “I do that now in the classroom. When I really want kids to be paying attention, I have them repeat me or I’ll sing part of it and have them sing it back to me. Just those kinds of engagement tactics, I guess, have definitely carried over into the classroom. And it’s a lot of fun. Instead of me talking at the students, they have a chance to say something back to me.” Buffer also found it beneficial to put emphasis on giving the kids autonomy. “You want them to learn by trying. They learn through expressing themselves with whatever they’re doing. Are they building it? Are they writing it? Are they coloring it?” She also spoke to the impact technology has had since returning.
“We learned a tremendous amount of technology to utilize to support the home learner, but then we’ve also kept it in the classroom. We continue to use a slide presentation daily, so the kids know the schedule and know what we’re working on. And we’ve been able to integrate links within that. We’ve enhanced our experience in the classroom, just from what we had to do when they were solely home learners. It’s been very beneficial to all of us.”
Through it all, these past two years have brought the importance of equitable education into the public eye. Burns told me, “At the end of the day, public education is honestly the greatest investment. It’s the greatest defense. It’s the greatest peacekeeping mission. When students learn how to read, they learn how to write the world, right? And when they write the world, they can stand up for social causes. They can make things right through critical thinking. It’s a public good.” Unfortunately, COVID is not the only threat that has to be addressed. School board takeovers; book banning; confusion between Critical Race Theory and basic Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; low budgets, all are factors that threaten our current public education system. To ensure the future of our country and our world, education must be protected. Jackson said one way to do this is, “by showing that we value teachers in our society. If we want to keep talented and experienced teachers in schools, we need to pay them more. Especially with the increase in the cost of living and the increase in expectations and workload for teachers.” She also told me, “There’s a lot of problems, and I don’t know where it starts. How do we start to mend those? Does it start from the state? Does it start district-wide? Does it start with one school, one classroom? I don’t know. It feels really big.”
There are no easy solutions to the myriad issues teachers face right now. The strain is not going unnoticed, but one major step in the right direction is to let them know that they and their hard work are valued. Our teachers are essential to our society and its future. So show them some love.