The coronavirus pandemic is creating huge challenges for the teacher workforce — layoffs, pay cuts, fear of COVID-19 exposure among those returning to bricks-and-mortar classrooms, to name a few. At the same time, analysts and teacher advocates also see a unique opportunity to innovate and rethink traditional practices.
These issues were front and center during a session at the Education Writers Association’s annual conference that also identified many story ideas for reporters to pursue, including: the pandemic’s impact on racial and ethnic diversity among teachers, anticipated strains on the substitute teacher pool, and how long-term remote instruction is changing teacher professional development.
“We are at a very precarious point relative to the future of our teaching profession,” said Roberto Rodríguez, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Teach Plus, a participant in the EWA panel. “We have important decisions to make, important investments to make, [to ensure we] build the profession stronger on the other side of this pandemic,” said Rodriguez, who served as a White House education adviser under President Barack Obama.
“We’ve got to think about long-term solutions, because the folks who are going [into] or considering going into education are watching right now what we do in this moment,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union. “We cannot send [the] message that we are not willing to invest in [teachers, students, and schools] in a way that makes this profession attractive.”
Thomas Toch, the director of FutureEd, an independent think tank based at Georgetown University, said teacher compensation is going to be a big issue, too.
“The COVID crisis is going to relegate the teaching profession in many parts of the country to really near subsistence status for a long time,” he predicted. “We’ve already seen a number of states pull back or reduce pay increases. Some are cutting teacher salaries.”
And an expected wave of teacher layoffs will also create stress for schools and the economy.
“With one in every hundred Americans working as a public school teacher, this also has really devastating consequences for the nation’s economic recovery,” Toch said.
‘We Cannot Afford to Go Backwards’
Before the pandemic, the U.S. teacher workforce was already saddled with a number of challenges: a lack of racial and ethnic diversity in stark contrast to today’s public school students, growing absenteeism among teachers, and education budget cuts that have stymied salaries and deterred new teachers from sticking with the profession.
Those issues appear even more stark now, as months of struggling through remote learning have left teachers — as well as students and parents — reeling.
All three speakers voiced concerns about losing momentum, or slipping backward, in efforts to ensure a more racially diverse teacher population.
“We have 18 percent of our teaching workforce that are diverse teachers; we have over half of our students that are students of color in our system,” said Rodriguez. “We cannot afford to go backwards on that. I mean, we have to be marshaling the will and the investment to move forward in retaining our talented, diverse teachers in our schools.”
Toch of FutureEd suggested that substitute teachers might be harder to find, as some may choose to provide private tutoring for small groups of children who are getting most instruction online. Also, some substitutes are older, retired teachers, who may be leery to return to classrooms, given their higher risk from COVID-19.
Despite the uncertainty looming over the 2020-21 school year, this period is an opportunity to tap into teachers’ experiences with remote learning this spring and use their feedback to improve professional development, panelists said.
Teach Plus, for example, hosted distinguished teachers to work with other educators on how to model master lessons for colleagues via video, Rodríguez said.
“It might seem counterintuitive, but we need to double down on the investments around supporting teacher development and success,” he said, especially for those teachers who are just a few years into their careers.
High-quality teacher training is even more important this year because schools could see an influx of new or early-career teachers if veterans retire in large numbers. And if traditional in-person hiring systems aren’t functioning because of the virus, schools run the risk of hiring teachers who may not have been effectively vetted, said Toch of Future Ed.
What Will Teaching Look Like This Fall?
Some innovative ideas that were borne out of necessity this spring will continue to be important this fall as remote learning continues in many districts. Teachers have organized virtual weekly meetings with parents to help them support their children to complete online coursework, for example, Rodriguez said.
He encouraged reporters to approach their coverage with the goal of getting “under the hood of what teaching will look like in the era of COVID-19 this fall.” How are teachers navigating standards? Where students have fallen behind, how are teachers using data to assess learning loss, help students catch up and accelerate their learning?
Staffing shortages and the loss of veteran teachers may also prompt school leaders to reassess how teachers are assigned to deliver instruction. One model is to have a district’s top teachers provide online lessons for larger groups of students throughout a district while teacher aides work in smaller groups offline with those same students, Toch suggested.
Also, art and music teachers might be redeployed to provide a “double dose” of reading or math instruction in the elementary grades.
“In this moment, [we have] an opportunity to redeploy our teaching resources … in very innovative and promising ways,” Toch said. “I think the question is whether there’s sufficient flexibility in both district regulations and union contracts for these creative solutions and whether we can see our way towards … sustaining these changes, these innovations, once we get beyond the pandemic.”
Pringle of the NEA argued that union contracts are not a barrier. “Collective bargaining agreements provide the flexibility for labor and management to come together to work on solutions that benefit our students and our educators,” she said.