Supporting Teachers During COVID-19

By Jessi Misslin - November 16, 2020

The global coronavirus pandemic has imposed limitations and forced painful choices in nearly every aspect of our personal, professional, and public lives. Case in point: education. Pandemic-induced closures in the spring forced immediate adaptations as schools shifted to distance learning models, and now, nine months later, the impacts on schools, teachers, students, and families continue to intensify. The logistics and costs of implementing safety procedures required to reopen schools are prohibitive for many districts, while the detrimental impacts of distance learning—from physical and mental health hazards to absenteeism, stalled academic progress, and widening opportunity gaps—grow as the pandemic wears on.

At the heart of this quagmire are teachers. The dedicated professionals devoted to educating students in classrooms coast to coast have had to adapt in unimaginable ways. Here in the Bay Area, nonprofit organizations that support teachers have also had to adapt to respond to the changing needs of this unprecedented crisis. We reached out to three organizations, Acknowledge Alliance826 Valencia, and Mindful Schools, to discuss the challenges facing teachers and the unique ways they’re working to support them.

Acknowledge Alliance serves K-12 public and private schools in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley with a focus on resilience, social-emotional learning, and building positive relationships between students and educators. One of the primary stressors facing teachers this fall, according to Program Director Tracy Lyons, is that most didn’t take a break this summer. “Instead, they filled their time with professional development so they could learn how to adapt their curriculum and their classroom communities for the virtual environment.” Naturally, this meant that many teachers didn’t get much-needed downtime in the summer, intensifying burnout in an already incredibly taxing time.

Monitoring student learning is also a lot harder in an online environment. Unlike in the classroom, where teachers can scan the room and track student behavior, with virtual instruction, they get only partial glances, or worse, they’re teaching to a blank screen—leaving them highly unsure about their students’ experiences.

Bita Nazarian, Executive Director of 826 Valencia agrees. “Almost overnight, teachers have had to master instruction with an entirely new set of tools. And even if teachers can figure out how to adapt instructionally, getting kids to participate and connect is so much more intensive than in a normal classroom setting.” For 826 Valencia, which supports under-resourced students in San Francisco ages 6 to 18 with their writing skills, going entirely online has meant working with fewer students, but doing so in deeper, more sustained ways. 826 is partnering with 30 teachers to provide volunteer tutors on a weekly basis for the entire school year, and the silver lining, as Nazarian explained, has been “the unique opportunity to connect with families, because we’re working (virtually) in people’s homes.” The program also reduces the student-to-teacher ratio, giving teachers dearly needed partners who can work with kids in breakout rooms and one-on-one during the school day.

Finding ways to connect despite the hurdles of technology and social distancing is also a top priority for Mindful Schools. Having grown from a grassroots program in Oakland to a national provider of mindfulness training for educators, Mindful Schools had the advantage of already offering much of its programming online when the pandemic struck, but they too have had to adapt—offering more live courses and honing their internal skills—to break through the impersonal barriers created by technology and amplify a sense of care and connection online. According to Megan Sweet, Senior Director of Program and Impact, teachers can be resistant to self-care, something that all three organizations we talked with agree is essential in these stressful times. “Teachers tend to be very service-oriented and quite hard on themselves,” explained Sweet, “so helping them to connect with their own internal landscape and regulate their own nervous systems is really important.”

Acknowledge Alliance also prioritizes teacher wellness and moving their programs online has enabled them to expand their Teacher Resilience Groups, which bring school staff together in an open setting to give and receive support. “There’s an increased need for self-compassion practices for teachers,” noted Tracy Lyons. “They’re an incredibly dedicated group, and for most, it is terribly hard to know that their classroom community and academic progress is not where they’d like it to be. Self-compassion isn’t about being okay with inferior work, but it is about being realistic about one’s own perfectionistic standards and being kind to oneself when it’s not possible to meet those standards.”

The prospect of a return to in-person learning is both a relief and a challenge for many teachers who will have to adapt yet again to hybrid learning environments while also managing their own health and safety concerns. With so much instability, teachers are experiencing a lot of overwhelm including fears around their employment and what a return to in-person learning might mean for their health or their families.

The impacts of the pandemic have been further compounded by an intensified focus on structural racism and calls for racial justice, work with profound relevance to students and communities nationwide. All three nonprofits we spoke to already prioritized equity in their work with teachers and students, yet developments in recent months have prompted each organization to amplify their efforts. 826 Valencia has a long history of centering diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in their work, but as Bita Nazarian explained, “in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve doubled down on the work. Our focus with our volunteers used to be more on DEI, and now we’re very specifically grounding it in anti-racism.” This fall, 826 also launched the Black Students Initiative to create new opportunities to specifically support Black students in their programs.

At Mindful Schools, their teacher trainers talk about how bias works and how mindfulness can play a role. “Roughly 70% of teachers are white and roughly 50% of students are not,” noted Megan Sweet. “Automatically, there are culture mismatches between teachers and students. Add to that the beliefs, systems, and structures that influence us whether we like it or not. Mindfulness helps us to be aware of those things as they are happening. When we experience a threat, which happens when our cultural background isn’t acknowledged or when a space doesn’t feel inclusive, our brains shut down. But by using mindfulness, we can notice that and can start to work with it.”

Tracy Lyons sees similar benefits in Acknowledge Alliance’s work with teachers on building self-awareness and resilience. When teachers cultivate their own social-emotional skills and practice self-care, they are able to respond to challenging moments with compassion and understanding, rather than shame and punishment. “Now more than ever,” said Lyons, “students and teachers need reminders that all thoughts and feelings are okay, that we can hone our resilience skills to get through challenges, and that we don’t have to go through challenges alone.”

Empathy is another powerful tool in these difficult times. Bita Nazarian helped to drive this message home: “Teachers are working incredibly hard, and they also have children at home, and wi-fi that goes out,” she noted. “The teachers are incredibly committed to their students and they need understanding and gratitude.”

Indeed, as the work of Acknowledge Alliance, 826 Valencia, and Mindful Schools demonstrates, this pandemic has laid bare the essential importance of empathy and compassion for educators, as well as for parents, schools, communities and society as a whole.

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