An Open ‘Thank You’ Letter To Teachers In A Covid-19 World

I wake up every day to National Coffee Day or National Put Your Left Sock On First Day. It is kind of hard to keep up so I generally do not try to do it. However, I learned that October 5th is World Teachers’ Day. It is also called International Teachers’ Day. I am sure there are other versions of Teachers’ Day throughout the year, but the bigger point for me is that teachers deserve our thanks and appreciation every day, especially in the COVID-19 reality of 2020.

World Teachers’ Day is not one of these things made up by some marketing agency. There is actually a history to it. According to NationalToday.com, World Teachers’ Day is “a global event launched by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1994.” It is holiday that recognizes the anniversary of the 1966 UNESCO Recommendation concerning employment, preparation, education, and recruitment of teachers. The 2020 message from UNESCO notes the important of young teachers and the future of the profession.

This brings me to this open letter. I am an atmospheric scientist and a professor at the University of Georgia. Before coming to academia, I spent twelve years at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as a research meteorologist. I have been blessed to receive my share of honors, awards, and so forth. I have always traced my career outcomes to the influence of K-12 teachers at North Canton/Tippens Elementary and Cherokee High School. My mother was a long-time teacher and school administrator in Cherokee County, Georgia. As a single parent, she set the bar for the importance of education. However, I saw the teaching profession from a different lens too. I saw her grading papers at all times of the night, making lesson plans, dealing with the occasional unpleasant parent complaints, and so forth.

In the United States, the average K-12 public school teacher makes around $60,000 per year according to 2018-2019 National Education Association reports. In my opinion, teachers should be some of the highest paid professionals in the United States or in any country. There are no doctors, lawyers, meteorologists and Presidents without science, math, language arts, and history teachers. Yet, a 2019 report by the Economic Policy Institute found that not only is the teacher shortage real, it is growing. Some of the key findings in the report include:

  • 13.8 percent of public school teachers in the U.S. are either leaving their school or the profession.
  • Schools are struggling to fill vacancies because of dwindling applicant pools.
  • Over the period 2008–2009 to 2015–2016 school years, there was a 15.4 percent decline in education degrees awarded (also a 27.4 percent decline in completion of teacher preparation programs).

While I once was a “rocket scientist” (sort of) at NASA, it doesn’t take one to figure out that these numbers are probably worse in disadvantaged or poor school districts.

The aforementioned dire numbers precede 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic. My two teenage kids are attending school, one virtually and one in person, in the Gwinnett County Public School system. It is the largest public school system in the state of Georgia and one of the best in the nation based on numerous national awards. However, I cannot imagine the challenges and stresses valiant educators locally, nationally, and globally are facing trying to deliver a quality education to our students under this “new normal.” Teachers, in a non-coronavirus world, already had to deal with an array of student challenges, parents, and an unrealistic amount of standardized testing. In 2020, they also have to deal with the very real threat of getting sick with COVID-19, learning new digital technologies, fending of Zoom interruptions, and juggling in-person/online classes.

It is not surprising that a recent poll found that one out of three teachers said that COVID-19 has made them more likely to resign or retire early. A personal friend of my family resigned over fear of health concerns. I have also talked to teacher colleagues who say that many senior educators just don’t have the interest in learning or juggling new technologies. These generations of students are digital natives (tablets, Zoom, and smartphones have been a part of their upbringing). More senior educators are mostly digital immigrants (new to emerging technology).

The words in this article cannot change the day-to-day challenges that teachers face, but I hope this note of appreciation lifts someone’s day. As a parent, citizen, and scientist, I understand that at any given moment in time right now you are serving as:

Educator….Caretaker….Technology Troubleshooter….Nurse….Mediator….Arbitrator….Punching Bag for ungrateful or unrealistic parents….and more.

The best educators like Yvonda Thomas at Alcova Elementary School, Derek Tuthill at Dacula Middle School, and Andrea Marchese at Dacula High School, all of whom my kids have been blessed to experience, are passionate about what they do. They reach their students on levels that far exceeds books, tests, and classrooms.

For teachers like them around the world, Thank you everyday.

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