An open letter from a teacher: The challenges of education in these unprecedented times

Sask Bulletin
May 23, 2020
By Shayna Zubko, Esterhazy Central High School

COVID-19 has changed the reality for people around the world in the last couple of weeks. This includes approximately 1.5 billion students globally. As a teacher, I have around 110 students from Grades 8 to 12 that should be coming through my classroom every day. 

For my students and myself, our world has been turned upside down and we all have to adjust to the new realities that have been outlined not only by COVID-19 but also by the Government of Saskatchewan, communities and circumstances. The question has become what is the “new” direction for education and how will we as teachers meet the needs of our students? 

First off, the school closure announcement by the Government of Saskatchewan came as a surprise to many teachers. We as a professional community had no notion or prior knowledge that the announcement would be made. Students in my class were getting messages from their parents before I, as a teacher, knew what was happening because schools and school divisions were told approximately the same time as the media. This left a wave of chaos as a flurry of questions were thrown at my fellow teachers and me, and we had no additional knowledge, comfort or any kind of certainty to provide to our students.

“I keep seeing posts from parents about how they are having to provide some home education. To me as a teacher, social media is providing unnecessary pressure on parents in an already stressful time. My message – we got this.” Shayna Zubko

Not only that, but within hours students were out of the school and were removed by parents. We were left with largely empty classrooms for the remainder of the week to “wind things down.” I think many teachers, myself included, were left in a state of shock and sadness. 

As a teacher of Grade 12 students, I struggled to grapple with the reality of not having any closure at the end of the school year nor being able to send those students off with a grand celebration in graduation. Also, celebrating the successes of the school year with students from every other grade and being happy for them to move on to the next adventure in learning, culminating in their advancement to the next grade, was not possible.

In addition, we were presented with a number of new norms, which we were forced to accept from our esteemed government that promised every student credits and advancement and continually changed the guiding protocols for us as teachers. It left many of us confused, wondering how to prepare and when the next change in direction would come. 

This leads me to a new state of worry and wonder that is our day-to-day life now. As many of us adjust to working from home, which in itself presents so many challenges, we are still worrying about our students as we are trying to reach out and connect with them.

Students have been given the option to opt in or opt out of supplemental learning to try to alleviate the enormous potential gaps in learning that this three-month break could leave in our students. A focus on math, reading and writing has been mandated, rightfully so, for our younger students. However, the immediate future education of high school students remains optional. 

Personally, I worry about students not getting what they need for post-secondary learning, whether that is calculus, crucial writing skills, or practical skills and hours gained through practical and applied arts. Although many teachers are tech-savvy and incredibly creative, there is still a limit to how much can be gleaned through an online platform. There is a reason we have been stressing attendance as key to our students for years!

As teachers, we are “re-learning how to do education” and to many that is incredibly stressful. Not only that, but we have to ask ourselves “what do I teach?” We have been left to decide what is essential for our students to learn. This is a major struggle for people who love learning and want to share all the knowledge they can with their students, or at least it is for me. All of this leaves an overwhelming air of anxiety for what September will look like. 

In addition, because teachers are incredibly caring human beings, we are worried about our students. There are so many students who come to school every day because it is their happy place or their safe space. They come to school to socialize, hang out with their friends and take part in a wonderful variety of activities that help them to grow, become themselves and thrive. Not only that, but teachers are role models, supporters, guidance givers and number-one fans of their students. This too leaves a huge gap in the lives of our students. I miss my students and I also miss my colleagues. 

Two things have become very clear to me in the new world of physical distancing, homebound education and the general chaos created by a global pandemic. People are incredibly creative–have you seen the tremendously clever memes being made? People are also developing a newfound appreciation and love for teachers. As I mentioned earlier, teachers are creative people; we are going to work our hardest to create and deliver content electronically to our students. We are still going to work on having some kind of connection with our students. 

Although I realize that students have diverse abilities to access what will be provided by teachers, the hope is that we can help our students be successful like usual. School divisions are also working to make sure that students will be able to access the content provided by teachers at home. I keep seeing posts from parents about how they are having to provide some home education. To me as a teacher, social media is providing unnecessary pressure on parents in an already stressful time. My message–we got this. 

Teachers are still working to provide some form of adapted and flexible education to their students. It may just require a bit more patience since we are only learning about the expectations of us being outlined from above. And if you want to give us all the money like some of those social media posts suggest, I don’t think anyone would object (just joking). 

There has been a lot of support among teachers globally in providing resources to one another to get through this time and discussing pedagogy via digital education. I have personally talked with and shared resources with teachers from across the province of Saskatchewan and love that we can stay in communication during a time of distancing. And of course, we have our own staff members and the continual guidance of our administrators. I tell you, they have been champions in fielding questions because there have been so many questions.

Education has always been a challenging profession and now the world has thrown a proverbial wrench of all wrenches into the mix. But, the positive is that technology is working in our favour at this time. There are a dozen different online platforms, if not more, being used by teachers throughout the country to provide content to students. 

In conclusion, I am reminding myself that the unknown is what we are all presently facing. Although the situation is frustrating and we all felt wholeheartedly unprepared and continue to feel unprepared, we must focus on our own needs and those of our students. 

This brings to mind Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs where the focus is on the psychological well-being of students (and me as a teacher) before making sure that they are being creative, evaluative and analytical according to Bloom’s Taxonomy. 

So we will battle through dealing with constant distractions at home, including our pet co-workers and newly created workspaces, and try to do what we have learned to do best–teach.