Note: This article was originally published by Scene Magazine on May 1, 2020.
Much has been claimed about which professions are essential and which aren’t. On the morning of Monday, March 23rd, it took all of about five minutes for Sarasota County to come to a strong consensus that teachers were close to the top of the essential list.
It was like a giant science experiment. The week after Spring Break, parents woke up to the reality that their daily routine was not returning to normal. With school campuses and childcare centers closed due to Covid-19, moms and dads around the country were suddenly thrust into the temporary role of their children’s primary educator for a week.
The most flexible among them were able to adjust to work-from-home schedules and find online resources for their kids. WEDU, PBS, and others provided televised curriculum and other virtual fieldtrips to help students continue to creatively engage in learning. For some, this change in routine was exciting and fun. For others, not so much. But no matter the experience, parents across the nation finally experienced first-hand what teachers do day in and day out. Not just for one or two children, but dozens at a time.
This recognition comes at a time when teaching has lost its public respect as a noble profession. Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation benefactor Margie Barancik used to speak fondly of the Public Service Announcements that tried to recruit educators into the profession in the 1940s and 50s. They played in theatres before black-and-white superhero films, often portraying teachers as heroes themselves with their own capes and superpowers.
It was these calls to action that inspired Margie to pursue a career in education; many others did the same. And why not? School teachers were treated with a healthy amount of respect and compensation their work.
It was Margie’s love for teaching that inspired the Barancik Foundation to invest in educators. Since 2014, the foundation’s philanthropic efforts have directed more than $7 million into the Sarasota County school system. Much of this support with the primary goal of providing high-quality professional development for schoolteachers.
“There’s a reason everyone remembers their favorite teacher,” says Teri A Hansen, President and CEO of Barancik Foundation. “Research shows that outside of family, teachers have the greatest influence on a child’s academic performance, moral character and future success. They can make all the difference in the world.”
But in more recent years across the nation, school districts have struggled to recruit and retain educators. Fewer young people are choosing the profession, teachers are changing fields and baby boomers are retiring. The cause? Many feel teachers just don’t get the love they used to.
Riverview High School IB teacher and 2018 Sarasota County Teacher of the Year Es Swihart has lived through the culture shift.“When I first decided to go into teaching, I had a number of ‘god bless you’ moments from friends and family,” she recollects. But Swihart noticed around the time of the teacher strikes across the country in the 2010s that the public’s support for educators began to waiver.
“Many felt that teachers were being ungrateful or greedy. That we are glorified babysitters. The usual snide remarks were ‘It must be nice to have summers off.’ The truth is, we don’t get paid for that time off.”
In 2018, Barancik Foundation partnered with the Sarasota County School District to conduct a study on local teacher demand. The survey found that student population in the County is expected to increase over the next five years from 43,000 to nearly 46,500. The district will need to add 151 teachers to maintain the current student-teacher ratio of 17:1.
“Our Board of Directors knew early on that the best way to impact a child was to provide their teacher with the best tools and training available,” says Hansen. “But the larger issue at hand was how to keep teachers in the classroom.”
In partnership with the School District, the foundation launched a Teacher Retention | Recruitment initiative to explore ways to ensure the need was met. The program identifies volunteers, parents and District employees, already with their college degree, who demonstrate characteristics of a future teacher. The program helps with certification costs, provides career guidance, and helps future teachers navigate the application process. Cohorts dubbed “Emerging Educators” ensure that no new educator enters the classroom without a network of peer support.
So far, a dozen teachers-to-be have completed the program and six have been placed in schools. One current participant is grateful for the opportunity.
Troy Montes never thought he’d be a teacher, but his experience in the Peace Corps and raising his two children as a stay-at-home dad taught him he had the natural skillset. “I sort of happened into it,” he says.
After his children were old enough, Montes thought it was time to get back into the workforce. He learned of an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) assistant position at Booker Middle School and applied. “My degree is in Spanish, and so I had the right requirements needed for the interview.”
After three years in the position, Booker Middle’s principal Dr. LaShawn Frost acknowledged his abilities and encouraged him to pursue a full teaching certificate. She recommended the Emerging Educators program.
“It was nice to be noticed that I was making a difference for my kids. I was accepted into the second Cohort of Emerging Educators, and they helped to pay for my schooling and certifications,” Montes says. He is currently waiting for the Department of Education to review his transcripts, and soon will be able to teach language and math classes for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Barancik Foundation also employed another method to start recruiting teachers even earlier. An Educators Rising program was formed at a few local high schools. Teaching clubs were established to help build a community of support around high school students and find volunteer opportunities for them to instruct in middle and elementary schools as practice.
“Our study found that most Sarasota teachers grew up here,” says Hansen. “The high school programs are creating a pipeline for future teachers by engaging with current teenagers who have an interest in education and staying in our region.”
For now, some of that work is on pause. Public schools remain as a virtual learning institutes and teachers are dealing with a whole new world. Luckily, if anyone knows how to remain flexible, it’s teachers. They’re dealing with the same moments of joy and frustration that happen on any given day of class. Student’s strong personalities are shining through iPhones and webcams, just as they would in the classroom seat.
Michala Chipurnoi, a 2nd grade teacher at Fruitville Elementary, juggles between her virtual instruction for students and facilitating check-ins and coaching calls with parents—all the while trying to keep her “Mom of the Year Award” by caring for her own two young children and husband at home.
“I’m doing my best to ensure my kids and students are still having fun and being themselves, because they’re not learning if they don’t feel safe and engaged,” says Chipurnoi. “One of my students changed her name to Emelia the Flying Unicorn on the Zoom app, and I let the other students follow suit.”
The necessity to shift education into the digital world will come with its pros and cons for teachers. As well as many lessons learned around its effectiveness. Many teachers stress that while technology can help teach cognitive skills, it lacks the ability to foster social skills and emotional intelligence.
Chipurnoi explains, “My kids love technology, they know how to use it better than I do. But what’s important in a regular learning environment is the social and emotional learning component. Students in a classroom learn to work as a team with me and each other. It’s about relationships, not technology. I worry what they’re missing out on right now.”
In her free time, Swihart manages a blog (worthyselfedu.com), where she shares thoughts on teaching and building relationships with students. “Sitting across from my daughter on Day 4781 in this our era of Never Seeing Each Other Again, I am struck suddenly by total job security: Teachers will never be replaced by technology,” she writes. “Because, at its most basic level, technology is not really about people.”
However, both teachers admit with laughter that Zoom provides one tool they lack in the classroom: a “mute all” button.
If teachers didn’t already form strong personal relationships with their students before, they’re getting an even more in-depth look into their students’ personal lives. Quite literally. Zoom video conferencing doesn’t afford much in the form of privacy, other than the zany virtual backgrounds some people can opt to use on their calls. What was often masked by the uniformity and structure of classrooms walls, the Zoom video calls now offer a more realistic picture of the difference in equity of students’ households and family lives.
“It sort of clarified everything we already knew was true before,” says Montes, who is doing virtual check-ins with the students and parents of Booker Middle’s ESOL program. “Some students just don’t have the same resources at home as much as other kids. Sometimes it’s just chaotic at home.”
Swihart suggests the situation has highlighted what’s strong and what’s fragile in our society. “We’re seeing enormous amounts of strength in how the educational community cares about our students and their families,” she says, citing the District’s efforts to provide the proper technology and food assistance to those in need.
“But so present right now is what’s hindering the ability for kids to engage in learning—poverty, trauma, abuse. But it’s not an educational problem, it’s a reality in our community that needs to be addressed beyond the classroom.”
All three teachers brought up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, citing that students are less likely to perform at their full potential if their basic needs are unmet. With the threat of a global pandemic and looming economic unrest, it’s no surprise that many feel stressed, unsafe and lack proper necessities at home.
But what can parents do to help? The feedback is unanimous: just show a bit of extra love to your children. Chipurnoi explains that these times are scary enough for adults, and children are going through the same cycles of anxiety. It’s important to show kids that their loved ones are there for them
Montes agrees. “Be patient with your child. That’s not just coming from the educator in me, that’s coming from the parent. The ABC’s can always be learned, grades can be made up, but trauma is hard to undo.”
Swihart also stressed the importance of valuing your child’s feedback at home. “Give them a say in how you schedule time and approach rules and tasks. That might be the most compassionate thing you can do right now,” she states.
In March, recognizing the vital mental health need for children, Sarasota County Schools in partnership with Barancik Foundation were able to incorporate Inner Explorer mindfulness training into students’ virtual curriculum. The national program, founded by Sarasota local Dr. Laura Bakosh, comes with 40 years of research proving the effectiveness of audio-guided meditation and stress reduction lessons. Daily practices teach students easy techniques to properly handle difficult emotions such as stress, anxiety, anger and more. The best part, parents and teachers can join in, too. To sign up, visit www.innerexplorer.org.
While it’s unknown when campuses will open again, it’s clear that teachers’ hearts remain unchanged. They’re in it for their students, in and out of the classroom. This crisis has taught us a lot about the professionals in our society who wear metaphorical capes. When life returns to a new normal, and students are back in the classroom, our community would be wise to celebrate and thank our teachers for what they do for us. Let’s not let that feeling fade, we know we need them.