Mary O’Hara can pinpoint when she knew she wanted to teach: It was the first grade in Mrs. Bennett’s class.
The reading specialist for Troy Community Consolidated School District 30-C remembers the safety and sense of community being in school gave her. Her teachers were engaged, as were most everyone’s parents to some degree, and – perhaps most important – everyone was on the same page in providing students a solid education. She couldn’t imagine doing anything else, she said, so she parlayed her fond memories and passion for literacy into a tough, yet noblest, career.
Today, O’Hara remains devoted to teaching. But, she said, some of what made teaching so wondrous has changed.
There are many reasons education has come under fire, from top-down decision-making without community consult to high-stakes testing that doesn’t accurately portray a teacher’s skill in the classroom, a 2019 op-ed from Education Week lays out. Politics, O’Hara said, has wended its way into education in recent years, with people who don’t fully understand the classroom dynamic trying to implement policies and curriculum.
And where parents used to be mostly engaged across the board in their children’s education, parents now seem to be divided into two camps: the helicopter parents involved in every aspect, and those who, for whatever reason, don’t engage at all. Throw in a paycheck that’s often not commensurate with the experience, and it’s small wonder teachers are either leaving the profession, or worse, not even getting into it at all, O’Hara said.
“It’s evident there’s a mass exodus right now of teachers. It used to be, 11 years ago when I got my first teaching job, [districts] were having prescreening interviews where they were screening 200 applicants at a time trying to get down to the top 20 and then interviewing five at a time,” O’Hara said. “And now, in some positions, you’re lucky if you can get 10 people to come in and interview. I think that speaks for what has happened to education.
“When I started teaching, I felt like everybody was in it for the best interest of the students. There was this share of stakeholders between the school, the teacher, the parents, the child – a very big team approach. But push forward, and we’re getting a lot of pushback.”
As bleak as all that may sound, many teachers have used found ways to engage with parents that make navigating the school year easier for everyone. Some of those ways were born out of the pandemic.
Emily Brzycki, a Joliet mother of two boys, Max and Owen, said she transferred her sons to parochial school because the school district Max was attending announced in June 2020 that it wasn’t going to bring its students back after the initial COVID-19 wave in 2020, and having the boys home another year was an untenable proposition for the family.
“When [COVID-19] first happened [in March 2020], we were home that spring like everybody else, and it was really bad,” Brzycki said. “At the time, we were living in a 1,000-square-foot house, and [Brzycki’s husband] Jeremy was working from home, and I was working from home, and the two kids – we never had room for them to learn. We had one kitchen table, and it was trying to have the older kid actually learn things, and then the preschool-aged kid just messing around all the time. There was so much yelling and crying, and it was just seriously terrible.”
Because COVID-19 kept the children out of the classroom, and because Max has an individualized education program, the Brzyckis started relying on email to communicate with the boys’ teachers. They liked the method, she said, for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is its ease of use.
“Conversations are also documented – not from a legal standpoint, but from the fact that somebody might forget what somebody said, and then you reread evaluations and everything’s just there,” she said.
Being in a smaller school also helps with communication in that it’s easier to get know the teachers, she said.
“We’re only in our second year at St. Paul’s, but I already feel like I know a good chunk of the staff, whereas before, I would only see teachers for IEP conferences, so I didn’t have as much of a dialogue with them,” Brzycki said.
Tom Hernandez, spokesman for Plainfield School District 202, said the district was already in the process of implementing a remote-learning plan in case of snow days or other situations that would call for it. So the district spent $7.4 million on 17,000 laptops and got them in students’ hands. One problem seemingly solved during the pandemic led to others, however, he said.
“A lot of our parents live in what we call ‘internet dead zones,’ where they don’t have easy access to internet services. That’s not something that the district could just provide, but we could purchase hundreds and hundreds of Wi-Fi hotspots and distribute them to some of our [low-income] families,” he said. “That was great, but now, we have parents who have to figure out, ‘How do I stay home with my kids, or find somebody else to stay home with them? How do we help them do school all day long? It’s not enough to simply say, ‘Here’s a computer.’
“But our teachers – like all teachers – did unbelievable work to help to make themselves available: off-hours on weekends and in the evenings.”
Hernandez recalled a conversation he had with a high-schooler’s parent that got to the crux of the matter: The father’s child was struggling with getting their work done remotely, and he and Hernandez would joke about it until one day, the man told Hernandez he’s not a teacher. Hernandez told him that’s why he and every parent should appreciate teachers.
“It’s hard to find any good from these last two years, but one of the things [the pandemic] did was focus a laser beam on the relationship – the essential, critical relationship – between school and home,” he said.
O’Hara, the teacher, agrees technology has made communicating with parents easier; she has social media accounts to promote the good things that are happening in the classroom as well as news of which parents should be aware. She thinks the communication provides comfort to parents.
“Parents were put in a situation where they had to take a lot of responsibility for their kids’ learning and making sure that they were present, and they had to work around their jobs and multiple children at home,” O’Hara said “I think the important thing when we’re thinking about parent communication is you want to be communicating with your parents at the start of the year. You want to be discussing the positive things so that way if you do hit a bump in the road, you and the parents already have that partnership and rapport.”
Brzycki added that parents need to give as much respect as they get from teachers.
“Most people are in education because they love kids and are trying to educate them, so I’m always going to give a teacher the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “I know teachers are very burned out, and after [COVID-19], it seems everybody loses their cool over every little thing, and teachers have gotten the brunt of that. But I truly feel everybody seems to be doing their jobs for the right reasons.”