As most students gear up for a return to a full-year of in-person learning, the state is laying the groundwork to help students rebound in their academic success and Michigan teachers are looking forward to a school year unhindered by the trials and challenges the pandemic posed.
“In my 16 years of teaching, this has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as a teacher,” Sarah Soper, an English teacher at Northwest High School in Jackson, said of the past school year. “It has also been extremely challenging for our students, parents and community.
“The most difficult thing this year has been teaching both in-person students as well as online students at the same time,” added Soper, who was named as a 2020-2021 Regional Teacher of the Year by the Michigan Department of Education. “In some classes I would have as many as 25 students in person and an additional five online. During class, I was stuck behind my desk in order to be on Zoom, which was difficult because then I didn’t feel like I was interacting much with the in-person students. On the other hand, if I walked around, then the online students couldn’t see me, so that was difficult for them. There was really no good way to make it work with the limited technology we had access to, and I always felt like I wasn’t doing justice for either one group or the other.”
Chelsee Schram, another Regional Teacher of the Year during the coronavirus challenges, said the past year of teaching was the most stressful of her career. The second-grade educator at Laingsburg Elementary School noted the vast changes that were required due to pandemic restrictions.
“I have no longer been able to use so many best practices and engagement strategies,” Schram said. “In addition to the already overwhelming teaching expectations, we have added mask expectations, custodial duties such as cleaning desks, and the ever-changing switches between virtual and face to face. This year has been exhausting.”
For its part, the state is hoping to provide a springboard for returning students. The state’s Student Recovery Advisory Council of Michigan report “MI Blueprint for Comprehensive Student Recovery” provides key strategies for school districts and policymakers to help Michigan’s children begin the bounce back to normal.
“It’s going to take substantial work and resources for school districts, educators, students and their families to begin rebuilding on the academic successes achieved by educators and students prior to the pandemic,” said State Superintendent Michael Rice. “The governor’s advisory council focused on several opportunities to make progress in Michigan schools.”
However, students themselves may find the transition easier than expected. Both Soper and Schram noted the resilience their students demonstrated over the past year.
“I am constantly impressed with my students; and this year, they have been exceptional,” Soper said. “The emotional toll the past year has taken on them is substantial, but they have risen to the challenge and many of them have been extremely successful academically. They did a great job wearing masks, following safety protocols and adapting to virtual school.”
Kids are fairly flexible and adaptive, as long adults give them grace, Schram said. Once students can be in full-time and uninterrupted face-to-face instruction, the return to normalcy should be swift.
The same could likely be said about the teachers.
“Beyond helping my students achieve their goals, I enjoy being a special person for them,” Schram said. “I love opening and closing our days with hugs and salutations. I love hearing how they spent our time apart. I treasure those special ‘aha’ moments. Above all, I enjoy helping children believe that they are smart and they are in full ownership of their education.”
Addressing the Teacher Shortage
Like the rest of the nation, Michigan has been battling a teacher shortage for years as pay, working conditions and a variety of other complex factors prompted mass teacher protests and resignations. The issue only became exacerbated with the added stresses of the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet now Michigan is hoping that a new statewide program will serve as a stopgap until long-term solutions are found to attract more students into the teaching profession. In April, the Michigan Department of Education launched its “Welcome Back Proud Michigan Educators” campaign encouraging formerly certified educators to seek full-time employment by partnering with a school district. The MDE has created a process to reduce or eliminate barriers to recertification and to facilitate reentry into the profession.
“From classroom teachers to building administrators to district leaders, we are facing an unprecedented and very concerning shortage of educators across the state,” said Tina Kerr, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. “We are glad to see MDE taking these steps to reengage former educators and help us welcome them back to our school districts. We need to continue thinking creatively and working collaboratively to ensure that Michigan’s 1.5 million students have access to the teachers, leaders and staff necessary to get the high-quality public education they deserve.”