This article appears in the September-October 2020 issue of ESSENCE, magazine on newsstands now!
Alexis Carpenter, an elementary school teacher in Oakland, began the last school year without a working printer. It took a five-minute drive to the nearest school campus to find a printer to prepare handouts, reports and assessments. “The printer was shared among all staff on both campuses for the first month or so of school,” she recalls. “We finally had a printer set up at each campus.”
Never mind that she had to share that machine with at least 18 other staff members. Every year, Carpenter resorts to storing away copy paper, as there’s always a shortage. She also finds herself coming out of pocket for classroom materials to support the development of all 135 students in her class, 35 of whom are English-language learners. In Essex, Virginia, a low income Black community on the other side of the country, first-year teacher Kamia Rucker started her career and the academic year expecting to jump r right into the state’s fourth-grade writing curriculum.
Fourth graders are expected to learn to write research-based papers and pull relevant evidence from texts to support their thesis before the end of the school year. Rucker soon realized that she would have to temporarily abandon these goals and hunt for resources and materials to teach skills and concepts that her students should have grasped in previous grades. “A lot of my students come in not knowing the basics and the foundations for a fourth-grade curriculum,” she says. “So I had to teach them basics like nouns and verbs, just to move forward with their writing. They didn’t know how to compose a paragraph. They didn’t know the writing process at all.”
The prevalence of inadequate support and lack of student readiness followed Black instructors into their remote-learning classrooms when U.S. schools went into lockdown in March 2020. The global pandemic brought out the educators’ resourcefulness while simultaneously exposing new ways in which educational disparities uniquely harm low-income Black children and families. Faculty members like Shaunice Sasser, an English teacher at a STEM middle school in McDonough, Georgia, prioritized staying in touch with students’ families so they could stay abreast of weekly learning goals.
I knew those students who were already behind weren’t the ones showing up.”—ALEXIS CARPENTER
“Part of our communication plan was to increase our social media presence,” Sasser says. “We built PLNs [professional learning networks] with other educators using Twitter, posted videos and pictures to Instagram and YouTube, and went live on Instagram and Facebook for parents. It was important for us to consistently communicate our expectations. Every day we posted morning messages and closing messages, at the same time that we would have had we been in school.”
With the support of the school administration, Sasser was also able to launch “Parent Lunch and Learn,” a weeklong series focused on helping parents think in terms of earning additional income through tutoring. “So many people were out of work,” explains Sasser. “As a parttime entrepreneur, I knew that this was a perfect time to inspire parents to tap into their genius to make money.”
THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP
While Sasser tried to help parents find a more secure footing, Carpenter looked for ways to support her lowest-performing students. She’d noticed that their attendance was inconsistent because of their parents’ work demands.
As an educator in a struggling community, she understood that the less-than-optimal remote-learning conditions would negatively impact their quality of instruction and exacerbate an already pernicious achievement gap, defined
by Black and Hispanic children lagging an average of two to three years behind White students of the same age on standardized tests.
“Some of the parents have essential jobs, so they have to bring their child to work,” Carpenter notes. “Maybe they can’t afford to have someone take care of them because they’re a single parent. I didn’t want the achievement gap to grow, yet I knew those students who were already behind weren’t the ones showing up.” In addition to setting up automated reminders for parents to review daily homework, Carpenter also recorded her lessons, so that students who couldn’t be available during her remote class could catch up afterward. “I plan to leave the lessons up…so they can always go back,” Carpenter says.
For every teacher able to engage with students and parents via technology, many others ran smack into the digital divide—the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet and those who do not. “It was hard for me to teach because my students lived in areas where they didn’t have the Internet,” says Rucker. “So I gave them packets. I couldn’t teach live, so I would use Google Classroom for assignments.“ Of her 50 students, only ten consistently turned in assignments on time. Richmond, Virginia–based high school Spanish teacher Brittany Flippen faced a similar dilemma, in that many of her young-adult students initially couldn’t log in regularly because they had to share a single computer with younger siblings.
Some also lived in temporary housing with other families or had to respond to the financial realities of COVID-19. “In addition to trying to get their schoolwork done, some kids picked up jobs to help out at home,” shares Flippen. “Many of my students came to me and said, ‘It’s not that I don’t want to do your work, but I got a job now. I’m helping to take care of the house.’ ”
The Other Side
Parent responses to academic personnel during these uncertain times underscore the important role educators play in our society. Amber L. Wright, a communications coach and consultant who is a mother to two young daughters, admits to having a greater appreciation now for the multiple hats teachers wear. “I thought a lot about the families who didn’t have computers for their children, didn’t have access to Internet, who might need support in school, who might need tutoring,” she says. “The teacher serves as the one portal to all the other resources, for some kids. I often wondered how teachers handled all of that.”
Aleeia Abraham is a community activist and mother. Her first-grade son is enrolled in a gifted-and-talented program with a class size of 33 in Cambria Heights, New York. She recognized that teachers possess a unique skill set after becoming her son’s primary classroom instructor during four months of social distancing. “As a parent, you become more appreciative of classroom teachers now that you’ve been on the other side,” Abraham says. “Teaching requires patience, and it requires knowing each child. You can’t just have a blanket education plan, because each child has different circumstances and different ways they learn. It’s more than just teaching them how to read and write. It is also about the emotional support that you have to give each child all day long.”
The COVID-19 Conundrum
Teachers, whose average salary is $60,477 and for whom starting salaries often fall below $40,000, are at the center of national conversations around the reopening of schools in the fall. Despite their increased workload during the shutdown, along with their unfamiliarity with online platforms, the health risks involved and the acute toll of emotional labor during COVID-19, these
essential workers still put their students first.
“I understand the district wants us to come back,” Flippen says now. “We all want to come back. I miss my kids and I want to see them.” However, the U.S. education system was not built to deal with extended shutdowns like those imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. For educators to return to teaching with confidence, they are going to need ongoing support from school and district leaders in order to provide professional help around instruction in a virtual setting.
This will require the neediest students to be provided with laptops and Internet access. Flippen recommends additional mental health and counseling services for children experiencing COVID-1 9-related trauma. Educational leaders are working closely with teachers and administrators to ensure that this happens. Community school superintendents, like New York City’s Tammy Pate, Ed.D., have developed peer-to-peer platforms so teachers can readily access learning resources and can continue to add to this hub as they enter the new school year.
“Teams of teachers from different schools have already worked together to create an entire set of 40 lessons, with resources and other teaching samples,” Pate states. For next year, faculty members can also expect clear guidelines and expectations around priority learning objectives for teachers, since most schools across the country will adopt a hybrid model of in-person and online learning. “Looking at a child across the screen will require more from us to understand the quality of their thinking,” Pate says. “So we are thinking about what apps and platforms to use, and how to strategically use questioning and student grouping to assess students’ knowledge and skills in a remote setting.”
Educators are cautiously optimistic about the future, even as plans regarding their new responsibilities shift and evolve. Closing the Black-White achievement gap in a post-COVID-19 society remains a Herculean task, and it will demand more than the individual efforts of resilient, caring, hardworking teachers.
It will require addressing race-based educational inequalities at their systemic roots and replacing them with programs that place the well-being of parents and children at the center. In this sense, perhaps COVID-19 was just what our society needed in order to put national focus, finally, on educating Black children and giving appropriate support to the teachers who love them.
THE BLACK EFFECT
While many teachers have questioned the impact of their instruction during this time of crisis, studies prove that the presence of Black educators in Black children’s lives has an overall net positive effect. Research from Johns Hopkins University and American University shows that Black students who have even one Black teacher by the third grade are 13 percent more likely to enroll in a college or university.
The data also revealed that the positive “role model effect” of having a teacher who looks like you is especially beneficial for very low-income young Black men, who are nearly 40 percent less likely to become high school dropouts if they have at least one Black teacher in elementary school.