Investing in Educators is Crucial for Remote Learning
The fall academic semester has arrived across the U.S., and many K-12 schools, colleges, and universities find themselves in a similar situation to what they experienced in the spring: teaching and learning in a virtual environment. However, months later, the circumstances have changed slightly. While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced institutions across the nation to continue remote learning, these institutions have also had the advantage of time to prepare for new challenges and lessons to learn from prior mistakes made.
Now having this knowledge and experience to draw upon, we must not forget to prioritize teacher and student health and wellness, involve teachers in decision-making processes, and make real investments in the professional development of new and experienced educators.
School districts, colleges, and universities should involve educators in all decision-making processes that impact their learners. As the enforcers of policy, educators must be empowered to offer their input and voice their suggestions, especially since they have firsthand knowledge of the students.
Additionally, as school districts resume for the term, they must prioritize educators' health and safety. This includes establishing special accommodations for educators and learners with underlying medical conditions and providing adequate mental health and emotional support services for teachers, students, and related school communities.
“There are many ways that districts and policymakers can support educators teaching remotely,” explains Christopher Hromalik, a professor of Spanish at Onondaga Community College, part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system. Dr. Hromalik is an expert on remote teaching and currently serves as chair of the ACTFL Distance Learning Special Interest Group. “Not only should districts and policymakers provide access to technology to both educators and students, but they should ensure that all have access to professional development opportunities to support the effective use of this technology for pedagogical purposes.”
A Growing Teacher Shortage
Even before COVID-19, the U.S. was facing a growing challenge recruiting and retaining qualified teachers. The Department of Education reported a shortage of teachers across subjects as of the 2017-18 academic year, with at least 44 states and the District of Columbia reporting a shortage of qualified world language educators specifically.
Unfortunately, the global health crisis and its effects on the educational landscape raised the stakes dramatically: In a nationwide poll of educators, the National Education Association found that 28 percent said the COVID-19 pandemic has made them more likely to retire early or leave the profession.
This is a critical moment for us to act and a real opportunity to demonstrate our support for educators nationwide. We risk losing an entire generation of qualified educators and the elimination of countless language programs across the country. Institutions must employ strategies to retain current educators and recruit future educators, or they will find it increasingly difficult to fill critical positions soon.
Moreover, without the intervention of federal, state, and local entities, there are concerns that language educators will be unable to meet the needs of their learners now and in the future.
To uphold teaching standards and maintain a pipeline of well-prepared, diverse educators, we must nurture and respect today's teachers by prioritizing professional development and mentorship. Investing in our most valuable asset—our teachers—will encourage more individuals to consider teaching as a worthy profession.
The Equity Gap
To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic has made more evident a growing, pervasive equity gap in our society and, more specifically, our education system. The racial and economic inequalities in the U.S. continue to negatively affect educational opportunities for people of color and those from low-income households. The achievement gaps have been further exacerbated by the pandemic. Some students may lack access to a personal computer, a quiet, comfortable space to work, or even sufficient Internet access, making at-home learning nearly impossible.
But this gap isn’t limited just to students. Nearly 400,000 K-12 teachers in the U.S. live in households without sufficient Internet connectivity (roughly 1 in 10), and about 100,000 teachers don't have access to a device in their home to facilitate remote instruction.
To further exacerbate this divide, language access for parents of students whose first language is not English has been largely uneven across school districts and schools.
The inequality level among both students and teachers directly results in reduced access to proper education for many students, especially those in low-income households, those living in rural communities, English Learners (ELs), and Native American students.
Instructional materials and communications on student progress must reflect the linguistic and cultural diversity of the communities they serve. Districts should plan to invest in the professional translation of communication materials to address access and equity for all students and their families.
The Path Forward
There are several steps that policymakers and administrators can take to ensure our students have access to high-quality education, no matter the setting. Congress must make essential investments to address the growing technology gap, language access, and support for students with diverse needs. They must prioritize teacher preparation and college affordability. Schools and school districts must put as much value on the educator as they do on the expensive technology platforms.
That said, we also owe teachers the social and emotional support that will enable them to simultaneously manage their own families, the rigors of new teaching requirements and guidelines, and their students—many of whom face their own COVID-related trauma. Schools must also prioritize additional funding for counselors and professional training for staff. Resources that address self-care should be made widely available for both students and teachers.
Dr. Hromalik emphasizes that such support is both essential and urgent: “We must remember that both students and educators are experiencing greater levels of stress at this time. Ensuring that sufficient counseling and other non-academic support is in place to account for the many non-cognitive barriers that may affect student success is something that should be considered at the beginning of the academic year. It is better to be proactive by preparing to provide this support instead of being reactive and providing it when a problem comes to the surface.”
Education gaps will continue to widen if we don’t act with a seriousness of purpose. Our teachers deserve our support and our students deserve a brighter future.
About the author
Howie Berman is the Executive Director for ACTFL. With nearly 18 years of experience working with non-profit membership organizations, he is responsible for enhancing ACTFL’s reputation and influence in the language education community and overseeing the implementation of all policies and actions approved by the ACTFL Board of Directors. He is passionate about delivering measurable, cost-effective results to advance ACTFL’s mission of providing vision, leadership, and support for quality teaching and learning of languages.