Phillips: Teachers Have Never Been More Important Than They Are in This Time of Crisis. We Must Support Our Education Pioneers

Dwayne Reed was at home in Chicago when he first heard the news that Seattle had closed its schools due to COVID-19 and districts around the country were bracing to follow suit. The fourth-grade teacher thought about the implications for educators, their schools already understaffed and underfunded, now facing the challenge and emotional toll of being separated from their students — and from each other — while having to simultaneously set up virtual classrooms, virtually overnight.

That’s when Reed tweeted to fellow educators, “During these times, please remember that we’re the piece that holds so many others together. During war, pandemics, natural disasters, and everything else, our job is to teach and to love, while our students continue to learn and grow. We got this. #TeacherStrong.”

Within days, #TeacherStrong had sparked words of encouragement, ideas and inspiration by the thousands, from educators around the world. Teachers in Mesa, Arizona, Wasco, California, and Parkland, Florida, organized makeshift parades through their communities to wave and cheer to students from a safe distance, letting them know how much they miss them. In Chesapeake, Virginia, and rural Kentucky, school districts worked to get thousands of devices into the hands of students who did not have one at home. In South Africa, a video message circulated with a teacher’s pledge: “I will teach you — even if the world is cloaked in fear and uncertainty. I will create a safe space for you to thrive, not just survive.”

Teachers have never been more important than they are now, working tirelessly to keep their students connected and engaged, and serving as a lifeline to children and their families in a world that has been upended.

This is something I’ve seen throughout my career. As a former teacher, I know that one thing remains unshakable, and that is educators’ unwavering commitment to students. This is the heart of learning: the connection between teachers and learners. And it’s not something that disappears when schools close. In fact, it only drives educators further to find new ways to spark students’ curiosity, keep them engaged and help them thrive.

Educators are among the many on the front lines of this crisis. They are exploring uncharted territory — pioneering new ways of teaching — so students can continue learning.

They are doing much more than simply adapting their approach to a socially distant and remote learning environment. They are pushing boundaries, testing new skills and discovering new solutions to enrich their teaching. Educators feel a responsibility to solve problems because it sets the stage for their learners, motivating and empowering the future leaders, decision makers and stewards of our world.

For more than 132 years, National Geographic has supported innovators who have pushed the limits of exploration, like Robert Ballard in his quest to find the Titanic and Jane Goodall in her groundbreaking study of chimpanzee behavior. We remain committed to supporting pioneers — and educators are pioneers, seeking innovative solutions for their students.

Teachers need everyone’s support, and we can start by listening.

As Reed wrote, “We’re in a new normal. We should be having conversations about what K-12 education will look like after this. That’s what #TeacherStrong is. We can come together and work together to shape what that new normal can be and will be. This is our time.”

While there are many unknowns right now, we do know that COVID-19 will change the world forever — and it will change education. This is an opportunity to rethink the old ways, particularly those ways that were not effective. So let’s all work together — education leaders and influencers, families and communities — with educators to shape the new normal.

Let’s join forces to ensure that educators have the same unwavering support from us that they have for their scholars and for each other. Let’s unite to invest in educators and give them the resources they need — technological, instructional and otherwise — so they can continue to inspire their students to learn and grow.

Let’s work together to collect the learnings from this moment and pool our knowledge, so we can create a better future for students, educators and education.

Let’s connect in strength to support all the educators who are #TeacherStrong.

Dr. Vicki Phillips is the chief education officer at the National Geographic Society. She is the former director of K-12 education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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