(CNN) — If there was ever a year to appreciate teachers, it is 2020.
And World Teachers’ Day — which is held annually on October 5 — aims to do just that.
Amid a global pandemic, teachers have become even more vital, as they navigate how to help students adjust to distance learning and adapt to Covid-19 safety guidelines in their classrooms.
Many teachers said they are working as hard as they possibly can to make the best out of a tough situation.
“It’s a different type of busy. There are no gaps, there are no breaks,” said Diane Thompson, a high school biology teacher based in Nashville, Tennessee, where schools started the year remotely.
“We’re trying to respond to the (achievement) gaps that are already there and feeling the pressure that we’ve got to cram missed content in. Kids are overwhelmed, staff is overwhelmed, and I think we just need to recognize it’s okay not to be okay.”
Teachers described spending countless hours working overtime to create new lessons from scratch and redesigning assignments to work in an online environment.
Over the summer, some teachers also spent their vacation time pushing for more coronavirus safety measures in schools and working with institutions to create the safest possible reopening plans. Others fought for the right to work remotely rather than risk exposure to Covid-19.
Meanwhile, parents found themselves trying to juggle working from home, childcare, and helping kids with remote learning. Memes quickly started circulating online with parents highlighting how educators should be paid more.
This year involves so much more than teaching, Thompson said. Her school is finding ways to give kids tech support and internet access, as well as food to make up for missing free and reduced lunches at school.
“When we’re thinking about issues or troubleshooting things, it’s like, ‘What is best for kids?'” she said. “I think everyone is just trying their best. We’re not in this career for money and we never will be. We’re intrinsically motivated and we’re motivated by the kids.”
Teachers put students first
Despite the job-related difficulties of this year, every teacher CNN interviewed seemed more worried for their students than themselves.
“I think one of the biggest things about pandemic is going to be a huge achievement gap,” said Brittany Precosky, a teacher coach based in Thunder Bay, Canada. “It feels like something we’ve been fighting for a long time just got bigger.”
Precosky, who trains other teachers, said she is concerned about students losing social interactions. Education, she said, is not just about the curriculum but also about teaching kids to be kind people and good citizens.
“Even though it’s hard as an adult and hard as a teacher, it’s much harder as a student. They’re missing extracurriculars and group interactions,” she said. “But hopefully we can carry our kids through this as best we can.”
Thompson echoed this concern, noting that both students and teachers are missing in-person interactions.
“Students are missing so many social interactions at this point and they’re overwhelmed and they’re tired,” Thompson said.
Teachers, she added, are also missing those “aha” moments they share with students.
And yet, teachers are finding ways to break through the monotony of virtual classrooms.
Sara Hovis, a kindergarten teacher in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, said despite the difficulties, said she has already seen her students growing their academic skills.
“Their smiles and their excitement really push me to make this work for them…they deserve to have a wonderful kindergarten year,” said Hovis, who has been teaching for 17 years.
“So to feel like it’s working for the kids and it’s working for families and they really do appreciate it gives me the motivation to want to go the extra mile and rise above the challenges.”
New virus, old issues
Even before this year’s challenges, most people had only a vague idea of the problems educators face.
In the United States, the average public school teacher gets paid $62,304, according to the most recent data from the National Education Association.
That number is even smaller for teachers just beginning their careers — the average starting salary in 2017 was $39,249, and almost one-third of new teachers have second jobs to make ends meet. Plus, research shows the average teacher spends more than $450 of their own money on classroom supplies each year.
“For many years, teachers have felt that we are being asked to do more with less, and that has never been more true than this year,” said Gerianne Bartlett, who teaches high school English and journalism in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
She said this year has been the most challenging year she has experienced in 14 years of teaching “in every possible way.”
Even though it’s been a stressful school year for her, Bartlett told CNN she worries more about the stress placed on students — especially those who already came from disadvantaged backgrounds or don’t have access to the resources needed to succeed in an online world. She said the students are what motivate her to work extra hours to make the transition to online learning more seamless.
“I need my students to feel like they still have a real teacher, and a real class, with real classmates, despite sitting in front of a screen,” Bartlett said. “My students are extraordinary individuals, and they deserve the best standard of education I can provide.”
This World Teachers’ Day, many can think of a few teachers who made a profound impact on their lives.
Teachers who we thought were teaching math and science but were actually teaching us how to be kind, how to persevere, and how to work hard. Teachers who bought the class books and supplies and even day-before-the-big-test pizzas with their own money. Teachers who took extra time to write recommendation letters so that we could continue to learn and grow even after we graduated from their classrooms.
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