Elisheva (Elly) Cohen, a postdoctoral fellow and visiting lecturer in the Department of International Studies, has been studying the effect of the “dual pandemics” of Covid-19 and systemic racism on elementary school teachers since March. With an award from the American Education Research Association, she has focused on a small public-school district outside a city in the Midwest, examining the ways that teachers, students, school administration, the local community, and national politics have interacted to create a very difficult situation for teachers, with significant consequences for the future of public education.
Teachers, Cohen says, “are working harder than they ever have before, and a big part of what they’re doing is caring.”
One teacher, she says, drove to her students’ houses to write words of support in chalk. Another teacher she interviewed brought food to a student whose family was food insecure. Making sure that their students are doing OK physically and emotionally—always part of teachers’ jobs—has become a much more pressing concern, but this care has come at a cost.
Despite their own challenges—needing to care for their own children or having a spouse lose their job—teachers are “struggling to care for themselves in a lot of cases,” Cohen says.
School administrations, Cohen found, have not risen to the challenge of supporting teachers. The teachers she has spoken to feel alone in figuring out how to navigate the myriad issues they are facing right now, and their school administrations’ tactics this fall to treat the crisis as largely over has only made them feel more alone. To teachers, the crisis of educating during the pandemic is still acute.
Covid-19 is not the only crisis that has occurred in the past year. The social uprising in response to violence against Black Americans and systemic racism generally has also put pressure on teachers. While many want to incorporate lessons about racism into their curricula, Cohen found that some teachers in her district are uncomfortable doing so knowing that parents resistant to this message could be listening during a digital lesson. Some have not been shy about opposing teachers who provide lessons on the history of racism in the United States.
In this context, it has become even more important for teachers to collaborate and share strategies. Teachers have worked to reduce each other’s workloads to a manageable level, sharing lesson plans and rethinking how they administer assessments. This high level of collaboration and creativity has been one of the few silver linings of educating during the pandemic.
Cohen’s background researching education in conflict areas has given her a wide breadth of experience to understand what educators in the US are going through, and she has worked to give US teachers a more global perspective on how to cope with the pandemic. Over the summer she worked with the Hamilton Lugar School’s Center for the Study of Global Change, also known as the Global Center, along with the other seven Title VI Centers, the School of Education, and the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies, to bring together teachers from around the world who have taught in emergency situations to share their strategies with each other and with US teachers. Among the important lessons were self-care and how to support students emotionally. Many US teachers had not been exposed to this kind of pedagogy, and bringing a global perspective to US education could be an enduring legacy of the pandemic.
Many teachers reflected that the program “built a sense of global solidarity… that this is a global emergency we’re all going through,” Cohen says.
This fall and summer, she again worked with the Global Center and other Title VI Centers within HLS to host an institute for K-8 teachers on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). This institute introduced teachers to the SDGs and provided instruction on how to incorporate them into their classroom as a way to facilitate global learning. Presentations included the impact of poverty on rural China, living in conflict areas in Iraq and Syria, and how climate change is affecting Malawi. A teacher in India shared that every Monday they do an exercise in which students reflect on how clean water, gender equality, and other Sustainable Development Goals are relevant to their lives.
In order to sustain the energy and richness of these experiences, Title VI Centers in HLS are hosting virtual meetings for teachers so they can share how they’ve incorporated this global perspective into their curricula. The symposium was so successful that Cohen is working to host it again this spring and turn it into a recorded session for any teacher to view.
The pressures on teachers during the pandemic and the need for global solidarity, Cohen believes, might lead to a more sustained discussion of education as a whole in the US. “This is a moment to really rethink and reimagine education,” she says.
“We need to listen to what teachers are saying,” she says, and “rethink what do we value in education and what…we really want to get out of it.”
A more global perspective can serve as a guide. While Americans sometimes view crises as experiences that happen to other nations, the pandemic has proven this is not the case. Supporting teachers with the knowledge that crises are occurring here, “whether it’s a pandemic or systemic racism or school shootings or…extreme poverty,” she says, learning from crisis situations can be a way to support teachers and students.