The first week of May was National Teacher Appreciation Week.
The time is typically marked with shows of support from school boards, PTAs and other district entities. But appreciating teachers isn't the same when schools are closed and teachers are working from home.
But that doesn't mean teachers aren't appreciated this year.
In fact, they might be appreciated now more than ever. A poll recently commissioned by the National Education Association suggests as many as nine out of 10 parents “approve of how their children's teachers are handling the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“I really have no complaints whatsoever,” said registered nurse Melanee Killian of the teachers at Seneca Valley High School, where she has sons in ninth and 12th grade. “We're thrilled.”
Killian has substituted as a Seneca Valley nurse and knows first-hand what working at a school entails. She's impressed that teachers stayed in touch with students so well despite not physically being near them.
“(It's) very cool,” Killian said, “how these teachers have to think out of the box.”
“Good communication leads to productive cooperation,” said Krisann Lambert, a fifth-grade teacher at South Butler Intermediate Elementary School. “Teachers and parents must collaborate to join forces.”
Tracy Vitale, superintendent for Seneca Valley, agreed.
“People often want to discredit teachers,” Vitale said. “Our parents have never been more pleased with their teachers.”
Vitale believes being able to build a positive parent-teacher relationship begins with a strong administrative foundation.
Karen Yost, an English teacher at Mars Area High School, said helping students “navigate” pandemic-induced chaos requires teamwork from districts and families.
“I feel more of a bond with the parents I have been in touch with,” Yost said. “There is an unspoken agreement that today is more than about grades.”
Killian said Seneca Valley families have benefited from pre-established Flexible Instruction Days. These days allow for alternative means of learning in cases of emergency.
Having those in place before the pandemic helped smooth the in-person-to-online transition.
“We had the foundation laid,” Killian said. “I think that was a pretty good (test) for what was to come.”
Just because parents approve of teachers' efforts doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. The pandemic has necessitated many changes, such as Killian's family upgrading their WiFi.
For Amy Bocci, a teacher at Knoch Middle School, the pandemic altered the means by which she reaches families.
“The most effective way to reach parents seems to be through email and Google Classrooms,” Bocci said. “I think we've been in more contact with parents than ever before, especially at the secondary level.”
Scott McCarthy, a Spanish teacher at Mars Area High School, said communication channels differ when it comes to academic ability, student needs and class structure. Flexibility is key.
“The range of K-12 parent-teacher communication is vast,” McCarthy said.
In Bocci's experience, guardians are becoming increasingly aware of how involved teachers are in students' lives.
“I found that I have more patience with my students in the classroom than my own kids (when) working with them at home,” Bocci said.
Appreciation is a two-way street, according to Bocci. Teachers might be instrumental in guiding students to bright futures, but parents are instrumental in supporting students on that journey.
“Teachers can only teach, guide and inspire so much with the limited time we have,” Bocci said. “We really need the support of the parents at home.”
Killian recognizes her children are self-motivated when it comes to schoolwork. She said her heart goes out to parents who have to stay on top of their students this semester. Lambert said that's a shared responsibility.
“I have learned since this all has happened that parent-teacher communication is very important,” Lambert said. “For online learning to be successful, we need the help of the parents.”
Yost said when parents and teachers both work on a child's well-being and education, there's more “investment.” She further believes the pandemic reinforces the teamwork needed between the entities.
“The roles have become blurred,” Yost said. “I think this blurring is good for the child.”
This semester's virtual learning has aligned with recent communication trends, according to McCarthy.
McCarthy said he's seen a decline in attendance over the years for traditional parent-teacher events, such as open houses. Instead of waiting to discuss student successes or problems in-person, teachers and families now address issues immediately through virtual channels.
McCarthy anticipates those trends sticking in the future.
“Long past are the days of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. education,” McCarthy said.
The South Butler County School District issued a survey to parents in April to see how pleased they are with the district's pandemic approach to learning.
Vitale said Seneca Valley is issuing a similar survey, and hopes to have the results compiled in time for the school board's June meeting.
“We want data from our parents,” Vitale said.
The information could help with fall semester planning.
Many teachers, parents and administrators agree students learn best face-to-face. While virtual learning is believed to be a suitable solution during the pandemic, it's considered temporary.
Pennsylvania Education Pedro Rivera told lawmakers Monday he expects students to return to school in the fall. However, the greater challenge might come this summer as districts determine what returning to an in-class setting looks like and implement those plans.
“There's a lot of decisions that will have to be made,” Killian said. “Yucky ones.”
In Lambert's eyes, getting through those decisions is a matter of teachers trusting parents and parents trusting teachers.
“We need to build that trust,” Lambert said. “I truly believe it starts with parent-teacher communication.”
“We all have the same objective,” McCarthy said. “To create happy, healthy and productive kids.”