Teachers As First Responders


Commentary By: Joseph Conway

In working with graduate teacher education programs, one of the first activities I accomplish is an ice breaker in which I  ask the teachers to come up with a metaphor of the many roles and responsibilities a teacher has in the profession.  Oftentimes the metaphors range from a clown juggling balls, to a factory worker churning out a widget, to a street artist spinning plates, to an octopus balancing bowling pins, to a hat shop with a customer and all of the various hats a teacher wears.

In so doing this, we engage in the many roles teachers must hold in order to effectively do their job and manage their school year with the children in their charges.  Our teachers serve the roles of mothers and fathers, counselors and social workers, referees and coaches, mentors and role models, lunch attendants, playground monitors, disciplinarians, and salespersons, and so many, many more.  Sometimes it almost feels like that all the way in the back of the line sits the role of educator.  All of the other factors must first be taken into account, in order to create the environment necessary for the learning to take place, and only then will the actual role of educator become preeminent.

In our newest world order with COVID 19, we added a whole list of new roles and responsibilities.   Teachers in America became overnight their own online persona of Zoom monitor, Google classroom educator, YouTuber, video blogger, remote help desk support, mute button extraordinaire, and so much more as they changed their fundamental role of in-person to online classroom.  And again, all of this was to offer a fundamental service to our children.

But in this instance that fundamental service of education took a back seat to the most important role that the educational profession has yet played.  Their newest essential role, like a new hat (or maybe an N95 Mask if they were available) of our educational professionals was one of First Responders.

For many of our students in our care, especially in some of our most fragile communities, our teachers played a constant ever-present role of First Responder.  Our teachers were the first line of communication in a pandemic response.  They were in our children’s household every day whether through synchronous or asynchronous courses.  They were the first ones to notice the missing child from their roles.  The struggling family that may have remained invisible was first noted by our teachers. They were the first line of information for food access, for technology services, for hospital support, and where to go for additional help. 

During this uncertain time, the teacher and the program that was offered, was the stable constant in many of our children’s unstable and oftentimes confusing world.  The educational programs they received and the rigor of their classroom assignments of course were important.  At the same time, the structure and routine of the day gave a fundamental support system for idle children to be able to cope with the stresses and difficulties of an unknown event playing out before them.     

In any other event that has occurred in our recent histories, the school buildings themselves became the hub of support for communities to come together and receive their services.  Families and communities would come to the school for their fallout shelter, their regrouping areas, their food service, and their information.  In the era of COVID 19, schools became the exact opposite, requiring the masses to stay distant to remain safe.  It turned the paradigm of school buildings as Safe Haven on its head. 

In its place the gap of services was filled by the strength of the individual teacher as First Responder.

Joseph Conway is the superintendent and co-founder of the Camden Charter School Network that includes four schools in the City of Camden.

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