Today marks one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. March 11 will now always be recognized as the day the world changed.
This year has brought never expected pain and sorrow for millions of people around the world. To date, 2.62 million people have died from COVID-19, including 22,362 deaths in Canada. The pandemic has caused devastation to the global economy, sending multiple countries into recession and putting millions of people at risk of extreme poverty.
But something positive I didn’t expect to come out of the darkness brought on by this pandemic was some long-overdue recognition for childcare providers and teachers.
My first career was as an Early Childhood Educator (ECE), and I still work shifts at daycares to pay the bills while I’m in school. Apart from the realization that I couldn’t survive on my wages as an ECE alone, the reason I left the field was that I spent 11 and a half hours a day at a daycare being seen as little more than a babysitter. The kicker is, babysitters make more hourly than most ECEs, and even some teachers.
But no matter how undervalued these roles have been, hardworking and inspired people continue pursuing careers as educators. They show up to work, filled with an incredible passion to change lives and grow minds.
Let me introduce you to some of the educators working harder than ever for your kids this year.
Liz Parker-Cook: Secondary school arts teacher
When schools reopened in September, Liz Parker-Cook decided that returning to teach in-person with the Toronto District School Board was the best way to keep the music and drama programs that she loves alive.
Like most other things in our lives, Parker-Cook’s classes look very different these days. No riveting intimate Shakesperean scenes for these masked-up, spaced-out high schoolers.
Music class is where you see the biggest difference according to Parker-Cook, after a Public Health Ontario report led to a ban on singing and playing brass or wind instruments.
“I’ve been playing music all my life,” Parker-Cook said. “I never ever thought that something as joyful as singing would be dangerous.”
Though it’s been a strange and unpredictable year for everyone, Parker-Cook is grateful more people have become aware of the crucial roles educators play.
“It feels very gratifying when people see the importance of my work,” she said. “For people to see how much (teachers) contribute to society makes me feel that what I do matters to others.”
D. Tyler Robinson: Secondary school teacher
Last year after the murder of George Floyd, Tyler D. Robinson and three of his Black co-workers created a course focused on teaching about and dismantling racism.
“Deconstructing anti-Black Racism in the Canadian and North American Context” is a Grade 12 prep course that will be taught in 18 Ontario schools starting this September. Robinson and his team hope to increase this number as much as possible before the 2021–2022 school year begins.
The four teachers designed the curriculum to address past and current systemic racism in a way they wish was accessible to them when they were students.
“We created this course that combines the creation of a space,” Robinson said. “Space for all kids to bravely enter these difficult conversations. Space that shares a history of Blackness and Black communities that is almost entirely left out of the Ontario curriculum. Space that widely and openly teaches kids about the social constructs of racism.”
Robinson’s work as an educator and the development of this curriculum has led him to look for a role in politics. He is currently seeking the NDP nomination to represent Scarborough-Centre in the next provincial election.
Robinson hopes a seat at Queen’s Park will allow him to raise the voices of educators, and prioritize the needs of students in Ontario.
Though he’s currently on paternity leave and not teaching directly, Robinson still sees a new appreciation for himself and his fellow teachers coming out of what parents have experienced during at-home learning.
“I think there is a growing appreciation for educators,” Robinson said. “I hope that we’re moving toward that South Korean model of ‘our teachers are nation builders.’ Public education is a bedrock of our society.”
Shannon Gervais: Home daycare operator
When daycares in Toronto began reopening last summer, Shannon Gervais couldn’t find a job, so in September she decided to open a daycare out of her home.
Gervais has worked in daycare centres as an ECE for 16 years and never imagined she’d ever be running her own business, but felt having a home daycare would provide her with some much-needed financial and job security. And she ended up loving it.
“I find it super rewarding,” she said. “I like the freedom of having a flexible schedule versus if I was in a centre and I didn’t have that freedom as much.”
Gervais currently has four children enrolled with her centre, and feels lucky to have a “great group” of parents who work with her and make sure she knows how much they appreciate her. She hopes that more people recognize the importance of daycares in children’s learning and development.
“I think people have the perception of daycare workers being glorified babysitters because more centres use play-based philosophy,” she said. “People see daycare kids playing all day, where at school they see kids reading and writing.”
Some of the most important things children learn take place at daycare through play. ECEs and ECAs spend their careers teaching the most important language and life-skills like empathy, getting dressed, potty-training and self-regulation.
On March 5, the Ministry of Education announced the prioritization of childcare workers in Phase Two of the vaccine rollout.
“I think it’s actually the first time that (childcare providers) have been seen as essential,” Gervais said. “We hear about teachers in schools being heroes and essential workers but [ECEs] don’t often get recognized working in a daycare or even in the school board. It’s nice to know people are advocating for us and our health and safety.”
Laurie Patterson: Special education resource teacher
Laurie Patterson has been with the TDSB for 20 years, primarily working as a resource teacher in elementary schools. Resource teachers work individually with students who need extra support.
Patterson has been teaching virtually since September and has found that online learning has advantages for a lot of her students with special needs.
“Some of these kids are thriving,” Patterson said. “They might have struggled in class with social-proximity to their peers, or transitions. Those kinds of things that might throw some students off are no longer in the picture for online learning.”
While some of her students have really taken to online learning, Patterson worries that going back to in-person learning next September might slow down some of the progress they’ve made.
Patterson believes the freedom of being at home for her students has had a huge impact on their ability to focus on their lessons.
“It’s fine if they’re on their iPads having a snack or stretching out on the couch,” Patterson said. “They have a bit more freedom to self-regulate in ways that wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate in the classroom.”
Patterson has always known her role as a resource teacher is vital in student learning and development, but she feels that online learning through the pandemic has allowed more of a dialogue between teachers and parents.
“I think [with] parents learning to do the kinds of things that [teachers] do, I feel more understood,” she said. “I feel more appreciated by the direct parents I come into contact with. It’s never been a team operation between teacher and parent like this. It’s a team effort and I give my props to the parents who sit quietly beside to help their kids if they need it.”