Along with many other industries, education has been turned upside-down lately. All of the challenges that teachers were already facing—differentiating students, choosing curricula, and managing classrooms, to name a few—have been transformed. No matter the grade, subject, or scope and sequence, teaching is fundamentally about human connection. Teachers must value their students’ aspirations, and students must trust that their teachers can guide them there. As the 2019–2020 school year wraps up after months of virtual learning, we’re forced to look at human connection in a fundamentally different way. With that change comes a flood of emotions. I saw them all on display throughout my interview with Andrea Barnes and a team that adores her.
Andrea is a teacher through and through. She has never missed a district professional development session, and in 2012, she was named Texas’ Secondary Educator of the Year. Now concluding her final year of teaching in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, in Houston, Texas, Andrea is currently instructing high school English intervention. She has devoted her nearly 30-year career to helping students learn, read, and grow. To honor Andrea’s decades of work and commitment, HMH Learning Moments podcast host Noelle Morris surprised her with a virtual roundtable chat. Andrea thought she was calling into a routine online meeting, only to discover that Noelle was on the call, as was I, along with three of her closest colleagues, to wish her farewell. Our goal was to capture parting words of wisdom from a retiring teacher.
“Ending the year like this, where there’s no real closure, it just seems a little surreal that it’s all coming to an end,” Andrea reflected. With her mother sitting beside her, she riffed on a wide range of topics as relevant to teachers today as they were pre-pandemic, including equity, friendship, and economic and domestic challenges. Andrea’s students do not always live easy lives, with many of them depending on school for food or a sense of family. She noted how much that elevates the role of the teacher. “In order for [students] to get out of that situation,” she said, “they have to have a good education, and number one, they have to be a great reader.”
Helping Students Remotely
Fully virtual teaching was unchartered territory for Andrea, as it has been for most educators. When asked what advice she has for teachers, she replied, “Staying close to their students. Reaching out to them.” She pointed out that compared to many of her students, she’s had it easy. “As hard as it is for us, [for] a lot of our students, their best moments are when they’re in our classroom,” she said. “We have a family environment. It’s safe. They don’t have to worry about anything.”
Andrea cited the language divide as a key point for reaching out to students and their families right now. Many of her students are from immigrant families from South America, Mexico, and Vietnam. “If [I] have an email, I put it in Spanish, Portuguese, and Vietnamese,” she explained. “Then also with my Spanish-speaking parents, I’ve used Google Translate. And I’ve spoken Spanish—my mom even says I sound pretty good.”
When reaching out to families, Andrea said her focus isn’t on assignments or tests. That’s part of the work too, she explained, but it’s not what matters most. “Mainly when [I] make contact with the parents, either through email or phone calls, [it’s] just to let them know that I miss teaching their child,” she said. “So if their child is maybe misbehaving or they’re tired of their child because they’ve been with them 24 hours a day, they can see that hey, they’ve got a really good kid.”
The Importance of Collaboration
One theme ran through all of Andrea’s advice: the crucial role that human connection plays in teaching. Teachers function in students’ social lives as facilitators and role models, forging a bond of trust that can strengthen over time and even develop into friendship. “A lot of their home lives are something that, as educators, I don’t think we can totally imagine,” Andrea said. “You kind of forget where your kids are really coming from because you really can only imagine what your life was like and how you were brought up.”
The importance of connection isn’t just between teachers and students, Andrea noted. “I would say to any teacher to [not only] try and make contact with your students [but] also to make contact with your peers, to keep that comradery,” she said. And when it comes to deciding who to team up with, she said, “You’ve got to pick someone that you really want to work with because you’re with them all the time.”
In an increasingly transactional world, sometimes it may feel like everything can—and maybe even should—be automated. But teaching highlights how just how much people are the sinew that connects all of our transactions. Just as students need teachers, teachers need students, and all of us need mentors and collaborators. The best teachers know that their jobs are not to write information on a board for students to copy. They see their students as individuals with perspectives and histories of their own. And the best teachers are individuals too, who at some point must pass the baton to the next generation. “I love my job,” Andrea said. “But I want to spend time with my mom.”
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Andrea Barnes is an early adopter and expert teacher for READ 180, which she used throughout her years of middle and high school teaching. Explore the program here.