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Kristy Dube is the 2020 Penobscot County Teacher of the Year. Cherrie MacInnes is the 2016 Penobscot County Teacher of the Year and a 2017 Maine Teacher of the Year Finalist.

It’s “Love Teaching Week,” and this past year we’ve truly witnessed the exceptional love educators have for their profession, and most importantly, their students.

Teachers are known as leaders of instruction, masters of problem solving, proficient time managers and compassionate supporters of their students. But teachers are responsible for more than academic achievement. Building strong relationships with students by connecting with them on multiple levels guides student success beyond the curriculum being taught.

A great teacher creates a classroom environment that is safe, respectful and a place where mistakes are encouraged, because that is where the best learning occurs. A great teacher creates educational opportunities that are stimulating and engaging with a learning path that shifts direction in response to student interest and curiosity. Teachers are skilled, trained and experienced at doing all of this in the school setting.

Then, in March of 2020, a pandemic pulled the very classroom foundation, upon which all the important learning opportunities were built, out from under every educator. Our once overflowing toolboxes of useful lessons, creative ideas and methodology designed to support all learning styles now looked obsolete. In a matter of hours and days, teachers were called on to adapt their approach to learning and delivery of instruction outside of the classroom environment they knew so well. Through new platforms, remote learning, phone calls, mountains of emails and even driveway visits, they supported their students and rose to the occasion with resilience and innovation.

The pandemic exposed the educational inequities teachers have always known existed between students, and attempted to bridge, by discreetly purchasing snacks, school supplies, clothing and Christmas gifts. School district administrators, educators and staff got creative in their problem solving, using school buses, drivers and personnel to deliver lunches and school supplies to student homes. Teachers put learning packets in mailboxes and on door steps. They also provided social emotional support through video conferences, phone calls and good old fashioned snail mail.

The world saw these inequities and now has the opportunity and responsibility to improve and narrow the gap until it no longer exists. Great teachers can change a student’s life, but they can’t individually, or even collectively, successfully change the economic disparities and realities witnessed this year.

Summer vacation became a time to heal a whole new level of exhaustion. It also reminded us of the importance of self-care. At the same time, the rising number of virus cases meant a realization that the upcoming school year would most likely be anything but typical.

So teachers reflected on the teaching and learning that had occurred in the spring. What went well? What were the biggest challenges, and how could they be better addressed? They participated in professional discussions and attended workshops offered by the Department of Education and school districts. All of these opportunities guided educators as they made adjustments in the curriculum to best meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students.

Whether the upcoming school year was remote, hybrid or fully in-class, this was no longer “emergency learning,” and teachers wanted to be prepared. With compassion, commitment, tenacity and heart, teachers went above and beyond for their students because they love them, and they love what they do. They have not only taught lessons; they have been their students’ lifeline to normalcy and stability.

Every day teachers continue to create safe and happy spaces for learning, despite the chaos of the outside world. They are the calm in the storm and a light in the darkness.

The pandemic has shown the resiliency of educators, students and their families. When we someday look back and tell the story of this time, the work of teachers and what they have done to educate, inspire and connect with their students and families will be noted.

Teachers, you are appreciated. You are valued. You’ve got this! We are in awe of each and every one of you! #LoveTeachingWeek.