And those working in schools have been at the forefront of the roller-coaster ride that has been 2020 so far. Even before COVID-19 reared across the country, many children, young people, families and communities were processing what had been a most challenging summer.

Teachers returning for the 2020 school year were managing their own disbelief and confusion over the devastating bushfires and preparing to help others understand the unfathomable… and then reality shifted again. 

The COVID crisis required a rapid shift to redesign education for children across the world as distancing from each other became crucial to slowing the impact of the disease. This seismic shift was an impressive feat of flexibility and resilience across all aspects and levels of education as schools quickly moved to online provision.

Then, in Australia at least, have moved back again to their classrooms, but with new ways of interacting imposed. On top of that if you are in Melbourne, the rollercoaster has turned another crazy corner.

At the centre of this has, of course, been the work of teachers. Teachers have bent and twisted and changed in ways many of them would never have thought possible in 2019. Had you asked most schools to select and implement a whole new program for communication and digital learning last year, it would have involved convening a team, trials, surveys, consultations and meetings over a period of many months before any implementation began.

One thing that COVID has made obvious is that crisis necessitates change.

As well as their rapid and flexible engagement with change, during these most difficult of times, teachers have provided a vital link to normality for children and families. Smiling faces and comforting voices beamed into the homes across the country. For communities, schools have been central to the communication and the sense making process that have helped many people to navigate the flux and confusion.

The role of teachers and schools as anchors for their communities is not often considered explicitly but the confusion and trauma of the COVID experience has highlighted just how central this normally invisible work is. But we also know that teachers and school leaders carry a heavy emotional load that comes with being central to their communities.

Last year I was part of a team of researchers that investigated teachers and how the public perceived the work that teachers do (you can access our report here: Perceptions of Teachers and Teaching in Australia). We found that of the almost 2500 teachers that completed our survey, 56 percent had plans to leave the profession and 53 percent would not recommend teaching as a career.

Excessive workloads, impacts on physical and mental health, difficulty in achieving a reasonable work-life balance and a perceived lack of appreciation, respect and trust, were all reasons that were provided for negative perceptions of their work. Evidence from this survey, conducted last year, suggested that most teachers find their work intense and challenging. Many did not see how they could sustain the effort and attention required to do their jobs well for the extent of a normal length career.

Then 2020 has happened.

In the first instance, it is clear that this year teachers have worked harder than ever before. Workload that was perceived as unmanageable in 2019 has gone through the roof thanks to COVID.

Secondly, the possibilities of a healthy work-life balance have been thrown out the window. In 2019 teachers described that it was difficult not to let their work pervade their homes and their families. And now, teachers have opened their homes and their lives to their students.

Yes, a large majority of Australians also moved to work from home, but not many would have spent much of their days with around 25 stakeholders at a time, virtually in their kitchens, studies, living rooms and for some, even their bedrooms. Home and work separation evaporated and the scrutiny that teachers experience normally in their work intensified.

What must we learn beyond COVID?

With the right responses, there is great potential for positive post-COVID adaptions that could benefit teachers and communities alike. Not the least is building greater appreciation, respect for the work of teachers that builds on the enhanced visibility of teachers’ work and the stronger connections to families and communities.

Our 2019 research showed that feeling respected and supported can make a difference to retaining and attracting teachers in the profession and in our topsy-turvy world, we’ve seen what a crucial role great teachers play.