My son is wrapping up first grade in the Philadelphia School District. Although all teachers are struggling and exhausted after this past year, I think first-grade teachers have faced some truly unique challenges.

I vividly remember sitting in my home with my wife last year, meeting his wonderful kindergarten teacher on Zoom. We talked about our hope for him to grow socially and emotionally in kindergarten while acknowledging the seeming impossibility of accomplishing that goal through virtual learning. I couldn’t imagine how kids could practice eye contact, reading body language, and other social cues from their peers — things you normally pick up sitting around a classroom rug — if they’re at home staring at their laptops.

I had no idea how his teacher would achieve one of the main goals of kindergarten: preparing kids to embark on the educational journey that is going to consume the majority of their waking hours nine months a year for the next decade and change. Kindergarten teachers not only lay the foundation for substantive academic learning, they also help kids learn how to “do school.”

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There’s no easy way to take a classroom full of wiggly 5-year-olds and turn them into citizen students, aware enough of something bigger than themselves to be able to do important things like listening (or at least stop talking) while their classmates have a turn to speak. It takes nearly a school year of hard work to accomplish that goal, guided by a teacher with a specialized skill set, and that’s when everyone is in a classroom together.

Yet, amazingly, his teacher reached through the screen and connected with the class in a way I never imagined possible. As I worked on my own laptop, I was grateful to hear her encouraging refrain after every completed task of the day: “Good job, friends, give yourself a pat-pat-pat on the back-back-back for. A. Job. Well. Done.”

But at the end of the day, remote learning is just that: remote. As a result, this year thousands of students in Philly schools started first grade without having ever set foot in a classroom, leaving first-grade teachers to pick up the pieces of many of these foundational skills.

I saw my son’s first-grade teacher, like others across the School District, having to lead her students through a robust first-year curriculum while teaching most, if not all, of the students how to “do school” in person. In a sense, first-grade teachers have had to teach both first grade and kindergarten this year.

And they’ve done an incredible job.

“In a sense, first-grade teachers have had to teach both first grade and kindergarten this year.”

Kevin Dulaney

My son and his cohort have grown so much since August. The chaos that they brought with them that first day has simmered down to … well, still chaos (they are, after all, first graders), but a much more civilized brand of chaos. His teacher met the individual needs of the class by helping those with learning differences and enriching those who need extra challenges, all while maintaining regular, reliable, and clear communication with the parents.

Last week, my son’s teacher sent an email to parents about the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, letting us know that some of the kids had questions. While working through her own emotions the evening before, she had anticipated this and tried to prepare the right words. She told us she facilitated a “student-led, teacher-guided, child-appropriate discussion together — focusing on safety at school.” She reassured the kids that all of the adults in the school loved them and will always protect them, she reassured us parents of the same, and she offered her support in any way we might need it. This is the stuff of superheroes.

Now that summer is rapidly approaching, I suspect that many first-grade teachers will spend the next couple of months hibernating in a dark room with soundproof walls, trying to recover from the Herculean efforts they expended this past year. But if you get the chance to see a first-grade teacher as they emerge from their well-deserved, restful cocoon, please do something nice to thank them for all their hard work. They’ve certainly earned it.

Kevin Dulaney is a Philadelphia School District parent. He and his family live in West Philadelphia.