Teachers talk the challenges, joys, and surprises of education

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, we spoke with two teachers who tell us about the joys of their job and the challenges of COVID-19.
Cassidy Dawes Graves
Cassidy at SmartGift
May 4th 2020May 4, 2020

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week in the US. Every year we show our gratitude to all the teachers and professors who have shaped our lives and left an indelible impression on us. From teaching us the building blocks of knowledge to learning how to critically think, we are forever grateful for their labor of love.

Whether it’s in the backgrounds of our resumes, everyday participation as citizens, or just our sense of the world around us, teachers have touched us in ways that go beyond words.

This week, it’s even more important to show our appreciation. Teachers across the globe rallied to set up remote learning via Google and Zoom classrooms in a matter of ten days. While schools and universities are closed, the torch of education is still lit. Amidst hosting daily seminars, classwork, and grading assignments, they are also tasked with keeping up the spirits of children who are isolated at home unable to have real playdates or go to playgrounds and parks. Regular sing and dance-alongs and book readings have all become part of the virtual curriculum.

In honor of this week, we would like to spotlight Grace Wohlfahrt and Shirla Sum, two exceptionally hardworking teachers who have shared their stories with SmartGift. Grace teaches fourth grade at a New York City elementary school and Shirla is Dean of Curriculum at United World College in Changshu, China, teaching grades 10-12. They both have a singular passion for education, but came to the field through different routes.

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As a fourth grader, Grace was bullied often. “I wanted to ensure that no other child would be treated the way I was,” she says. “So, I studied education in the hopes that one day I would have my own classroom and if I ever spotted any wrongdoing, I would be the first to step up and help.” She’s been teaching fourth grade for 16 years now, and has helped resolve her fair share of bullying incidents.

For Shirla, who started her career at Goldman Sachs in macroeconomics research, going into teaching was very much a leap of faith decision. “As a 22-year old, I witnessed the peak of the market and also the slump. It was probably the best training any fresh graduate could ask for, and I developed a strong work ethic and skillset that proves immensely useful up to this day,” she says. At the five year mark, she came to a cross-road and decided to make a change.

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“I essentially knew two things at that time: 1. I love economics as a field of study. 2. Education can be transformational, as I had experienced myself as a scholarship student in Canada at Pearson College UWC. With these two thoughts, I decided to become an economics teacher without having taught anyone before. I quit in 2012 and enrolled in a full-time teaching degree at the University of Hong Kong. Looking back, it does look like a pretty crazy decision. To leave a well-paid job at a prestigious firm, move back in with my parents, and become a student again,” she says.

“I remember feeling a great sense of relief after teaching my first class. I thought, 'Thank goodness. I think I can do this for a while!' Since then, I have not stopped teaching.”

For teachers, the students are not the job but truly the joy in it. We asked them about what they loved about their work. “The most joyful part of teaching is watching a child’s ‘aha’ moment. Watching them struggle is a challenge, but seeing the look on their face when everything clicks, is simply priceless,” says Grace with a big grin and a sparkle in her eye. Shirla Sum says “Everything to do with the students! Teenagers are an interesting bunch. Watching them grow and growing alongside them has been the most rewarding experience. The first class of students that I taught are now professionals pursuing careers in various fields, contributing to society in their unique ways.”

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The COVID-19 crisis has been an enormous feat in logistics for all teachers but also deeply emotional. Grace Wohlfahrt misses seeing her students on a daily basis and adds, “COVID-19 has affected my job in a number of ways. I think the most evident is the inability to see them in person. I worried about them when I saw them every day and now I don’t even have that. I’m grateful that my students still virtually check in with me and participate in virtual lessons but in-person contact cannot be replaced by anything. I miss them terribly.”

In Shirla Sum’s case, the logistics spread across time zones and countries. “Work has undoubtedly been challenging since the outbreak of COVID-19. Since students at our school come from over 100 countries, we first had to support them in returning home safely. Then the focus turned to the design and delivery of the distance learning program. What has truly impressed me so far is the adaptability and resilience shown by my students. Some of them face significant difficulties due to intermittent internet access and poor socioeconomic conditions at home. As a teacher, COVID-19 has reminded me of the importance of demonstrating empathy and extending care to students beyond the realms of academics.”

But the crisis has also presented an opportunity to influence the future of education. “Meanwhile, I genuinely hope that COVID-19 could be a wakeup call for educators, parents, and other stakeholders to finally admit that scoring well in a standardized test has no implication on how well a student might do in the ‘real’ world. We are already seeing brilliant innovation in distance learning, and I look forward to working with other educators in ensuring we provide a future-focused education that cultivates the skills and dispositions necessary for our students to thrive in the increasingly complex world.”

For both these teachers, one singular thread emerged as they spoke with SmartGift. It is not the concepts which stay with us, but what we have understood as the values and beliefs of our educators.

Teacher Appreciation Day is May 5th. Let’s take this week to send tokens of gratitude like handmade or e-cards, videos of the kids, flowers, treats and pampering gifts to show our appreciation. Want to show your favorite teacher some love? Check out our full Gifts for Teachers collection.