Voices of Resilience: Educators’ Perspectives on the Evolving Challenges in Education

The To&Through Project
7 min readApr 29, 2024


In February 2020, the To&Through Project’s Middle Grades Network (MGN) launched with a vision to create more equitable and responsive educational environments where middle grades students thrive. Educators in the MGN engage in collaborative network sessions, coaching, and team meetings in order to better understand themselves and their students and collect and analyze qualitative and quantitative data in order to put research into practice. Yet we never could have envisioned that a global pandemic a few weeks after our launch would both upend our plans and solidify the importance of this work. Over the past four years, we have had the privilege of partnering with educators from 22 Chicago Public Schools as they navigated some of the toughest years in modern education. From the pandemic, to politics, to changes in curriculum, these educators have tackled these challenges head on, while continuing to support students and their communities in multiple ways.

In the spring of 2022, we shared the voices of the educators from our first cohort of schools and what they were experiencing. In summer 2023, our team conducted another set of empathy interviews to capture additional insights from educators in the second cohort of MGN schools. We are honored to share these new perspectives in the hope that they illuminate the difficult, yet inspiring, work educators are dedicated to each day.

As we listened to these passionate educators, we noticed four key themes:

  1. How the increase need for social emotional learning supports post-pandemic is changing the role of educators;
  2. Growing concerns about how to ensure students leave school with the skills that set them up for current and future success;
  3. The critical role of student voice in improving daily school experiences; and
  4. The importance of continuous collaboration across schools for all educators.

So often the voices of individual educators get lost in the larger narrative. We share the excerpts below from our interviews because we want others to listen to and understand educators’ experiences in their own words. The reflections below are powerful reminders of the hopes, successes, and challenges educators navigate daily in an ever changing world and what we all can do to support their vital work.

On The Evolving Role of Educators in Social Emotional Learning

“We have to adapt our lessons, curriculum or our work or services to those that we have in front of us every year. And I think everybody knows, but I like to re-emphasize the need for social emotional has increased tremendously in the last three years, you know, heavily due to the pandemic, and this year, because we have gotten, in Chicago, a lot of newcomers, we need a lot of services.” — School Counselor

“I wish people knew that teaching is not what they remember[as] teaching; like the experience of a student and the experience of a teacher are so very different now. It’s not what you think. But specifically, within the last three years, I would want people to understand that teaching is a lot more SEL (social emotional learning) based. So it’s a lot more teaching kids how to be social, how to have empathy, how to be considerate, and coping mechanisms.” — Math Teacher

“…I think people that are quick to bash teachers [and] I would like them to sit in my room for a week. …to have to plan for a week and figure out how you’re going to go from point A to point B, especially with middle school or teenagers, where they’re a roller coaster of emotion. They’ll come in and they’re upset, and then they’ll be happy. And then they’ll be crying and then they’ll be happy and you’re looking at your watch. It’s only been 15 minutes and they do all this. So I think we need to understand that.” — Social Science Teacher

On How to Teach Skills for the Future

“I think just the socialization piece is a really big thing..a lot of our students are struggling with how to talk to peers and how to interact with peers. I remember one of my students asking me, because I’m usually the homeroom teacher for eighth grade, how do they make friends in high school because they just missed that. Those years of COVID, being isolated, really did a lot to our students where they don’t know how to build these relationships with each other, because they’ve been so separate from each other.” — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Teacher

“I’m worrying that we’re selling our kids short, that we’re so focused on what they can’t do, but what about what they can do? And we need to give them support, we need to expose them to things, we need to let them read whatever they want to read, obviously age appropriate, but like, we need to teach them that life is not always easy. And just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you can’t do it. We need to teach them the history of our country. We need to give them examples of people that have overcome things…” — Social Science Teacher

“I think making sure that the kids feel like they’re entering the world with a set of tools that actually makes them feel like they can pursue something. And something that is sustainable for themselves, or any family they choose to build. I think right now that I’m talking to a lot of my high schoolers, who are just out of high school, a lot of people who are just out of college, and especially with the economy where it is and with job expectations, people are nervous about whether they can get a job or get something that they will like doing that doesn’t kill their soul.”Diverse Learner Teacher

On Using Student Voice to Impact Daily School Experience

“I think that we really got into deepening our understanding of our students, and that makes our life easier. And, you know, it makes the students feel like they will be more willing to come to school now…because they know they’re going to enjoy it because the lessons are more catered to their interests.” — School Counselor

“I feel like a lot of our students, especially in middle school, just want to be heard. And [it] is just nice to see students not only being leaders [but] because they’re talking to their peers about situations going on in middle school. Some of these students, I’ve never heard talk like this. And so to see them step up [at a town hall] and say I want to talk to the school, the middle school as a whole, about stuff going on with us. It makes me think about that whole thing about how school is a place of learning and how students really want this, but we have to give them the grace…” — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Teacher

In discussing her biggest accomplishment in working with middle grades students, one educator said, “ I would say [it’s] getting them to trust themselves; convincing them that they are experts in their own world. Maybe not academically…but [that] they know what life is like as a student. And so the suggestions that they make or their ideas are valid and important. And so teaching them now that they have a voice, and that their voice matters, and that their voice can bring good change to people.” Math Teacher

On the Importance of Spaces to Learn, Collaborate, and Build Community

“It [the MGN] also provides a level of catharsis for struggles that we may have been experiencing and to go into, via the online time that we came together or in person, where we could just hear what other people were experiencing… So that just helped in terms of us not feeling like it was just us.” — Principal

“I would also say that we’re not stranded and left alone. Like if we have an idea that we want to roll out, we definitely have a lot of support and a lot of resources, a lot of opportunities to grow and a lot of opportunities to change perspectives.” — Math Teacher

“I feel as though this cohort allows you also to see what other schools are doing and how we can help each other, which I really liked. Because you would think it only applies to your school, but then when you hear from another school, it makes the work even more beneficial, because then we can really figure it out. Okay, we have this problem in practice, what do we need to do to solve it across not just our school, but across the city of Chicago? ” — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Teacher

These reflections remind us that it is essential for us to listen to educators and continuously challenge and update our understanding of their needs. By doing so, we can support them as they work to meet the evolving needs of the students they have in front of them. As one counselor reflected, “the more we work together, the more we learn about ourselves and the students, so the better we can serve.”

*Some quotes have been edited for length and clarity.

Written by Jennifer Ciok, Middle Grades Network Coach

Interviews conducted by Taryn Kim, University of Chicago undergraduate



The To&Through Project

The To&Through Project aims to increase high school & post-secondary completion for under-resourced students of color in Chicago & around the country.