Teacher Appreciation Week: They wanted respect. It only took a coronavirus pandemic.

Remember when you didn’t think about teachers much all day? 

They taught fractions and literature behind closed doors. Their work felt normal and necessary. We knew some were underpaid and under-appreciated. Strikes that shut down schools in big cities like Seattle, Los Angeles and Chicago stirred public support and highlighted teachers’ plight.

Then public schools serving approximately 55 million children in America shut down overnight, leaving parents to oversee the academic progress of their children at home. And through the coronavirus pandemic, millions of families realized that teachers are not just convenient, but essential. 

“How most teachers are being viewed right now is right up there with health care workers,” said Ruth Faden, a professor of biomedical ethics at Johns Hopkins University. “Now is the time to give the biggest possible shout-out to teachers.”

To be sure, some educators have become less visible. And some families have been frustrated by a lack of planning or too many expectations. But overall? Millions of educators have risen above what they were trained to do, throwing themselves not only into online teaching with virtually no preparation, but also into other impromptu roles: video editor, device distributor, tech support, meal site worker, car parade driver, sidewalk-chalk writer, window waver.

From the extraordinary to the everyday, here are a few of their stories.

Owl vomit. (Gross.)

Brandon Gilliam, Stout Field Elementary, Indianapolis

Many teachers have sent handwritten notes to students’ homes. Science teacher Brandon Gilliam sent owl vomit. 

Owl pellets, or undigested masses of bones and fur regurgitated by owls, are a popular dissection project for fifth graders, and Gilliam gets a large shipment each year. This year, he distributed them to students at home.

Gilliam, 34, has also created science experiment videos from home, which students can recreate with items they have around the house.

The idea, said Gilliam, who is in his 12th year of teaching, is to keep kids learning, engaged and having fun during the extended school closure.

“Typically, I’m pretty goofy,” he said. “Be more ridiculous than my students, … that’s always my goal.”

3D printers to help nurses

Brandon Myers, Maxwell High School, Atlanta

When manufacturing teacher Brandon Myers learned local doctors and nurses were suffering from chafed ears caused by their protective masks, he thought he and his students could help.

Myers and his students had already networked six of the school’s 3D printers, and they were experimenting with a remote operating system that would let students control the printers from offsite. After the school shutdown, Myers was allowed to scoop the printers into his car and set up the chain in his garage. In the meantime, students found a pattern from the National Institutes of Health for ear reliefs, and they set to work programming the production process from their homes while Myers made manual adjustments from his garage.

Soon they had produced more than 600 plastic mask-strap extenders that put pressure on the wearer’s head instead of their ears. Myers and the students then shifted to creating the frames for face shields; they’ve made about 100 of those so far. All have been delivered to local health care partners.

Myers and his students aren’t alone. Technology teachers and students all over the country have teamed up with health care organizations to create and give away face shields and other protective equipment. Teachers are often buying materials, like 3D printer filament, at their own expense.

Myers, 38, is only in his second year of teaching. He previously worked for a company that repaired nuclear energy facilities. His class revolves around the production of real-world products for clients, and he said he treats his students like project managers.

“I always give them projects that are a little harder than I think they can do, and that seems to motivate them,” he said.

‘Part of my healing’

Tyiesha Hoskins, Harlem Link Charter School, New York

Tyiesha Hoskins has always felt called to help, first as a social worker, and then as a fourth grade teacher at Harlem Link Charter School. It’s only her second year of teaching, but Hoskins, 32, has spent her entire life serving the neighborhood where she was born and raised.

During the pandemic, Hoskins has helped her 25 students log on every day for Zoom sessions, and remarkably, all but two or three students attend most days. Most low-income schools like hers have struggled to connect and engage all students. For the first two weeks, Hoskins said, all she did was comfort students and talk to them about their emotions.

Through it all, Hoskins was quietly caring for her sister, a previously healthy 46-year-old community liaison at Bellevue Hospital who contracted COVID-19 in late March. On April 16, her sister died. Hoskins took a little time off to handle family matters and returned last week to a welcome video made by her students and fellow teachers.

“I’m fortunate to be in the community teaching kids here,” Hoskins said. “They’re an important part of my healing.” 

Symphony from home

Jeff Midkiff, Patrick Henry High School, Roanoke, Virginia

Orchestra students at Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke were pumped to play Carnegie Hall during a school trip this spring. They had practiced all year for it. Then coronavirus shut down the trip and school.

Their teacher, Jeff Midkiff, 56, started seeing videos from the Rotterdam Philharmonic and other professional orchestras playing together from their homes. Could his students do that, too? 

Midkiff, who has been teaching for 30 years, thought they should try. He recorded himself playing the first violin part of William Boyce’s Symphony No. 1, with a metronome, then sent the video to his students so they could listen while playing their individual parts. It was the same movement students would have played at Carnegie Hall. About 40 students participated.

Midkiff then sent the files to his nephew, Riley Murtagh, at Lift Arc Studios in Roanoke, who spent at least 10 hours stitching all the tracks together.

Midkiff and his students are now planning a repeat play-at-home performance, this time with songs like “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Pomp and Circumstance,” which will be played during the high school’s live-streamed, virtual graduation on June 4.

She teaches parents, too

Nafeesah Muhammad, Patrick Henry High School, Minneapolis

Nafeesah Muhammad has always had close ties with her students. But now she’s gotten to know their families better, too, as well as respond to some of their needs.

Recently, one mother told Muhammad she worried about her own poor reading skills and her lack of ability to help her own child.

“I’ll just make an online reading curriculum for you, also,” said Muhammad, 33.

Now when she conferences with that student, the mother jumps on to report how her own skills are progressing on the reading platform and vocabulary lists Muhammad gives her.

“This whole thing is exposing all these inequities my families face,” said Muhammad. Her school is predominantly low-income students of color, and many of her students face enormous challenges to get to graduation.

“The nature of the opportunity sucks, but it’s giving us a chance to attack these inequities.”

Self-esteem, animated

Jourdan Dixon, Paramount Schools of Excellence, Indianapolis

When guidance counselor Jourdan Dixon started creating animated videos for social-emotional learning at Paramount Schools of Excellence earlier this year, he had no way to know how useful they’d become.

With animation software, Dixon, 27, writes scripts to cover topics such as self-esteem, diversity, respect and empathy. He then records the audio and animates the sequences. The videos are available publicly on the school’s YouTube channel.

Dixon said the videos are a way to grab kids’ attention and exercise his hobby. He started practicing with the software last year in his free time. He’s been a school counselor for three years.

“Unfortunately, not everybody is equipped or has figured out the best way to reach kids on a social-emotional level right now,” he said.  

Each video takes Dixon about three days to make. Recently he’s added segments on digital safety and sending email, and on COVID-19.

“None of us have been through this before,” he said. “It’s important that we make sure we’re doing the best we can and are good stewards of resources to help everyone.”

Kindergarten on Facebook

Megan Jessen, Camp Kindergarten, Lake Bluff, Illinois

When Megan Jessen started broadcasting a live, daily educational show each morning on Facebook, she figured it would provide a routine for her young girls, ages 4 and 6. And perhaps some of her friends and family would tune in.

But since her first episode in mid-March, Miss Megan’s Camp Kindergarten Facebook group has swelled to nearly 100,000 followers — thanks in part to an early boost from friends and a later one from national media.

“It’s pretty crazy,” said Jessen, 36, who airs the show from a corner of her basement every weekday at 9 a.m. Central Time. “I think everyone was looking for some routine and structure.”

The basic educational segments about numbers and letters are sprinkled with the unpredictability of Jessen’s daughters, who participate by laughing, cuddling and singing but also by squabbling, interrupting and getting emotional — all while their mother parents and teaches in real time. 

The milieu is familiar to anyone trying to juggle both roles right now.

Jessen is a former kindergarten teacher who stepped back to care for her girls full time, then was working as a preschool aide before the coronavirus shutdowns.

She recently started a YouTube channel and has a forthcoming album of songs from the show, including catchy tunes about wearing a mask and washing your hands. 

USA TODAY’s Grace Hauck contributed to this story.

Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.