Teachers say THIS was the most difficult year. Here’s WHY.
If you’re not a teacher, you’re probably sick of the whining. Heck! I AM a teacher, and I’m sick of my own whining. I write this as someone who is consistently described by both her students and colleagues as a cup-half-full kind of gal–this year was TOUGH! I asked my teacher friends on Facebook and Twitter what exactly made this year so exceptionally difficult. My hope is to help our communities and administrators understand why our teachers are near broken and provide some space for reflection and healing for teachers.
The Bait and Switch School Year When our state announced that we would be returning to full time in person learning, I was absolutely giddy. After a year of learning to teach remotely by sink or swim, I couldn’t wait to return to a sense of normalcy. But…the kids were not alright. After a few weeks, my excitement had waned and transformed to discouragement. I’m not the only one. Here’s an account from an elementary teacher in central Illinois regarding her second graders who had only one full semester of school instead of the four they should have had, “Our 2nd graders came to us with very little experience and understanding of routines/rules: how to line up, sit on the carpet, recess rules, etc. While this is not a huge deal and we still teach those procedures, it was a noticeable difference. Social skills were lacking more than usual: turn taking, problem solving, if/when arguing, etc. No fault of theirs, just a lack of experience with these skills.”
Older students had more school experience, but life at home had allowed them to develop some bad habits. “I think there was a lot of apathy as opposed to empathy with student learning (upon returning). Remote/hybrid (learning) was so task oriented, so trying to engage students in a lesson or activity that wasn’t just a to-do list was a total mindset shift for students,” shared a high school Social Studies teacher. Students seemed to have forgotten how to collaborate and engage with one another. While we typically teach students how to collaborate effectively each year, the learning curve was long and came with resistance teachers weren’t used to. Personally, some of my tried and true tricks to get students to engage with one another just weren’t working and required I dig deeper to find one that worked.
For subjects that require prerequisite skills like mine (math) there were additional hurdles. Not surprisingly, students weren’t always honest about their understanding during remote learning and apps like PhotoMath or MathWay made it easy for students to not only find the correct answer, but work as well. Some students in standard Geometry were able to find the volume of a sphere using Integral Calculus…really? That created more challenges for teachers who now had to teach enough of the current year’s content to call it PreCalculus while filling in wide gaps of learning that should have happened in Algebra 2. It was not the year we expected.
Out Sick While we were all expected to be in school full time, illness was pervasive in schools adding additional challenges for teachers and administrators. As one high school science teacher shared, “For me, it was the constant specter of COVID. Constantly having to tell students to keep their masks up properly, dealing with the dread of potentially being quarantined and all that would entail. Then in the second semester, masks became optional and it was an entirely new, constant source of dread. I guess when I boil it down, I never felt very safe at school. OUR safety (teachers) was dependent upon kids following rules. And that really stressed me out.”
It wasn’t an unfounded fear. Staff (and their children) were sick …a lot. This affected staffing classrooms and student learning . Each bout of illness caused a 2 week absence which is tantamount to a short term substitute position for one. The number of substitute teachers, many of whom were retired teachers, fell as they opted to stay safe at home. Teachers began teaching not only their assigned classes, but also took on additional duties during what would have normally been their time to plan or even their lunch (paid). In some elementary schools, it was reported that classes that were unsupervised would simply be split in half and added to other classrooms. One teacher shared that interventions and specials were missed on occasion so that teachers could be pulled to sub in other teacher’s classrooms. This made meeting all IEP and other legally mandated services near impossible.
Shifting Blame While memes early in the pandemic celebrated teachers as heroes, that admiration didn’t continue into this school year. Many students were woefully behind academically and as their performance was measured against the standards, their children were found to fall short. Obviously, this was a tough pill for parents to swallow. Teachers tried to navigate between the students they should have and the students they did have in order to find a happy medium, exercising grace as much as feasibly possible. After all, they will be moving on and students need to be prepared for next year’s standards. Somewhere it was decided that we weren’t simply going to “redo” the lost year. This was a tricky balancing act for teachers, and parents weren’t happy. Teachers did their best all while witnessing unprecedented student apathy. This sentiment was shared by veteran high school art teacher Bridget Regan, “We need parents to respect us as professionals and support us or be on the team with us when helping their kids. Ask parents to take off the boxing gloves and stop making their child’s lack of success our fault. We get these kids after 8+ years of schooling and aren’t miracle workers.”
The Anxiety Epidemic Anxiety was a problem before the pandemic, but after a year of social isolation it had reached epidemic levels. Our social work team had to balance the influx of students while managing a full caseload. But how much of this return to school anxiety was normal? After all, weren’t most of us a little anxious about returning to school? “Anxiety has become an over-used, catch-all term for the general angst of being a teen. Parents need to talk to their kids…really talk to them, after really listening. Help them understand the general angst of growing up is age-old and is not insurmountable.” I say all this knowing there is a distinct difference between anxiety, which we all feel to varying degrees everyday, and Anxiety Disorder which is best treated with psychotherapy and, if necessary, medication. But, as one who struggles with the latter, I know that the best way to overcome anxiety is to face it head on as best you can. However, most parents aren’t trained on how to effectively deal with anxiety and have opted to help their children to avoid their anxiety triggers altogether, until they eventually withdraw from the world around them. As a teacher, it is hard to watch a student who would prefer to work alone, in the office of a social worker all day, or not even come to school at all. Managing missing students and their work, fearing for their well-being and education, just added to to the weight of an already heavy year
Time to Move Forward, right? During the year of remote learning all forward progress in schools came to a screeching halt. Now that everyone was back, it seemed the appropriate time to turn the machine of higher learning back on: curriculum reviews, professional development, new software training, etc. As they say, “the show must go on.” Since there was a huge subbing shortage, this obviously couldn’t take place during the school day. It would have to take place (paid) after school. You might say, “Hey, it’s optional and paid. What’s the problem?” True, but very few teachers would be willing to have NO say in the materials they will be using for the next five years or do their best to figure out new software on their own.
Systems Taxed Many teachers cited that they would have liked more administrative support. But the truth is administrators were doing their best to keep their head above water as well, managing a system that was completely taxed. There were not enough bus drivers, paraprofessionals, and substitutes to keep the system afloat. Student behavior was the worst it had been in my tenure and from what I gather this was happening everywhere (thanks, TikTok!). Deans could not even keep up with the paperwork of truancies (which were also at an all time high) and referrals because they were traveling from one fire to the next. When Omicron hit, nurses and their support staff could not keep up with absences and contact tracing, so the administrators at my school stepped in to help by listening to the answer machine and making contact tracing calls. On top of that, administrators were met at board meetings with parents angry about wearing masks, not wearing masks, CRT, and whatever other political hot topic was cycling through cable news.
So What Now? Administrators, can we have a chat? As one teacher shared, “Administration continued on as if it were a normal year, all the while telling us to make sure to take care of ourselves and reminding us that we are doing a great job.” This is like saying “take care of yourselves” as you are being blown around by a tornado. The sentiment feels well-intended, but honestly, ridiculous. Almost every teacher shared the same cure to what ailed us this year: TIME. Time to manage it all. While teachers have never had enough time, the additional pressures of this past school year strained a system that was already on the brink of failure. If administrators want to help teachers, hire additional staff to monitor hallways or extend specials so that teachers can manage what is already an unreasonable workload. Or find community volunteers. Or take some things off their plates. Make time! Erin Wagner, a chemistry teacher from Arizona shared, “I know what amazing lessons could look like but I feel there is no time to create it. Those are the basic things I need. I am still a teacher because I love teaching right down to my soul.” Honestly, I think administrators must acknowledge that time this year stole so much time from teachers and robbed them that time with their family and “to take care of themselves.”
As for what teachers can do, one teacher shared her thoughts, “Teachers need to stop whining. You are hired to be a professional, so be one! Stop wasting time pointing out all that you don’t like and all that doesn’t meet your expectations. Be the change you wish to see, starting with walking in the door with positive intentions.” We are at a critical point. There are teaching shortages all across the country (and there are a lot of reasons for that which I hope to address in my next post). We can jump ship, discouraging every wide-eyed future educator with cautionary tales, or we can come back to our “why.” We teach because we love kids. We love learning. We want to make a meaningful impact on the next generation.
I may be naive, but I do believe this year will be better than the last. Full disclosure: I’ve lowered my expectations from last year. So, raise a glass with me. Here’s to next year. May it remind you why you ventured to teach in the first place! CHEERS!