Round-the-Clock Communication Is Exhausting Teachers

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Not long after schools transitioned to remote learning this spring, English teacher Shelby Davis started getting messages at all hours of the night.

Her 11th graders, whose sleeping schedules had already reset by then, were sending her questions at 1 or 2 am and multiple follow-ups into the early hours of the morning, “because I wasn’t answering fast enough,” she said.

She’d wake up to the notifications in the morning and start making her way through them. On Sundays, her school's end-of-week deadline for student work, she felt tied to her inbox, replying to students’ last-minute questions about assignments. In all, Davis thinks she spent about five hours a day on her email.

The sheer volume of communication was overwhelming, and its round-the-clock nature nothing like what she had experienced in the classroom. Before COVID, most students would wait until the next day to ask her questions in person.

“With distance learning, there’s kind of like a blend between days,” Davis said. “My day doesn’t naturally stop at 2:50.”

Even before the pandemic, texting and school communication apps—like Remind or ClassDojo—had given students and families new ways to contact teachers 24/7. But teachers like Davis say that school closures have increased the pressure to be “always on” for students and parents, as remote instruction has blurred the boundaries between work life and home life.

And it isn't just messages about assignments. As most families’ closest connection to their schools, teachers are also fielding worried questions—about when classes will finally resume in person, or what next year will bring—from children dealing with the stress of uncertainty.

“I definitely think I took on more of a counselor role,” said Courtney Jones-Stevens, who taught 6th and 7th grade social studies this past school year at KIPP South Fulton Academy, in East Point, Ga. “To see them struggling definitely takes a toll on you.”

Teachers want to be available to their students, to clarify their questions and calm their fears. But it’s also crucial that teachers set time aside for themselves, and that schools and districts respect—and even help create—these boundaries, said Kathleen Minke, the executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists.

Developing systems that protect teacher well-being should be a priority for schools in the fall, she said, as the demands of remote learning aren’t likely to disappear. Some districts are planning for hybrid models, with both remote and in-person classes, and an increasing number are planning to start fully online.

“I like the metaphor of the stress cup. When your stress cup gets full, it doesn’t take much more to get you over the edge,” Minke said. “Teachers have to think about, how do you empty that cup so that [you] are available when needed?”

An ‘Internal Battle’ Over Boundaries

This past spring, parents, teachers, and students were all adjusting to a new reality, Minke said. Teenagers sending emails in the middle of the night were figuring out how to set their own schedules; parents who had late-night questions may have had to wait until they were off work, or after they had put young children to sleep, to send their messages.

“There’s no bad guys in this,” said Minke. “This is all people doing the best they can with what they know and what they have to work with.”

Some teachers found that opening up to students and parents about their own responsibilities outside of class helped families understand and respect the boundaries that they set around communication.

Shanice Maxwell, a 5th and 6th grade history teacher at a charter school in Bridgeport, Conn., mostly heard from parents early in the morning or late at night. Her school is near a hospital, and many of her students’ families included essential workers.

In the first weeks of distance learning, she felt pressure to respond to parent texts and emails about assignments or technical problems immediately. Throughout the beginning of last school year—her first as a teacher—she had worked to build relationships with families. Maxwell, who is Black, said she wanted parents to know that she had a “fire in my belly about teaching Black and brown students in this community,” and that parents could count on her support.

The pandemic brought on an “internal battle,” she said. “Because at first, it was like, I want to make sure they have everything they need, I want to answer their questions … But I was ignoring the fact that I, too, need to rest, and I, too, have a family I need to cater to, and I was also in grad school.”

With about a month left of school, two things happened that changed her experience. Her administration set a policy that teachers didn’t have to respond to messages sent after 5 p.m. until the next day. And then, Maxwell shared with parents why she was planning to follow it: She had evening classes for her master’s program, and she was also caring for her elderly mother.

Her students’ families were understanding. Parents sent more messages during the day, and when they would send messages later at night, they added an acknowledgement: It’s OK if you get back to me in the morning.

School support structures—like Maxwell’s administration’s 5 p.m. cut-off—can make it easier for teachers to set boundaries around communication, Minke said.

“This shouldn’t be something that teachers are facing on their own as an individual,” she said. “This is something that schools should be having conversations about: What are the expectations, and how are they communicating those expectations?”

One solution: distributing responsibility. Grade-level teams could take turns having “on” hours, Minke suggested. It’s also helpful to have teachers’ schedules clearly accessible, possibly including them in an email auto-reply, she said.

'Grasping for Answers’

Heather Levine, a high school English teacher in Lawrence Public Schools, in Massachusetts, said that most of her 9th graders respected the boundaries she set around her time.

Tougher for her was not having answers to the questions kids asked all spring, about what would come next. Students would text her with rumors they’d heard, asking, “Is that true?”

“I think everyone was sort of grasping for answers,” Levine said. And though the rush of messages from students was daunting at first, harder still was not hearing from some of her 9th graders at all.

Levine checked in with all of her students at least once a week. “Sometimes I would get an inclination, just by the way that a student would write something, or even by their lack of writing, that something was wrong,” she said.

One-word responses, or students just saying, “I’m fine,” worried her. She knew a lot of her students were shouldering big responsibilities, supervising siblings or working to support their families after parents were laid off. If she were in class, she could have offered a granola bar, or a hug, or an open invitation to talk. But over text, she had fewer options.

Hearing regularly from students about their fears—or not hearing from them much at all—can take a toll on teachers’ mental health, said James Caringi, a professor and the chair of the School of Social Work at the University of Montana, who studies secondary traumatic stress in educators.

Peer support, just talking to other teachers, is an effective way to work through these feelings. But “unless you happen to live next to one of your colleagues, it’s harder to do that now,” Caringi said. Schools and districts have a role to play here, providing opportunities for teachers to tap into these support networks virtually, while not adding another to-do to their plates, he said.

Jones-Stevens, the social studies teacher in Georgia, said that a group counseling session led by her school psychologist helped her better understand how to reply to the many students asking what would happen in the coming months.

The school psychologist talked with teachers about how to be vulnerable with students about uncertainty, and she gave teachers strategies to help students make safe decisions as the state reopened.

Jones-Stevens understands why her communication with students became more personal, as they turned to her this spring for reassurance from an adult.

“They’re not going to school, they’re not seeing adults outside of their families, so providing that support is very helpful to kids,” said Minke, of NASP. “But again, within that construct of: We have to set some limits.”

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