Teachers lean on summer as a time to refresh and recharge for the academic year ahead. This summer, the need was perhaps greater than in any period in recent history. In one recent nationwide teacher survey, half of respondents reported feeling burned out; more than a quarter had symptoms of depression; and close to one in four considered leaving their jobs by the end of the year. Those teachers who will return to their jobs for 2020–21 are likely to go into it feeling a little more weary, and wary, than usual.
School leadership can make a difference.
Administrators can’t erase the stress and burnout caused by the COVID-19 pandemic which, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, is spiking in many parts of the nation just as schools plan to welcome students back for the new school year. But they can implement intentional strategies to make teachers feel more confident as they head back to the classroom.
During the last several months, most if not every decision made by K-12 school officials was done with the unpredictable and unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic in mind. That approach probably will not change any time soon, especially with confounding factors including new variants of the virus, uneven vaccination rates, and strong, divergent points of view from political leaders and local communities about mask mandates.
But even as districts may need to continually reassess and pivot throughout the school year due to factors beyond their control, sharing whatever information is available can put teachers more at ease.
“Our teachers definitely want clear communication about the plans,” said Cedric Cooper, a seasoned K-12 administrator.
Cooper, who has served as a principal at the middle and high school levels in Nebraska and Wyoming, acknowledges that COVID isn’t over; subsequently, neither are the related safety protocols and procedures that districts need to follow—even as they continue to change, sometimes by the day.
While the ever-evolving nature of such protocols can be unsettling to teachers, Cooper acknowledges that the best way to assuage anxiety is to maintain open communication with staff. “It makes them feel like they’re safe,” he said.
Assurances that safety will be a priority
Much of the communication teachers crave centers on health and safety measures. Language arts teacher David Finkle, for instance, wonders which safety measures he will find as he prepares to return to his classroom.
“I’m assuming masks are not required,” said Finkle, who teaches at Southwestern Middle School, in DeLand, Fla. “I would hope that they are going to keep supplying us with hand sanitizer.”
Florida currently bans school districts from requiring masks, though some have vowed to defy the ban and risk funding that Gov. Ron DeSantis has said they will lose if they violate the law.
Texas-based junior high teacher Lisa Dishongh notes that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has forbidden school districts from requiring students and staff to wear masks. That lack of flexibility for schools to require one of the most effective mitigation measures has her worried.
“We won’t have a virtual option. Social distancing is not possible,” said Dishongh, the social studies department chair for Alice Johnson Jr. High in Channelview, Texas. “This Delta variant, I understand, is easy to catch.”
Though Dishongh voices concerns over COVID-related safety in schools, she is reassured by the proactive stance school officials took last year. Some of the measures included hiring someone to handle contact tracing, providing “gallons and gallons” of hand sanitizer, and ensuring that students wiped down desks with school-supplied antibacterial wipes after each class.
“They did implement safety measures that kept us as safe as they could,” she said.
Dishongh, a member of the American Federation of Teachers, says she was part of a districtwide COVID-related safety committee during the 2020-21 school year that assessed each campus’s safety measures individually, met with the superintendent to share ideas for safety protocols, and helped two other Texas-based school districts set up similar committees of their own.
An approachable leadership style
This form of collaborative leadership style, whereby teachers were encouraged to share ideas with administrators, likely went a long way to building trust in a time of otherwise uncertainty.
It’s an approach which Jennifer Halter, principal of Green Cove Springs Junior High in Florida’s Clay County, works to achieve.
“Part of being a leader in a scary situation is about helping people frame their fear, control what they can,” Halter said. “You need to be aware of what makes your colleagues, and students, comfortable.”
Halter uses the example of face masks as a (literal) metaphor for this philosophy, knowing that opinions and even policies regarding their usage vary widely within the state of Florida.
As for Halter, whenever she’s in her school building, she wears her mask around her neck at all times, pulling it over her nose and mouth if a staff member to whom she’s talking is wearing one. It’s a way she feels she can make individual staff members feel comfortable.
A flexible mindset
Halter’s actions also demonstrate another trait teachers hope will be in abundant supply among administrators this year.
“I sure hope they [administrators] will be flexible,” said Dishongh.
Already, the Texas teacher has begun to think about the need for administrators’ flexibility as it pertains to academic expectations, especially given the challenges of last year that she believes stood in the way of students’ academic achievement. They include difficulty engaging students in virtual and hybrid environments and, subsequently, the inability to cover material in as much depth as in a normal year.
Like countless public school teachers nationwide, Dishongh has felt the pressure to ensure that students achieve certain benchmarks—for instance, on standardized tests—sometimes without regard to extenuating circumstances such as those the pandemic presented. She also recognizes that administrators’ attitudes can make a big difference in how teachers experience that pressure.
“I’ve had principals who made me feel like part of a team, and if there was a failure it wasn’t just my failure, and that we’re all working on this,” said Dishongh. “I’m hoping our administrators will stand with us.”