The pandemic has not been kind to teachers.
It’s upended the very way they practice their profession and posed a threat to the health of those expected to return to in-person teaching before the pandemic has receded. In a recent national poll by the National Education Association, more than a quarter of teachers surveyed reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has made them consider early retirement or leaving the profession altogether. The pandemic won’t go away overnight. So, what can be done right now to support those teachers who are doing their best to soldier on?
We went straight to the source to find out. We talked to teachers from across the country to find out what they’re facing on the job as the pandemic continues, and what their employers are doing—or, in their view, failing to do—to make their professional lives more manageable.
Fostering engagement and autonomy
High school English teacher Carlotta Pope says that, as employees go, she feels fortunate. During the early days of the pandemic, when schools were shuttered and the threat of isolation was real, her principal at Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School in New York acted inclusively.
“It’s rare that teachers are included in the conversation,” said Pope. “I think my experience has been unique.” For instance, her principal invited a team of stakeholders—including students, teachers, and parents—to weigh in on the scheduling process for returning to school this fall.
Since the pandemic hit, Pope says her principal has created “pods” for teachers to strengthen skills in various areas, from cultural responsiveness to tech savvy. He also presented teachers with choices of technology platforms to purchase for virtual teaching and meetings. “He gave us the autonomy to try different technology platforms, and use the ones we like,” said Pope. “My principal is so open-minded and inclusive.”
Not all other teachers report feeling that same level of support at their schools.
A desire for clear guidance, better communication
“We’re supposed to go back Oct. 19. People are anxious. The way you calm that anxiety is by giving clear cut information,” said Mary Claire Breslin, who teaches 6th grade at Albert Leonard Middle School in New Rochelle, N.Y.
That’s been in short supply, she says.
Breslin, who’s also president of the New Rochelle Federation of United School Employees, expresses frustration over her efforts to get answers from district administration about safety protocols when school resumes in-person. “These issues are being addressed at a snail’s pace,” she said.
In addition to safety concerns, Breslin worries about an aspect of the job that, before the pandemic, felt intuitive: delivering instruction. “We have to figure out how to service the needs of two distinct groups: those who are remaining virtual, and those who are coming back,” said Breslin. Soon, she’ll be back in the classroom—but not all students will be.
“I don’t know how kids at home are going to understand me speaking through a mask. That’s going to be a struggle,” Breslin said. Others echo her sentiments.
As she prepares to transition from online to in-person teaching, Danette Thierry, a social studies teacher at Edna Karr High School in New Orleans, acknowledges uncertainty. “We’ll still have kids at home. I’ll have kids in front of my face. I don’t know how to do that. No one has shown me how to properly teach them,” said the veteran teacher.
She also notes that students will remain in one classroom, and teachers will move from class to class, raising concerns about exposure as they rotate among groups of students. “A lot of my colleagues don’t feel too hot about that,” Thierry said.
At a minimum, acknowledge the hardships
Like many educators, David Finkle is teaching in two different modes this fall: He’s addressing some of his language arts students in his classroom at DeLand High School in Florida while others tune in remotely.
“It is exhausting. I’m end-of-the-year tired,” said Finkle, a 29-year veteran teacher of the Volusia County school system.
A sudden and unanticipated reallocation of resources since the return to school this fall has exacerbated the situation, he explains. DeLand High School usually has close to 4,000 students enrolled. Since the pandemic, enrollment is down about 1,000. Consequently, the district moved some teachers to other, higher-enrollment schools.
The trickle-down effect for Finkle? In early October, weeks after class began, he greeted between 20 and 30 new students to his classes—in just one day. Now, one of his classes enrolls 27 students in person, and an additional eight online. “We’re not able to social distance,” Finkle said.
“Our school-based administration acknowledges that this is stressful. They try to give us positive messages. Their emails are conciliatory,” said Finkle. “We’re in an extraordinary circumstance,” he said. “I feel like the state and district are treating it like it’s ordinary times.”
Finkle doesn’t pinpoint what he needs from his employer to do his job better right now. Instead, he shares some things he’s done independently to make teaching safer and more effective during the pandemic.
Using his personal bank account, he’s purchased an air purifier for his classroom and a conference-room microphone that attaches to his laptop, allowing students who are online to hear what he and the students in his classroom are saying.
Finkle does, however, share a bright side. “The kids, overall, have been extraordinary,” he said. “I’m not having any serious behavioral problems.”