Teaching Profession

Exhausted and Grieving: Teaching During the Coronavirus Crisis

Educators’ stress is skyrocketing during pandemic
By Catherine Gewertz — April 16, 2020 8 min read
Amy Pollington, a kindergarten teacher in Seattle, was so exhausted and stressed after four days of distance-teaching that she was on the verge of a panic attack.

Stress isn’t new to teachers, but what they’re experiencing now makes their typical stress seem like a picnic. Driven by a pandemic to the front lines of an unprecedented rush to distance-learning, the nation’s teachers are scrambling to manage an armful of new challenges. And they’re exhausted.

That exhaustion emerges from a tangle of dynamics. Teachers are grappling with unfamiliar technologies. They have to retrofit—or reinvent—their lessons and find new ways to do familiar things, like grading homework. They’re inundated with emails, texts, and calls from principals, parents, and students. They’re trying to “be there” for students and their families. And many are also juggling the needs of their own children or other loved ones while managing their own coronavirus fears.

Amy Pollington, a kindergarten teacher at Saint George School, a private K-8 in Seattle, didn’t mince words when she described her first week of distance-teaching.

“By the fourth day, I started to have a panic attack,” she said. “I hadn’t slept. I was feeling like the walls were coming in on me.”

Sitting there in a living room chair, her $6 Amazon classroom-backdrop poster taped up behind her, Pollington had to shut down her laptop and her phone to regain her composure. She was trying so hard to “give 150 percent, to be there every moment of the day and night” for her families. But she had to stop. Just for a few minutes.

She isn’t alone. In interviews with Education Week, teachers described staying up until 2 or 3 a.m., answering emails, trouble-shooting technology or planning lessons. They can’t seem to shut it off. Papers are strewn across their living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms. And on top of the stress and exhaustion, they’re grieving.

Angie Shaw connects with her 1st grade students in Scottsbluff, Neb., in a recent evening circle time on Zoom. She says she misses the close individual connections she can get only by sharing the classroom with her students.

“I’m sorry I’m crying, but just to be with them, their little faces, every day, in person, I miss that so much,” said Angie Shaw, who teaches 1st grade at Longfellow Elementary in Scottsbluff, Neb.

She aches for the familiar routines and rituals of her brick-and-mortar school day and how she knew every loose tooth, every hurt feeling, in her students’ lives. Shaw holds a weekly evening circle time on Zoom, but she can’t get the kind of connection she’s used to with each student.

A New Level of Multitasking

One of Rana El Yousef’s recent days illustrates the complexities that teachers are now managing. El Yousef, a high school chemistry teacher in Glendora, Calif., multitasked during her morning dog-walk, using it as her twin 9-year-old sons’ “recess” and as a quick tutorial in writing and fractions so they could get started on their teacher’s assignments.

Rana El Yousef, a high school chemistry teacher in Glendora, Calif., helps her son Xander, 9, with a Khan Academy lesson on fractions. El Yousef is juggling the schooling needs of her twin sons with the new demands of teaching from home.

Home again, she made the boys breakfast and got them logged onto their Chromebooks. Then El Yousef tackled a brimming inbox, scanning each email’s demands: There’s a science department Zoom meeting at 2 p.m., as well as her sons’ 3rd grade Zoom meeting. There’s another Zoom meeting at 3 p.m. for honors and Advanced Placement teachers.

It’s hours before she can get to her own students, and the emails were flooding in. El Yousef had posted YouTube videos with lessons and worksheets, and a do-at-home science experiment and a Google quiz. Students were asking: How do I answer this lab question? How do I submit my answers? Between emails, she graded her AP students’ practice quizzes and surveyed her students about their online access. And there’s the small matter of planning new lessons, too.

“I’ve been staring at a computer for eight solid hours, my eyes are strained, my shoulders are tense, and I have to keep reminding myself, all this is new, and we are all learning, and it will get easier, I hope,” El Yousef said.

Teachers also feel caught between their students and families, who are overflowing with questions, and their principals who often can’t provide answers yet.

“Families are asking, what is grading going to look like? What are they going to base promotion on? And we don’t know yet,” said Theresa Bruce, who teaches 8th grade social studies at the KIPP-Harmony School in Baltimore. “We’re used to being able to quickly get answers for our parents. But not being able to answer, it plagues your mind.”

Haunted by the No-Shows

Bruce and her students are more comfortable than many with technology-based instruction, since their school is a blended-learning environment, with 1-to-1 computing. Even still, teaching from home is a massive and difficult change, she said. Among other things, she’s lost the cues that she can pick up only from seeing her students in person, she said.

Theresa Bruce, who teaches 8th grade social studies at KIPP-Harmony school in Baltimore, is haunted by what could be happening with the students who aren’t showing up for online sessions.

“When I’m with them, I can see what’s really going on with them,” she said. “But digitally, they can hide it: their joy. Their depression. Anybody can put their game face on for an hour on Zoom.”

Bruce is haunted by the ones who aren’t signing on for virtual sessions. In the past, she wouldn’t hesitate to call home if a child missed class. But now, with parents losing jobs, or maybe caring for ill relatives, Bruce isn’t sure if a call is too intrusive. She agonizes: “Should I reach out? Is that too much?”

Teachers report that simple things take much longer as they get used to working with online tools. Ayako Anderson, who teaches Japanese to high school students at three schools in the Boston suburbs, said that just noting an incorrect verb conjugation on a student’s paper recently required a laborious process of zooming in and out on her iPad, switching cursors and forming one word with a scratchy red scrawl.

In a brick-and-mortar world, she’d be able to make more extensive comments quickly, with a pen on paper. But she recognizes that adapting paper practices to computer can itself be inefficient. One of the schools where she teaches is 100 percent virtual, and its systems and processes are designed for online learning, so they work better, she said.

Ayako Anderson, who teaches Japanese to high school students at three schools in the Boston suburbs, said it’s difficult and time-consuming to translate paper-and-pencil tactics to online. Simply marking a student’s work uploaded to her iPad took many more steps than writing comments on paper.

Teaching from home comes with another risk: too little physical activity. Teachers said they’re worn out from sitting still in front of a computer so much. “My body aches from sitting for hours on end,” said Shaw. Anderson said that since she doesn’t need to “walk from classroom to classroom anymore, or walk to lunch,” she finds herself sitting endlessly, working until the hours blur and it’s 3 a.m.

Trying to Go From Zero to 60

Experts in online learning, and in grief and stress, say none of what teachers are experiencing is surprising. Susan Patrick, the CEO of the Aurora Institute, a nonprofit that supports districts with virtual learning, said it’s impossible to do full-scale distance-learning instantly.

“There’s a reason districts and schools take one to two years planning time,” she said. “You can’t go from zero to 60 in 24 hours if you don’t have the processes and structures in place.”

Michael Barbour, who focuses on virtual learning as an associate professor of education at Touro University California, said research shows that preparing lessons for distance-learning can be more time-consuming than for brick-and-mortar settings. Plans for live—or synchronous—sessions can take up to three times as long, he said, and plans for asynchronous lessons can take as much as five to eight times longer.

Experts said teachers and those around them shouldn’t discount the emotional toll that the sudden shift to home teaching is taking on them.

“Being asked to suddenly do something you’re not skilled in, coping with the worry about coronavirus in their own lives, feeling they’re not doing enough for kids and parents, plus their fears about next fall, and how their students and families could really be suffering mentally and financially then, all of that piles up into an amazing amount of stress,” said Kathleen Minke, the executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists.

Teachers’ experience of grief is going unacknowledged, too, as exhaustion and stress take a higher profile, experts said. That can produce a phenomenon known as “disenfranchised grief”—a grief that’s tougher because it’s not acknowledged and accepted, said Kenneth Doka, a psychologist who specializes in grief.

“It could be hard for teachers to feel they can complain about the loss of not seeing their students, when they know people out there are dying,” Doka said. “But that lack of recognition leads to [a] more complicated [form of] grief.”

The combination of stress and grief can produce brain changes that make the already-stressful job of teaching even tougher, said Patricia A. Jennings, a professor of education at the University of Virginia and an expert in teacher stress. The sudden shift to the new demands of home teaching, laced with fears about coronavirus, blend into a kind of trauma that can shift the brain from higher-order thinking skills into survival mode.

“We might shut down a bit, space out, dissociate, or check out because we can’t cope very well,” Jennings said. “We might also get into a kind of hypervigilance, where we’re constantly checking emails or news developments, and it’s hard to concentrate.”

Little by little, though, teachers are finding ways to adapt. Anderson, in Massachusetts, now sketches her daily schedule out in Google Calendar, to help her build clearer beginnings and endings into her work hours. With her district’s blessing, Pollington, in Seattle, now sends home lesson plans every other day, instead of daily.

In her first home-teaching days, Pollington woke up anxious and disorganized. Should she check email first or feed the dogs? She rushed to answer every email right away. Now, each morning she turns on her computer, feeds the dogs and makes coffee. Then she responds to students’ work on the video app Flipgrid. She gives herself 24 hours to respond to emails. She still forgets to eat lunch, but she’s working on that. She tries to stop working at 4 p.m. And she tries not to feel guilty about it.

Bruce encourages teachers to “give themselves the grace they need” to set realistic goals and take care of themselves. Try actually scheduling time in each day for something that brings you joy, she said.

“Like anything, the first year is tough, but over time, you learn and adapt,” Bruce said. “You’re gonna regroup. You’re gonna recover.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 2020 edition of Education Week as Remote Teaching: ‘I Started to Have a Panic Attack’

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