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Teaching Profession From Our Research Center

In a Grueling School Year, Teachers Are Leaning on Each Other the Most

By Madeline Will — February 08, 2022 8 min read
From left, ESL Campus Coordinator Steve Clark and English Teachers Suzanne Cunningham and Claudia Hendricks listen to an idea from Stacey Flanagan during a meeting at Lowery Freshman Center in Allen, Texas on Tuesday, February 1, 2022.
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Teachers are working hard to help students recover from gaps and disruptions in learning due to the pandemic. But who’s helping the teachers?

The EdWeek Research Center surveyed 630 teachers from across the country in December and found that more than half of respondents said their fellow teachers are being more supportive of their efforts to help students learn compared to before the pandemic. In interviews, teachers say that collaboration and camaraderie is a bright spot in an otherwise grueling school year—that despite the staff shortages, quarantines, and other challenges, teachers are banding together to bolster student learning.

“I think we’ve always helped each other out, but I think the burden just got bigger [this year],” said Amber Chandler, an 8th grade English/language arts teacher at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, N.Y. “Instead of helping each other because we wanted to, in some ways we realized how interdependent we are to kids’ success. ... We’re really coming together to support students.”

Chandler has a co-teacher for part of the day who she works closely with to brainstorm engaging lessons. She is also collaborating with other teachers in her department and working with them to analyze student data.

Students’ academic and social-emotional needs vary based on their experiences over the past two years, Chandler said, so teachers at her school have been strategizing the best ways to help each child: “It does take everybody.”

At the same time, fewer teachers in the survey said their principals, district-level administrators, and students’ parents were supporting them more this year than they were before the pandemic. Parents were the least likely to be offering more support, according to the survey.

But teachers, at least, have been in the trenches with each other throughout all the twists and turns of the past two years. They know more than anyone what it’s like to be teaching in a pandemic.

“It’s hard to put into words what a teacher’s day can be like in a way that the general public can understand,” said Chandler, who is also the president of her local teachers’ union. “Teachers, we like our predictability, and we’ve now gone from the routine of school to almost continuous disruptions on both small scales and large scales. I think that has really helped bond teachers together.”

Stacey Flanagan, an English teacher at the Lowery Freshman Center in Allen, Texas, said her teaching team has been continuously planning and working together to catch students up this year. They share resources and instructional strategies with one another, and they’re there with emotional support, too.

For instance, Flanagan said she has one class that is like “lassoing tornadoes.” The students have strong personalities, she said, and one day, a student reacted angrily to something that happened in class and “lashed out” at her. Usually, Flanagan said she doesn’t take students’ anger personally, but this time, she couldn’t help it—she felt overwhelmed.

“I was exhausted by the end of the day, and that manifested itself when I was trying to talk to coworkers—I just started crying,” Flanagan said. Her colleagues consoled her, and her department chair emailed the administrative team to let them know that Flanagan had a tough day. It was late after school, but an assistant principal “came running and reassured me that I’m doing the right thing,” Flanagan said.

“I think the very last thing that teachers need right now is more professional development, more meetings, and more people from outside coming in and telling them what to do. I think what they need right now is support … and flexibility.”

A few days later, Flanagan was still having difficulties with students’ behavior in that class. She asked the assistant principal, a former English teacher, to come to the classroom and address the problem. He ended up staying to help teach a small group.

“It took away from him being able to do his actual job, but it was much appreciated,” she said, noting that the support her coworkers have for each other has been a saving grace. “Is it a tough year to teach? Yes, but [the camaraderie] makes it a rewarding and satisfying year as well.”

Teachers don’t feel as supported by leaders

Despite the campus-wide culture of support at schools like Flanagan’s, the EdWeek survey found that teachers were less likely to say that their principal or, especially, administrators at the district level were being more supportive of their efforts to help students learn.

Also, 27 percent of teachers said that insufficient support from administrators is among the challenges that is making it “much more difficult than usual” to help students catch up.

Natasha Esteves, a research assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Teaching Systems Lab, and Chris Buttimer, a postdoctoral associate and educational researcher in the lab, were among a team of researchers who interviewed 57 teachers in spring 2021 to understand their experiences during the first pandemic school year. The researchers repeatedly heard from teachers that they felt like administrators rarely asked them what they needed to stay healthy before the vaccines were available or for their ideas about what would help student learning.

“Teachers were not in decisionmaking rooms,” Esteves said. “They were just the recipients of decisions that defined their entire lives.”

What teachers need from their administrators has evolved throughout the pandemic. Last school year, teachers felt like they didn’t receive appropriate professional development to teach online, Esteves said. But this year, with nearly all schools back in person, only 11 percent of teachers said more professional development would make a major difference in helping their students master material they should have learned over the past two years, according to the EdWeek survey.

“I think the very last thing that teachers need right now is more professional development, more meetings, and more people from outside coming in and telling them what to do,” Buttimer said. “I think what they need right now is support … and flexibility.”

Instructional Coach Starian Porchia talks about a note she made on the agenda during a meeting at Lowery Freshman Center in Allen, Texas on Tuesday, February 1, 2022.

However, administrators are stretched thin this year handling a large volume of staff absences and other operational challenges, said Dean Kloss, a 1st grade teacher in upstate New York. (Across the country, principals have reported spending their days filling in for sick staff and managing COVID-19 safety protocols instead of focusing on their typical instructional leadership work.)

“We see them less than we did before [the pandemic],” Kloss said. “Are they supportive? They’re rhetorically supportive. ... I think they’re telling us what’s expected, and relying on teachers” to get it done.

Teachers say parents are not supporting them

Experts say that schools’ relationships with families and caregivers is a critical part of student academic recovery during the pandemic. But a little more than half of teachers said insufficient support from parents this year was making it much more difficult than usual to help their students reach grade level. And teachers also noticed a decline in the level of support parents were providing this year compared to pre-pandemic.

Some teachers feel as if parents blame them—or their unions—for school closures last year or mask policies. (Teachers often say they feel as if they were praised as heroes at the beginning of the pandemic, only to be vilified when they pushed back against returning to classrooms until they thought it was safe.) The controversy over how race and racism is taught in school has also pitted some parents against educators.

Public trust in teachers has declined 6 percentage points since 2019, according to an Ipsos survey conducted in October. While Americans still trust teachers more than most other professions—with only doctors, members of the armed forces, and scientists garnering higher levels of trust—teachers were the only professional group that saw a significant decline in trust, the poll found.

Still, experts say, that doesn’t necessarily reflect how parents feel about their child’s teachers. A December poll of 1,308 public school parents that was funded by the American Federation of Teachers found that the vast majority of parents think their child’s teacher has made an extra effort to help students during the pandemic and is doing a good job.

“Parents have a default position of trusting educators to do what’s right for their children,” said Kevin Walker, the president of Project Appleseed, a national advocacy group for public school families.

But there are a lot of factors this year that may make it difficult for parents to support teachers as much as teachers want, experts note. Many parents, especially those who have children too young to be vaccinated, are stretched thin with a lack of consistent child care due to quarantines. Others have experienced economic setbacks due to the pandemic and may be working longer hours. And some may have lost a spouse or family member due to COVID-19 and are still grieving.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that parents don’t want to give the support,” said Buttimer, the MIT researcher.

Also, many school districts are still not allowing parents to come onto campus in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. That has left some parents feeling unsure how to be involved in their child’s education. It has also taken away real-time supports for teachers and the relationships that formed from those face-to-face interactions.

Liz Crandall, a 3rd grade teacher at La Center Elementary School in Washington state, said parents used to frequently volunteer in classrooms before the pandemic. “They supported us that way a lot, and they can’t do that now,” she said. “I think they feel as if their hands are tied.”

Walker said administrators should find ways for parents to volunteer and engage with their child’s school from a distance. He added that teachers should try to communicate with parents in a way that meets them where they are—for example, texts instead of emails.

After all, Crandall said, parents still want to support her efforts to keep students on track academically, even from a distance. “I think the community in general is recognizing that teachers are really doing the best we can,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as In a Grueling School Year, Teachers Are Leaning on Each Other the Most

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