I have been a classroom teacher for 16 years, but this has been the hardest one by leaps and bounds. Pretty much every teacher I know feels the same way.
At first blush, this statement might surprise. What about the year so many of us stayed home teaching virtually? Or, even worse, working in half-filled classrooms while most of our students watched from their bedrooms? Those were some low moments. Am I seriously suggesting that anything could be worse than that?
Absolutely, and for a couple of reasons.
First, the virtual teaching, difficult as it was, served as a catalyst for so many of us. We looked around, rolled up our sleeves, and collectively said something like, “Well, this stinks. But the kids need us, and we’ve got to figure it out.” Administration and teaching staff came together to recognize that none of what was hard was the fault of the children and that we had to lean in and do the best job possible given the situation. Many of us were inspired by the new technologies. On my part, I became obsessed with shooting video for a flipped-classroom vibe I had long wanted to try out.
The year was difficult, yes. But also exciting.
That excitement is completely gone at this point. Coming back to the building, for so many of us, meant only a desperate return to the status quo, to “business as usual,” to the relentless pursuit of test scores that the initial waves of the pandemic had swept aside. During that first phase, creativity reigned. This year has pretty much just been a slog back to moribund tradition.
The more salient reason that this year has been so hard, however—as much as I hate to write this down—is the students. They can’t sit still. They can’t stop talking. They can’t put their phones down. They can’t stop touching each other. They can’t follow simple directions. They can’t focus on a lesson or an assignment. Not all of them, of course. But enough to make every day feel like a bruising week.
I was talking to a colleague recently, and she summed it up perfectly. “Every morning we get here, and I’m bouncing with energy. But by the time we leave at the end, I’m just dragging my head.”
The student behavior isn’t really their fault, either—no more than their being forced to stay at home because of a global pandemic. We’re now on our third straight school year of extreme disruption—a huge chunk in the lifetime of any child. I remind myself regularly that the last time my 8th grade students had a “normal” springtime in a school building they were still in elementary school. Forget the pandemic for a moment and just imagine the physical changes their bodies and minds have been through during that time (adolescence, anyone?). Now, add to that the fact that something like two-thirds of my students didn’t set foot in a school building between March 13, 2020, and August 2, 2021. Who can blame them for not quite knowing how to act in class?
We can't 'catch up' when we're having a hard time just treading water, swimming in a pool full of dysregulated emotions.
There are those who say that the “learning loss” of the last two years is primarily to blame for our problems, but I politely disagree. All else being equal, children are like sponges—capable of absorbing far more than is necessary to get the regular job done. We could teach them two years of material in one year’s time, but only if we get the chance. The social and emotional distractions, however, are stacked against us. We can’t “catch up” when we’re having a hard time just treading water, swimming in a pool full of dysregulated emotions. Nor when every morning feels like a spin on fortune’s wheel of problem behaviors.
Oh, and don’t forget about the bus driver shortage. And the difficulty retaining cafeteria workers and custodians. And the lack of substitute teachers. Keeping these positions filled has been a difficult task for so many schools—but here, too, there is no one to blame. Teachers for the most part have salaries and good benefits packages to get us back to work every Monday; I wonder how many of us would feel differently if we were paid by the hour?
Of course, many teachers are questioning even that much security, announcing departures for next year or even quitting in the middle of this one. A few are taking a preponderance of “mental health days” or intentionally scheduling appointments during classes they want to miss or on Friday afternoons. I don’t blame any of these educators, either, though I know I’m not alone in feeling a looming sense of dread about the coming fall. It seems as if somehow things might just get harder.
I see some 130 students every day, and, as most teachers can attest, there are by and large no “bad kids” causing the trouble and lack of focus. Rather, chaos blooms from an aggregate of off-task behavior, looping in feedback spirals that go up and up. There’s very rarely someone to blame—thus the “head-dragging” effect my colleague noted. It’s all so dispiriting.
Every once in a while, though, a day will hit just a little bit different.
A student who pushed way past my last nerve one day approaches me the next. “I’m giving you a hug because I’m in a hugging mood,” he says. Another hands me her phone—not to ask for a charge but rather just for me to hold onto it. “There’s too much going on,” she says, “and I need to focus on the right things.” One of my most distracted students gets his first A on a quiz. Another—one I spent all first semester arguing with—pays me that highest of compliments: “This is my favorite class.”
Then, someone asks permission to be absent on a random Friday. She is going to observe an elementary school classroom because she might want to be a teacher when she grows up.
This has been the hardest year of my career, and I know that next year might somehow top it. Let’s be completely honest: I cannot wait for summer, for year 16 to be in the rearview mirror.
But I’ll be back for 17. What else can I do but get up and go to work, every day, despite the bruises and the slog? The kids might be all right. How could I miss that?
A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2022 edition of Education Week as Hardest Year Ever? One Teacher’s View