In my first life as a teacher, it was hard to not take things personally. Policies were ever changing, sent mixed messages, and felt like something that was being done to me. I often found it hard to reconcile what I was being told to do with what needed to be done in the classroom.
Policy churn was so fast, I felt as if I had whiplash. Solid justifications for what seemed to be very intrusive “asks” and “tells” were hard to come by. For instance, during my last weeks in the classroom, bureaucrats from the North Carolina education department came to explain how in the future teachers would be evaluated based on a statistical model of the contribution each made to student learning. When I asked the presenters to explain what went into this “value-added” model (the simplified algebraic examples provided literally did not add up), I was told that very few individuals could understand the psychometric measures used. But, one of the officials added, the formula takes into account things like past test performance and a “coefficient like hope.”
This marked the end for me. I did not like the idea that my effectiveness hinged on a “coefficient like hope”—something that seemingly could not be explained—and so by the end of my fifth year, I left the classroom.
I went off to pursue a Ph.D. in education policy, where I learned about policies that had impacted me as a teacher. I spent time with the elusive psychometricians who created those value-added models of teacher performance. (Turns out, many of them were not thrilled their models were used to judge teacher quality, particularly when the models were attached to pay-for-performance schemes.)
It was not the job of teaching that drove me away; it was the constant feeling that I was not doing enough and I was failing. It is easy to understand why I felt like a failure: Success was measured in changing, ill-defined, and apparently, unexplainable ways. I have often thought that many teachers who leave the profession do so not because they do not care, but because they care too much and they feel like they cannot be successful.
Nine years after departing teaching, due to a mix of circumstances, I chose to return to the classroom, this time across the border in Tennessee and in the middle of a pandemic. Under COVID-19 realities, teachers were tasked with building the pandemic-instruction airplane and flying it at the same time, sometimes while the engines were burning and the passengers screaming for help. Teachers have had to learn not just how to shift instruction online but also to continually teach in really different ways.
The backlash from parents, politicians, social-media warriors, and administrators sometimes felt awful, but I found that in my second life as a teacher, I had learned to be more forgiving of myself. I felt secure in my priorities and I think I was able to adapt to the chaos of pandemic learning.
Policy churn was so fast, I felt as if I had whiplash.
Do not get me wrong: I was not phoning it in! I have worked harder as a teacher over the past year and a half than I have ever worked at anything before. I suspect many other teachers would say the same.
I realized that to be successful in this new paradigm, I could not be the same teacher I had been. I could not teach the same way (student-led learning is difficult when online or physically distant). I could not manage my classroom the same way (Zoom and masks make it difficult to discreetly handle student issues such as, “Don’t fall asleep!”). I could not assess my students in the same way (and still say the assessments were valid; hello, Quizlet). At times, the adjustments I made seemed at odds with the things I have been taught that “good teachers” are supposed to do.
Just as when value-added teacher evaluation was the hot trend, teachers are now faced with shifting policies and messages—this time around the pandemic. In Tennessee, my year-round, K-12 university laboratory school started in July with everyone unmasked. When the Delta variant surged in early August, my school’s administration put a mask mandate back into place. That seemed to make sense. After all, we are told that safety is important and so is continuing in-person schooling.
Yet on Aug. 16, the governor of Tennessee issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of local mask mandates. At the time of the order, 1 out of every 6 students at my school was in quarantine. Schools such as mine scrambled to figure out how to accommodate this new directive that ran counter to guidance from nearly every other source. This policy shift was coupled with a statewide prohibition on school districts returning to virtual learning in times of high transmission, another mitigation strategy that had been widely employed the previous school year.
I am not writing to take a stance on COVID mitigation in schools, though perhaps one could be inferred. Instead, I want to remind readers of what can happen when teachers are faced with policy churn. Our country is likely deep, deep in the throes of a teacher shortage. Where I live in northeastern Tennessee, schools have been having difficulty filling teaching vacancies as well as other staff positions. The university where I work, like others, has been seeing declining enrollment in teacher-preparation programs.
Teaching in a pandemic has not looked good. Ever reflective, teachers feel that we could have been better, and I expect we will hear “learning gaps” a lot from policymakers in the next few years. Caring educators will take those gaps to heart, even those who have learned not to take criticism of a system personally.
Once again, teachers need something more concrete and definable than hope. We need consistency and actionable, clear guidance and supports to navigate this crisis. I have developed a thicker professional skin, yes, but I still personally feel fear each time I have a COVID exposure and return home to my 3-year-old and 10-month-old daughters.
In my second life as a teacher, I still wonder if policymakers will ever do better.
A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 2021 edition of Education Week as I’m Back in the Classroom With a Ph.D. And Some Advice for Policymakers