Spring 2020 dealt teachers the ultimate Iron-Chef-style teaching challenge. Main ingredients: students and curriculum. Secret ingredient: sudden and unexpected distance. In many places, teachers had one hot kitchen of a week to prep effective learning experiences using often-new-to-them technology. Failure was a looming possibility.
That’s how it felt to me, too, when, one week before the start of the spring quarter, my university announced all instruction would be remote and directed faculty to “take classes online.” I was scheduled to teach a 300-student undergraduate course, often the first education course taken by aspiring teachers.
It was a class I had taught a dozen times, and it had garnered me a teaching award. But I felt overwhelmed. I had never taught anything online. I was unfamiliar with the technology, unprepared pedagogically, and unsure of my students’ current realities. Overnight, I went from expert to novice.
My campus left most specifics up to individual faculty members. All planning felt speculative, and the ground shifted daily. We were told at first that we’d be online for just a week, then for longer, and finally, that there was no clear end date. “Zoom,” “Loom,” “Padlet,” and “Jamboard” became everyday parlance as we all tried to hold panic at bay, stay focused, and plan spring courses with the tools we could decipher.
Colleagues and I struggled with how much online classes should replicate the regular in-person format in meeting times, length, content, and assessment. Initially, I assumed—wrongly—that I would simply deliver my lectures online at the originally scheduled times. With the campus vacated, my students were spread from Japan to Europe, and many had taken on additional work and family-care responsibilities. More than one student was parking outside McDonald’s to access the internet.
As for me, my 5-year-old laptop was practically geriatric with its broken camera and tendency to crash unexpectedly. Taking all this into account, I decided to upload lectures for students to listen to on their own schedules.
Recording those lectures—slides with audio only because of the broken camera—saw me holed up in my home office, signs on the closed door warning my family to be quiet, staring into the computer, projecting my voice into what felt like a void. No students in sight, no faces frowning in confusion or lighting up in understanding. It was an all-consuming, lonely, and exhausting teaching experience.
Meanwhile, my twin daughters were enduring the abrupt transition of their senior year from the lively reality of track meets, theater productions, and group projects to full days sitting and Zooming from our dining room table. They felt isolated and struggled to focus.
The pandemic turned up the flame on a problem endemic to the profession: the unsatisfactory working conditions that drive promising teachers out of schools.
Their teachers worked hard to reach through the computer and appeared tireless in their daily presentations, though I was sure most were new to teaching remotely and had their own home and work-shutdown stress. In those early days of the pandemic, when fear ran high and uncertainty permeated everything, my daughters’ teachers somehow managed to show up day after day, upbeat voices radiating from the computers, teaching in a brand-new format. This made me wonder what more was happening behind the scenes for teachers as they worked to meet the challenges of the moment.
As someone who has studied teachers’ work for over two decades, I was struck by the import of what was happening. The pandemic served as a crucible, turning up the flame on a problem endemic to the profession: the unsatisfactory working conditions that drive promising teachers out of classrooms and schools.
Teaching is a largely feminized occupation with a higher early-career turnover rate than the similarly feminized nursing profession and about the same rate as the high-risk work of policing. Even without a pandemic, an analysis of federal longitudinal data through 2016 indicated that 44 percent of teachers leave the profession by their fifth year, and 8 percent of all teachers leave the profession annually. The most common reason teachers give for voluntarily leaving the profession is dissatisfaction with school or working conditions.
There is convincing evidence that pandemic working conditions have exacerbated teacher dissatisfaction and related turnover. But not for everyone. Some schools and teachers have weathered the pandemic better than others.
Over the next few weeks, this series will draw on an in-depth study of teachers’ work during the pandemic to share with you the experiences of teachers. This includes how teachers felt exhausted but recognized in the spring, largely ignored in the summer, and increasingly vilified in the fall even as they tried to salvage some normality for their schools. When teachers believed their voices were heard and considered in system-level decisionmaking, they were more able to find enough satisfaction to sustain them even under the markedly increased workload and stress. And when they felt disregarded, they were more likely to experience exhaustion and reduced feelings of effectiveness, which led many to consider leaving the profession.
Crisis can bring opportunity. As we, I hope, put the worst of the pandemic behind us, it is time to look at the successes and failures of schools during the past 16 months. That examination can help reshape a profession that has long suffered from too much turnover and too little autonomy. Only when those conditions are improved will more teachers be able to do their very best for students.
This is the first of four essays on the work of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. It draws from Lora Bartlett and colleagues’ “Suddenly Distant” research project.