If spring 2020 can be characterized as the season of giving grace, the autumn was a fall from grace. Against a backdrop of national and local school reopening debates, the focus for public education shifted from flexibility and forgiveness to restoring the metronome of schooling. This included the expectation that teachers return to their subordinate place in the school hierarchy—and it is here that many schools stumbled in a missed opportunity to deepen teacher commitment.
Schools across the country, whether offering in-person, hybrid, or remote classes, resumed regular start-and-end times along with requirements for student attendance, grading, and testing. Reasserting these norms occurred even as the conditions that motivated the adaptations of spring were ongoing. The pandemic continued, students were struggling emotionally, and teachers were stretched thin trying to adapt to the ever-changing conditions.
But unlike the spring, when teachers felt they were part of a concerted effort, teachers now felt silenced and blamed for what others saw as the shortcomings of the educational response. They were inundated with a constant stream of criticism, particularly when they raised safety concerns. Some parents seemed to hold teachers responsible for COVID-19 schooling conditions that teachers themselves found frustrating. Too often, teachers were beset by school decisionmaking that excluded their perspective and often required them to stick to policies that didn’t make sense in the new context. Emotionally exhausted and feeling unheard, teachers found it increasingly difficult to sustain the effort needed to teach students well.
In the pre-COVID world, research established two related and important points with significance for post-COVID schooling. First, schools where teachers feel heard and have influence in decisionmaking are places more likely to retain their teachers. And second, schools with high teacher turnover have lower student achievement—and this is true across student populations.
Given these connections among teacher voice, teacher retention, and student achievement, it matters that 15 of the 75 teachers we followed in our research—20 percent—have left or are actively considering leaving teaching. That’s in contrast to the typical 8 percent annual teacher-attrition rate. And it matters even more that those leaving are experienced teachers, with none having fewer than five years’ experience and half with 10-plus years in teaching.
At least once a week, I get an email from a parent that insinuates that I have done nothing but try and fail their child, that I have not once offered help and when I have, it wasn't enough, and that somehow this is all my fault.
Of the teachers considering career exit, each identified a similar impetus to leave. They feel thwarted in their efforts to do well by their students, and they question staying in a profession that disregards their professional perspective and judgment. In fall 2020, more than half the teachers in our study reported an increased cynicism about their work, while two-thirds were both exhausted from overwork and feeling a diminished sense of success.
The struggles around hybrid school models brought teacher-voice concerns to the forefront. As schools planned for fall 2020 school reopenings, many teachers advocated against hybrid models that blend both in-person and online students in the same classroom. Teaching well in each mode of instruction requires different teaching practices. Blended hybrid instruction, they argued, exhausts teachers, stretching them thin in their efforts to do both well, and it shortchanges students.
To see a teacher instructing in a blended hybrid mode is to watch a complex juggling act: multiple devices at work, students on screens, students in the room, chat boxes, emails, attachments, Padlets, PDFs, handouts, and hands in the air.
In our research, nearly all teachers working in blended hybrid classrooms reported negative effects on student learning. When teacher attention is pulled in multiple directions, students find it easier to check out. Students consequently failed at rates higher than when classes were all in person but also higher than when students were all online. Teachers were clear that teaching in just one mode at a time positively affected their capacity to engage students and cover more content.
“The inaccurate criticism from families has been exhausting and emotionally draining. Their letters to administration, school committees, and the state seem an attempt to bully us into unsafe or impossible situations that disregard our professional opinions.”
Teachers tried to dissuade local school districts from adopting blended hybrid models. In some places, they were successful. For example, the New York City public schools, in conversation with the union, committed to single-modality teaching assignments. An Oregon school district and its local teachers’ union eventually negotiated a move away from blended hybrid teaching to having each teacher sometimes teaching in person and other times online—but never the two at once.
In other places, usually places where teachers’ unions had less influence, teachers struggled to have their concerns heard. In Arizona, a state that in 2012 was considered to have the weakest teachers’ union in the country, one school district faced a coordinated teacher effort to be heard. Two-thirds of public comments at a school board meeting on hybrid models came from teachers speaking against a blended plan. The board acknowledged that such teacher outspokenness and conviction on an instructional issue was unprecedented locally. The board nonetheless voted to adopt the blended model.
You have to have either a teacher that does all online or a teacher that does all face to face. ... But I can't do the hybrid where half are here and half are there and I'm trying to keep up with it. It just cannot happen.
Our data include documentation of teachers who decisively, publicly, and mostly unsuccessfully called for single-modality teaching. Often, districts first adopted blended hybrid models only to backtrack later as student struggles, teacher exhaustion, and family concerns mounted. The resistance to teacher voice, however, came at a price of lost student-learning opportunities and depleted, discouraged teachers looking to leave.
There’s a lot of speculation and debate about whether the pandemic will increase teacher attrition. Some observers point to the lower-than-normal exit numbers last summer as evidence the concerns are more noise than substance. Others attribute those low numbers to the state of the economy and labor-market challenges of leaving during a pandemic. The teachers in our sample show there are a lot of reasons teachers may delay departure. Work contracts, health-care needs, family responsibilities, and the need for a transition plan are all reasons teachers identified for postponing career exit.
Complacency in the absence of occupational hemorrhaging is a mistake. Given the relationship between teacher turnover and student achievement, the prospect of increased attrition should move us to preventive action. The time to attend to teachers’ concerns is now.
This is the third of four essays on the work of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. It draws from Lora Bartlett and colleagues’ “Suddenly Distant” research project.
A version of this article appeared in the August 25, 2021 edition of Education Week