Teaching Profession

Teacher Morale Is at a Low Point. Here’s Where Some Are Finding Hope

By Sarah Schwartz — May 04, 2022 8 min read
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It’s been a hard few years for teachers.

The consequences of the pandemic continue to pile additional demands on their work, even as the days of remote learning and hybrid teaching are behind them. Teachers say that they’re burnt out and exhausted from the stresses of the past couple of years, and that students are too, making it harder to get them engaged and motivated about school.

At the same time, a slew of new state laws have placed restrictions on how teachers can discuss race, gender, and other so-called “divisive” issues in the classroom. Educators say that these bans have limited their ability to teach an accurate account of history and a diversity of literature, and that the legislation has put a target on teachers’ backs in the culture wars.

Teacher job satisfaction is at an all-time low, according to a recent poll conducted by the EdWeek Research Center and commissioned by the Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College. More than half of teachers in that poll said they likely wouldn’t tell their younger selves to pursue a career in teaching.

And yet, some teachers still see a reason for hope.

Education Week spoke with four recipients of the Milken Award, an annual recognition for “exceptional educational talent” and leadership from the Milken Family Foundation. They talked, in their own words, about the lessons they’ll take forward from the pandemic, the ways their colleagues inspired them, and the moments with students that are keeping them going.

These personal perspectives have been edited for length and clarity.

Michelle Iwasaki, academic coach, Kalihi Kai Elementary School, Honolulu, Hawaii

Michelle Iwasaki

The last couple years have been unprecedented and very challenging for all educators across the nation. And we really had to kind of scramble and figure out, how are we still going to be there for our kids? There was a lot of professional development about blended learning and distance learning and technology-based online platforms.

Before the pandemic, I didn’t even know how to set up a Zoom conference or anything like that. But now, we had to train our whole staff to learn how to do Zoom, WebEx, Google, all the interactive, technological stuff. We want to keep adapting in order to keep up with the times. And so technology is always a strong point, and it should always be integrated in education. And I think the pandemic really challenged us to learn about tech. That was a positive, because now that we’re in person, we’re still using a lot of the technological programs and devices that we used during distance learning.

I also think that the pandemic forced us to come together as a school and have a conversation about, what is most important for our kids? What’s the priority? It forced us to prioritize. And so that was really good. That gives me hope. Even though we’re back in school, we’re still seeing the negative effects of the pandemic on learning. And so all those conversations we had about what’s most important for our kids, it’s still going to apply and be important in the next few years.

Michelle Wolfe, English/language arts teacher, East Hardy High School, Baker, W.Va.

Michelle Wolfe

In our county last year, especially with the secondary schools, we were back and forth. We’d be out for a couple weeks, because the infection rate was high and we’d be virtual, and then we’d be back in person.

One of the challenges that I think people at my school faced was that students did have the opportunity to go virtual during the whole school year. We were responsible for those students as well. It was like I was teaching double the classes. Luckily, we’ve been in person the entire time this year.

It’s the students, ultimately, who kept me hopeful—even last year, when we were dealing with the turbulence of being in and out of virtual and in person. Super, just really resilient. And they were—the vast majority of kids and parents—we were all in it together. When things changed, we adapted together. We knew that things were going to be difficult. They weren’t going to be perfect. And we might have to make some last minute changes, but we were pursuing a common goal and trying to make the most of the situation that we have.

This is my 13th year of teaching. And over and over again, I just think that we are raising a generation of students who are more aware and more compassionate.

Students are always watching what the adults in the room are doing. And we had this opportunity to really show them how to find ways to compromise and listen to someone’s story. You know, some students lost loved ones, had family members who were in the hospital for long periods of time. What they were facing, they brought that into the classroom. And teachers had an opportunity to extend grace and make accommodations. We were able to make those concessions and show that grace and be interested in someone’s background and their story and what was happening to them, and let that inform our decision.

I know that in my school, that’s what the adults did. Kids are going to treat people the way they’re treated. And we had the opportunity to show them how to do that.

Tyler Finch, science teacher, Loving High School, Loving, N.M.

Tyler Finch

Last year, we were still virtual; we started to come back in person in the spring. We kind of trickled in. We were just trying to be really diligent and protect our kids from the virus and make sure that we had everything to keep them safe.

This year, we moved more towards what we’ve done in the past, your more “normal” look of the classroom. We do a lot of hands-on activities in my classroom, we do a lot of lab work. A lot of group activity, open discussion, hands-on work—that allows students to grow in areas that they need to, but also at the same time have those resources and that help that they need to make sure that they feel successful. They can continue to learn and improve at their own pace. It’s been a blessing for us as teachers and also our kids to kind of get back into that.

It’s always the kids [who keep me hopeful]. Your job as an educator is to make sure that it’s a comfortable learning environment for them, that they feel like they can be themselves, that they feel like it’s a safe place for them to come in and grow as an individual—on all levels of their lives, emotionally as well as academically. That’s always what keeps me going and pushes me forward, is just knowing that you have that opportunity, that blessing to have an impact.

John Rosenbaum, social studies teacher, Segue Institute for Learning, Central Falls, R.I.

John Rosenbaum

[The pandemic] was a real struggle for our school, because we pride ourselves on being a full-service school that serves the community. We’re a food bank; we give our students three meals a day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner; we’re putting bags of food in their backpacks as they leave. It was a real struggle to end so abruptly, and pick up the pieces over the next year and a half.

At one point, our city had the highest rate of COVID in our state, and our state had the highest rate of COVID in the country, and our country had the highest rate of COVID in the world. We were the hottest spot in the hottest spot in the hottest spot. We had to balance remaining that full-service school, keeping our doors open, while still keeping our communities safe and avoiding the spread of this disease.

The hybrid model is what we eventually got to when we could start welcoming in students. And that was a real struggle, both for students and for staff. You were teaching both the students in the school and the students at home at the same time, in person and over Zoom in the same room, which was just so incredibly frustrating and stressful for me. And I’d realize how incredibly stressful it was for the students at home.

It was just an awful, awful situation. But the best possible situation we could come up with for these impossible conditions.

Only with the perspective of the past two years are you able to take a breath and realize how insane it was, and how amazing it is to get back to teaching students normally, in a classroom where they can work together, side by side.

Initially when, around the end of winter, when we were going to come back full force, I was against it. I didn’t feel like it was safe yet. But our school leader, our co-founder, Mr. Garcia, he’s got a lot of foresight, he’s got a ton of experience in this community. He realized it was the best thing for the students psychologically, and we still tried our best to be safe. He was right.

Only with the perspective of the past two years are you able to take a breath and realize how insane it was, and how amazing it is to get back to teaching students normally, in a classroom where they can work together, side by side. It was so difficult to do things like that in the past two years.

It’s the small things like being able to see a kid’s face, and them being able to see your face and understand social cues and body language and things like that. Little things like being able to hear the quiet kids. Because if you can’t hear the kids that are more withdrawn and quiet or shy, then they tend to become more withdrawn and shy.

I just wrapped up today filming ancient Egyptian infomercials. I assigned groups of four or five students a different piece of Egyptian technology, like irrigation tools, or a sickle, or mummification. And then we watched a bunch of infomercials, like Slap Chop, and some of the more ridiculous ones. Their job was to pitch this thing—a sickle, or a form of mummification—as if they were pitching something in an infomercial, using some mild special effects, like green screens and some wacky wigs and props.

They wouldn’t have been able to share props, or wear wigs or even be close to each other before. It’s everything small and big and in between that really gave me perspective on those little things.

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