Teaching in 2020 can be largely summed up in a few words: Exhausting. Challenging. Unpredictable.
In the spring, teachers had to scramble to learn how to deliver their lessons and connect with students over the computer. Some have transitioned back into at least some in-person instruction, while others have stayed completely remote. In addition to the pandemic, teachers have had to contend with a historic and divisive presidential election that President Donald Trump has yet to concede. And as high-profile police killings of Black Americans sparked a nationwide movement against societal racism, teachers have had to both support their students of color and take a hard look at the practices in their schools and classrooms.
The research published this year paints a picture of a profession under pressure. In some ways, the work of teaching has never been tougher—or more critical, as students suffer major mental health stressors and pandemic-related learning loss.
Here are some of the most significant findings related to teachers. Much of this research is from EdWeek’s own in-house surveys, which went out to nationally representative samples of teachers, principals, and district leaders on a regular basis over the course of the pandemic to gauge their opinions on issues related to remote learning, the coronavirus pandemic, and other major events.
Chart #1: Teacher Morale Has Plummeted Since Prior to the Pandemic
Teachers say that teaching during the coronavirus pandemic—and adjusting to remote, hybrid, or socially distanced instruction—has been stressful. Teachers say they’re working more hours since before the pandemic, and they’re having more difficulties engaging and connecting with students.
The EdWeek Research Center has been tracking teacher morale for months and has found a near-steady decline.
Chart #2: Teachers Fear Getting COVID-19 at Work
One reason some school districts have yet to resume in-person instruction? Fierce opposition from teachers and their unions.
Teachers across the country have voiced concerns about going back to their classrooms, saying they feel like their health and safety would be put at risk. About a quarter of teachers are estimated to be at high-risk for serious illness due to COVID-19, and many other teachers live with a high-risk family member.
So far, some early data have shown that school reopenings have not led to many COVID-19 outbreaks, but many teachers say they can’t trust that the appropriate safety measures will be put in place before they’re asked to return to school buildings. And as coronavirus cases surge across the country, teachers are becoming even more concerned about their health and safety.
A Gallup survey taken at several points over the summer sheds some light on teachers’ fears about getting sick at work—showing they’re more apprehensive than other workers as a whole.
Chart #3: Teachers Say They Want to Quit—But So Far They Haven’t En Masse
Surveys published over the summer showed that 1 in 5 teachers said they were unlikely to return to in-person instruction in the fall, and that the same percentage said they were more likely to quit at the end of last school year than they were before the pandemic.
Yet an EdWeek analysis found that the predicted wave of leavers did not materialize across the nation. Teacher attrition this year was higher in some places, lower in others, and indeterminate in many more. Experts say workers—including teachers—are unlikely to quit their jobs or retire during an economic downturn.
EdWeek Research Center data found that most school and district leaders say the number of teacher retirements and resignations in 2020 is comparable to the number in 2019.
Chart #4: Many Students Feel Less Motivated in Class
One big challenge for teachers during this pandemic: Students tend to be less engaged and absent more often.
According to an EdWeek Research Center survey of a nationally representative sample of middle and high school students, 29 percent of students who say they are absent more often indicate that it’s because school has gotten more boring during the pandemic, and 31 percent say it’s because they have more trouble understanding what they’re learning.
The EdWeek Research Center also found that middle and high school teachers are more likely than their students to think student motivation levels have declined due to the pandemic.
Chart #5: The Pandemic Has Hurt Students’ Academic Growth, Especially in Math
Several studies have found evidence of a “COVID slide,” in which students have lost ground academically during school closures. Students have lost more ground in math than they have in reading, early data show. And students of color and those who are from low-income families have fallen even further behind than their white, affluent peers.
While there is still much left unknown about the most vulnerable students, since many of them were not tested this fall, the research so far has been grim. A December study from McKinsey & Co. estimates that students of color may have lost three to five months of learning in mathematics during the school closures in the spring, while white students lost one to three months.
Chart #6: Students Don’t Want to Turn Their Web Cameras On, But Most Schools Require It
For many teachers who are remote, the web cam has been a source of frustration and debate. Students often keep their cameras off for the whole class period, leaving teachers struggling to foster engagement and feeling like they’re speaking into an abyss. On the other hand, many educators say that requiring cameras can be an equity concern, making some students feel vulnerable or exposed with their homes on display.
An EdWeek Research Center survey found that more than three-quarters of teachers, principals, and district leaders whose schools or districts provide live remote instruction say that if students have working cameras, they must keep them on during class. Most of those educators say exceptions can be made based on the students’ age, preferences, and parental wishes. But 18 percent said cameras must be kept on, with no exceptions.
Teachers say even when they don’t require students to keep their cameras on, teaching to a screen full of black boxes can be disheartening. But their perceptions of why students keep their cameras off don’t always align with students’ own answers, according to EdWeek Research Center surveys of both middle and high school teachers and their students.
Chart #7: Many Teachers Are Not Prepared to Address Students’ Social-Emotional Needs
Students need more social-emotional support than ever before, experts say, given the stress and trauma of the pandemic. Many children have had family members lose work, become ill, or even die. Students are also missing their normal routines and social lives.
Yet EdWeek Research Center data from before the pandemic shows that only 29 percent of teachers said they have received ongoing training in social-emotional learning. And many new teachers are coming into classrooms without having learned how to support the social and emotional development of their students.
Chart #8: Teachers Avoided Discussing Trump’s Claims of Post-Election Voter Fraud
This fall, civics teachers said it had become difficult to teach a norm-breaking presidential election, especially when they couldn’t be face to face with their students. And the challenges continued after the last ballots were cast and Trump refused to concede to President-elect Joe Biden.
An EdWeek Research Center survey found that 86 percent of all teachers—including half of social studies teachers—said they had not had discussions with their students about Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud. The nationally representative survey was administered Nov. 18 and 19, two weeks after Election Day.
Some of those teachers were worried that by having such conversations, they’d be subject to parent pushback or accusations of trying to “indoctrinate” students.
Chart #9: Teachers Say They Lack the Training and Resources to Implement an Anti-Racist Curriculum
This fall, many teachers wanted to address the Black Lives Matter movement with their students and work to make their classrooms anti-racist. But an EdWeek Research Center survey shows a big gap between the teachers who are willing to teach an anti-racist curriculum and those who have had the professional development and resources they need to do so.
But research shows that teachers have the same racial biases as everyone else, and experts say that teachers need continued professional development to run an anti-racist classroom.
“Teachers always have to ask themselves: Who is left out of the story? What are their perspectives?” LaGarrett King, an associate professor of social studies at the University of Missouri’s College of Education told Education Week. “Teachers have to understand that race is real and has influenced the lived realities of racialized people. And professional development cannot be just one time. It has to be constant throughout, and we have to allow teachers to grow.”
Chart #10: Teacher Pay Remains Low, and COVID-19 Has Thwarted Efforts to Raise It
Despite all the new burdens put on teachers this year, teachers are still paid less than similar professionals. And the coronavirus pandemic has halted legislative efforts to raise teacher salaries, after years of teacher activism over stagnant raises.
The Economic Policy Institute found that in 2019, public school teachers earned 19.2 percent less in weekly wages relative to other college-educated workers, after accounting for factors such as education, experience, and state residence. The gap has grown substantially since the mid-1990s, although it did improve slightly from 2018 to 2019. EPI says the data are not yet sufficient to say if this improvement reflects the pay raises resulting from the teacher activism.