Teaching in 2021 brought continued challenges and stressors as teachers navigated the second year of the pandemic.
In the first half of the year, many schools were still at least partially remote, leaving teachers to juggle simultaneously teaching students who were at home and at school. Then, as nearly all schools opened for full in-person instruction this fall, teachers suddenly had to confront a host of new challenges, including staffing shortages, student mental health issues, and lost learning time.
Also this year, there was intense public scrutiny and debate surrounding how teachers taught about race and the country’s history of racism. Many teachers worried about parent or community backlash against their curriculum and instruction. And there has been a troubling uptick in school violence.
Much like the findings from last year, the research published this year shows a profession in duress. Teachers say they feel stretched thin, with new expectations and little support. For many, teaching this year has been exhausting, and some say it’s not sustainable.
Here are some of the most significant findings related to teachers. Much of this research is from the EdWeek Research Center’s own surveys, which went out to nationally representative samples of teachers, principals, and district leaders on a monthly basis to gauge their opinions on issues related to the pandemic and other major events.
Chart #1: Teachers Are Stressed, but Many Aren’t Getting the Support They Need From Their Schools
Ninety-one percent of teachers say they experience job-related stress sometimes, frequently, or always, according to a nationally representative survey by the EdWeek Research Center conducted in July. When asked what effects job-related stress has on them and their work, teachers commonly said they have a harder time sleeping, they’re less able to enjoy their free time with family or friends, and their physical health suffers. And research shows that when teachers are stressed out, the quality of their instruction, classroom management, and relationships with students all suffer.
Only 2 percent of teachers said there’s nothing their school or district could do to help relieve their stress. But the survey shows a disconnect between what teachers say would be helpful from administrators and what administrators say they’re planning to do this school year.
Chart #2: Many Districts Are Struggling to Find Enough Substitute Teachers, Bus Drivers, and Instructional Aides
This school year, staff shortages have been crushing schools, adding more work to educators’ already full plates. Districts are grappling with vacancies in many key areas as well as many educators having to stay home due to COVID-19 exposure. As a result, many teachers have been asked to give up their prep times or professional learning days to cover classes or are adding extra students to their classrooms. And many schools have limited or shut down in-person instruction due to staffing shortages.
Administrators said the toll of continuing school operations under these conditions has led to burnout among their staff members. It’s been chaotic, teachers say: “It’s like baking a lasagna and baking a cake at the exact same time in the same kitchen, but you can only use one bowl,” said Angela Nottingham, a 7th grade teacher in Huntington, W. Va., in October.
An EdWeek Research Center survey of district leaders and principals that was conducted in October showed that substitute teacher shortages were the most severe, followed by bus drivers and paraprofessionals.
Chart #3: More Teachers Are Thinking About Quitting Now Than Before the Pandemic
Given the high levels of teacher stress and new demands placed on teachers’ plates, perhaps it’s not surprising that a March survey from the EdWeek Research Center showed that about half of teachers said they’re likely to leave teaching in the next two years. Most teachers said they wouldn’t have said the same before the pandemic.
It’s important to remember, though, that many teachers who say they’re considering leaving won’t actually do so. Many teachers simply can’t afford to lose their pay and benefits; some older teachers will decide they’re close enough to a pension to hang on.
“There are so many forces and so much stress and pressure on teachers, many of them do really want to leave,” Tuan Nguyen, an assistant professor in the college of education at Kansas State University who’s studied teacher attrition, told EdWeek this spring. But “intentions aren’t the same thing as behaviors.”
Chart #4: Most Educators Say Students’ State Test Scores This Year Are ‘Concerning’
A majority of educators say their school’s or district’s standardized test results from last spring are lower than they were pre-pandemic, and they’re concerned about the numbers. An EdWeek Research Center survey from late October and early November found that 44 percent of educators said the 2020-21 state test results are down in all areas, compared to pre-pandemic, and another quarter said the results were down in some areas and the same in others.
The pandemic has stalled many students’ academic progress, according to several data sources, as many students learned remotely for much of last year and then had sporadic interruptions to instruction this year due to quarantine requirements. Still, state standardized test results should be considered with several caveats—some states allowed students to test remotely, making it difficult to compare their results to those of students who tested in person. And many states reported lower-than-average participation rates, meaning that the results might not reflect the student population.
Chart #5: There Have Been More School Shootings in 2021 Than in Recent Years
There have been 34 school shootings in 2021, 24 of which happened since August, according to EdWeek reporting. This is an uptick in violence not only from last year—which saw 10 school shootings, a significant decrease from previous years due to most schools going remote for much of 2020—but from 2019 and 2018, too. The Oxford, Mich., school shooting in late November was the deadliest school shooting since May 2018, with four students killed and six students and a teacher injured.
While school shootings remain rare, experts say the increase in school violence is likely due to a combination of factors. Gun sales have gone up since the pandemic, and researchers estimate that more than 4.6 million children live in houses with unsecured firearms. Children are traumatized due to the pandemic, with children’s health organizations declaring a mental health state of emergency. The pandemic has exacerbated risk factors for violence, including isolation and economic instability.
EdWeek’s tracker of school shootings only includes incidents that take place during school hours or events, on school property, and in which at least one individual—other than the person firing the weapon—is killed or wounded by a bullet.
Chart #6: Some Parents Have Pushed Back Against Social-Emotional Learning
For years, teachers have worked to incorporate social-emotional learning into their curriculum, which can mean teaching students skills like creative problem-solving, persistence, and showing empathy, and adopting practices to boost students’ sense of belonging and trust. EdWeek survey respondents say there’s been even more support from parents and educators for implementing social-emotional learning in schools over the past year, as students grapple with the disruptions and trauma caused by the pandemic.
Still, about a third of educators say in a November survey that they’ve received some pushback from parents about SEL practices. Some conservative groups have linked social-emotional learning to critical race theory, and some parents are suspicious that the term SEL means schools are teaching their children values they don’t approve of. Some experts have advised educators to break down the jargon and explain to parents that they’re trying to teach students life skills, like managing emotions and setting goals.
Chart #7: Most Teachers Say They Talk About Historical and Present-Day Racism, But Some Aren’t Sure if Systemic Racism Exists
In more than half of states, there has been a push to ban critical race theory—an academic framework that posits that racism isn’t just the product of individual bias but is embedded in legal systems and policies—from the classroom. Thirteen states have enacted these bans, either through legislation or other avenues.
Some teachers have said that this national debate, and the potential for parental pushback, is creating a chilling effect that could restrict how they teach about race or even which books they select for their classroom. Even so, an EdWeek Research Center survey conducted in June found that a third of educators said there should be legal limits on classroom conversations on sexism and racism, and 23 percent said they don’t believe systemic racism exists.
Chart #8: Some Teachers Have Been Threatened Over How They Teach About Race
This year, schools became the epicenter of the nation’s political and cultural debates, from COVID-19 policies to conceptual debates over race and equity. Many teachers felt caught in the middle.
While most educators have not been threatened by someone who is displeased about a school’s approach to instruction about race, 14 percent of educators said teachers in their district have received physical or verbal threats, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey conducted in late November.
Chart #9: Students (and Their Teachers) Say They’re Experiencing More Problems in School Than Before the Pandemic
The pandemic will have long-term effects on children’s mental health, experts say. Hundreds of thousands of children have lost a parent due to COVID-19. Many children lived in households that experienced economic instability or job loss. Students were isolated during remote learning. And many students of color were traumatized after seeing the news of high-profile police killings of Black Americans in 2021 and 2020.
In an EdWeek Research Center survey administered in January and February 2021, high schoolers reported that since the pandemic began, they are getting lower grades and procrastinating more on school assignments. They are distracted by anxiety and having trouble concentrating or remembering things. They are more tired in class and feeling isolated from classmates. Black and Hispanic students reported struggling more than their white and Asian classmates, as did LGBTQ students and those from low-income households.
Experts say teachers need to be prepared for these issues to persist for several years and to be equipped to understand and identify mental health issues in their students. Erika Brown, a kindergarten teacher in New Orleans, told EdWeek in March that it’s important for teachers “to be patient and to provide as much consistency and stability as possible. … Let [students] feel heard and seen.”
Chart #10: Most Educators Support Vaccine Mandates for Staff, Students
Teachers were among those at the front of the vaccine line at the beginning of the year, as state policymakers prioritized educators in hopes that vaccination would hasten the return of in-person learning. To date, about 90 percent of teachers say in surveys (including one from the EdWeek Research Center) that they’ve been vaccinated, though the percentage varies from place to place.
This school year, eight states ordered teachers to get vaccinated or take a weekly COVID-19 test—and two states, plus the District of Columbia, mandated vaccinations, without a testing alternative. Several other big-city districts began requiring vaccinations, too, although some walked back any consequences amid staffing shortages.
At least 10 states, however, have prohibited school districts from requiring teachers to be vaccinated. President Joe Biden is working to put into place a federal order that would require about half of states to adopt vaccine-or-test requirements for teachers.
An EdWeek Research Center survey conducted in late August and early September found that most teachers, principals, and district leaders supported vaccine requirements for staff, and to a lesser extent, for students. (At the time of this survey, only students ages 12 and older could get vaccinated. Now, virtually all school-age children are eligible.)