Louise Williamson has been an educator for more than three decades. But this past school year has been one of her most challenging.
For years, the teaching profession has been “crumbling” under the weight of unrealistic expectations for educators and schools, Williamson, who teaches high school English in Southern California, said recently in a symposium hosted by Education Week.
The longstanding structural problems—a ballooning workload, scant resources, difficult working conditions—have become more urgent lately as schools grapple with staffing shortages and struggle to meet students’ academic and social needs, in the wake of a global pandemic.
For all the talk of learning loss, the toughest part of teaching during such a turbulent time is that so many students—especially teenagers—seem to be flailing emotionally, she added.
“When our students are not well mentally, we have so much to do,” Williamson said. “So many things to figure out. How do I reach this student? How do I make sure the student is getting the support that they need? How do I make sure that my classroom is a safe place for this student? How do I get some of my other colleagues on board? It’s [been] exhausting for me this year is trying to care for them at a heightened level when I myself am not at my highest level.”
Self-care is not the answer
Recent attempts to help teachers manage an overwhelming workload through mindfulness—deep breathing exercises, yoga, scented candles—don’t make up for the systemic issues caused by an emotionally draining, bottomless workload, added Tiffany Moyer-Washington, who teaches language arts in Hartford, Conn., and appeared with Williamson at the symposium.
“It’s not like back in the day where you just taught English or math, it’s everything now, right?” she said. “We’re doing active shooter drills. We’re teaching kids how to socially interact with each other. And one of our big perks is that once a month, we can wear jeans? What we’re putting in, and how we’re being valued or compensated, it doesn’t match.”
A number of her colleagues have had to take on second jobs—bartender, realtor—in order to make ends meet, since teachers typically are paid tens of thousands less in salary than similarly educated professionals, Moyer-Washington added.
It would be hugely beneficial to teach fewer classes and get more time in the day to plan, grade, and collaborate with colleagues—all the work that now gets pushed to the evening or the weekend, both teachers said.
What leaders can do to lighten teachers’ loads
But given that it might be hard to provide those things without changes to regulations or vastly more resources, district and school leaders should consider other ways to lighten the load. That could include paring back the schedule of meetings teachers need to attend and the number of emails they must sort through.
Another ask for district leaders: Take on a limited number of new initiatives, focusing on working in a meaningful way on one or two things.
“Having one day of trauma training, one day of anti-racism training, [another of] reading, it’s too difficult,” Moyer-Washington said. “There’s just so much a teacher has to juggle.”
And both teachers said that—just like they offer positive reinforcement to their students—they want their work to be seen and acknowledged.
“Somebody stopping by my classroom or stopping me on my way to the parking lot be like, ‘Hey, I saw you talking with this kid in the hallway, and I just really appreciate the way you handled that or, you know, I noticed that a kid that you work with won an essay contest. That’s fabulous,’” Moyer-Washington said.
She also encouraged district leaders—including school board members—to spend more time in schools, connecting with teachers and getting a sense of what they need to do their jobs better, whether that is the chance to attend a highly-regarded professional development session, or just get access to a functioning photo copier.
Williamson urged superintendents and board members, particularly those who have never been classroom teachers themselves, to spend a day or two following one of their teachers around to get a sense of “how many balls we’re juggling.”
Moyer-Washington agreed, adding, “I think at bare minimum only being able to use the bathroom when teachers can go, that alone would let you know how challenging a teacher’s day is because that’s no joke.”
All kidding aside, Williamson worries that if there isn’t a big rethink of the profession—the expectations, workload, supports, compensation—more teachers will burn out and move on. Without high-functioning public schools, a “quality education will become a commodity for the 1%,” she said.
“I devoted my life to this profession, and I love it,” Williamson said. “I love my students. I love my former students. But if what has to happen is it has to crumble in order for it to be a sustainable career, then that’s what has to happen. We’ve got to do something to make it realistic to do this job and have a life.”