In June 2020, when schools across the U.S. remained closed due to the pandemic, Bettina Love, author of We Want to Do More Than Survive, noted how much became possible when the system was forced to prioritize the lives of students, teachers and families. Laptops were distributed and internet access was provided. High-stakes, standardized tests were canceled. In many cases, grades were removed. She quoted a letter from a superintendent in Georgia who told teachers, “We want compassion over compliance.”
Now, Love concluded, “We have to say that we’re not going back. The managing of inequalities, we’re not going back.”
However, with US schools having finished their first semester of full-time, in-person education — and now returning in the midst of a new surge of COVID infections — it’s clear that this is precisely what’s being asked of teachers, as well as their students and families. Throughout the height of the pandemic, there were fears of a mass exodus of teachers. But, almost improbably, most teachers stayed. However, as schools have attempted to “return to normal,” many teachers and other educators are reaching a breaking point.
According to the Labor Department, 30,000 teachers resigned in September 2021 alone, and since January 2021, the educational services industry has seen the largest increase in the number of workers quitting. While this shortage should be a wake-up call to school boards, districts and local administrators, instead it has only led to an intensification of the pressures on educators.
Through the height of the pandemic, teachers worked in unbearable conditions. However, there was the belief that these challenges were temporary. Even more, there was the hope that the pandemic might change our priorities — that we would prioritize the social and emotional needs of students and meet them where they were academically. And that, with an infusion of stimulus dollars, there might finally be money for counselors, smaller class sizes, support staff, supplies and other vital needs.
Instead, educators returned to find that those in charge have doubled down on more of what already wasn’t working. More demands for data and documentation. More testing. More responsibilities on teachers’ shoulders. These demands are being made in a context in which student needs are greater than they’ve ever been, and resources are stretched thin. On top of this, educators are still on the front lines of a pandemic whose continued existence many seem to deny. It is this gap, between the expectation that things would be different and the reality of increased demands alongside a push for “normalcy,” that is driving educators to the breaking point.
Impact of Staffing Shortages
Across the country, there is a severe shortage not only of teachers, but of substitutes, bus drivers, paraprofessionals and other support staff who any teacher would recognize as critical to the functioning of a school. In many places, these shortages are forcing districts to close temporarily or to restructure their schedule.
However, the primary responsibility for making up the gap has fallen on teachers’ shoulders. In a survey of school administrators, two-thirds said that they were responding to shortages by asking current employees to take on more responsibilities. Teachers are taking on lunch duty, hall monitoring, after-school supervision and even cleaning. The most pressing problem, though, is that teachers are being forced to give up their precious prep periods to cover other classes.
With students coming back to school with a wider range of needs than ever before, teachers need even more time to prepare thoughtful, differentiated lessons and to assess students individually. When teachers must use their prep periods to cover an absent teacher or, worse, an unfilled position, they must choose between taking more work home or giving less than they know their students need.
This is why teachers in Portland, Oregon, are demanding scheduling changes to make up for lost prep time and the increased planning needs they are facing. Seventy percent of Portland teachers described stress levels as high or severe and more than 1,000 said they are thinking of leaving. However, the district is resisting teachers’ demands.
“Learning Loss,” Testing and the Demand for More Data
Teachers are feeling the loss of time particularly acutely as they are being asked to make up for “learning loss” and are expected to keep up with pre-pandemic, grade-level curriculum. Instead of adjusting expectations to support students to progress from wherever they are, teachers are expected to bridge the gap between existing expectations and students’ current skills.
The attempt to measure learning loss means that teachers are being asked to collect and document even more data. In addition to the looming pressure of the statewide exams that the Biden administration mandated be reintroduced in Spring 2022, and which are tied to teacher ratings in many states, districts have added even more baseline assessments. For example, New York City is spending $36 million on a set of tests given three times during the year to all students to identify “learning loss.”
These assessments steal precious instructional time, take a toll on students, and add more paperwork to teachers’ responsibilities as they are asked to document and analyze the resulting data. While this might yield some useful insights, many teachers feel that they are better able to assess their students’ development and needs than a standardized test is.
The focus on test preparation also takes away from other aspects of the curriculum that students need as they transition back to in-person learning, such as hands-on engagement, project-based learning and small group work. All of these require skills, particularly cooperative social skills, that students were less likely to practice during remote learning.
Many schools are doubling widely tested core subjects like math and English/ language arts. This means that students can end up spending more than half of a school day on these subjects alone. Electives like music and art are being cut in favor of tutoring blocks and remedial reading programs.
Are the Kids All Right?
Meanwhile, students are returning to school having experienced unprecedented levels of trauma in the span of less than two years. As of July 2021, more than 140,000 children had lost a primary caregiver and, if the trend holds, that number will have risen to more than 200,000 by December 2021. Students have had to watch, and even care for, family members as they fall ill. Many older students stepped in as breadwinners for their families when parents were laid off or too sick to work. And even students who did not suffer these deprivations often felt isolated and lonely.
Students have struggled to adjust to the demands of in-person schooling and teachers have often struggled to support them. The demands to catch-up and return to normal leave little room for the compassion, flexibility and social-emotional support that students so desperately need. Teachers, who are stretched to the breaking point themselves, risk developing compassion fatigue as students in need disrupt their classes or avoid engagement.
School districts have given lip service to the importance of social-emotional health, but there has been little of substance either in terms of material support or changed approaches. Federal funding has not led to an infusion of counselors and social workers. In New York City, the school district rolled out an $18 million, 45-question social-emotional “screener” that teachers were asked to fill out. The screener converted the answers to a single score that tracked whether students were “on target,” “advanced” or “in need.” Many teachers pointed out that they were given just a few minutes to fill out a questionnaire on students they barely knew while they had no way of getting support for students they already knew were in need.
A consistent problem with the approaches to social-emotional health is that they have rarely addressed the role that schools themselves play in contributing to students’ well-being. The assumption is that school is inherently a safer, better place for young people. However, the pandemic revealed the many ways that schools can be repressive places, especially for students of color who find themselves on the receiving end of racial bias. But rather than taking time to adjust expectations and shift school cultures, teachers are expected to impose the same disciplinary norms that alienate so many students. This puts teachers — especially teachers of color — in an impossible situation and makes it harder to develop the relationships that are even more vital right now.
Micromanaged, Disrespected and in the Line of Fire
Amid all these constraints and the extraordinary efforts being asked of them, teachers continue to find themselves micromanaged. They are expected to turn in lengthy, often daily, lesson plans that are aligned to state standards for evaluation. Districts adopt new curricula that teachers are forced to learn and implement — and just as often then abandon them. Extended hours are used for professional development sessions that teachers have little role in choosing and often find disconnected from the issues they are facing in their classrooms.
A study by Education Week reported that 42 percent of U.S. teachers polled say their administrators have done nothing to alleviate their stress and 20 percent say that when administrators do try to help, they miss the mark. Yoga, mindfulness sessions and wear jeans to work days fall far short of the things educators desperately need: time to plan; time to walk away from work and be with friends and family; adequate compensation; health and safety protections; and flexibility and trust. Teachers want more autonomy and to have their expertise and professional judgment valued.
Even when teachers do have administrators who support them, and there are many, they have faced a hostile political climate in which they find themselves on the front line facing parental and community outrage. At school board meetings across the country, enraged parents and community members (many not even parents) have shouted down teachers and local leaders over everything from mask mandates to curriculum.
In 2021, the movement of parents demanding that schools reopen for in-person learning converged with a backlash against culturally responsive curriculum and teaching about the history of racism in this country. Twenty-two states have introduced legislation, and five states have passed bills, banning the teaching of so-called critical race theory. In reality, these bills take aim at any curriculum that teaches about the oppression of various groups. Several teachers have already lost their jobs as a result of these campaigns and many more feel threatened and unsupported.
And There’s Still a Pandemic
One of the most Orwellian aspects of the 2021-22 school year is the way the ongoing pandemic has been systematically denied. Teachers are not only dealing with all the challenges outlined thus far, but they are doing so with inadequate health and safety protections. Nine states have banned mask mandates and only 16 have them. The rest are a patchwork. And even where masks are required, any teacher will tell you that getting kids to wear them consistently and properly is an uphill battle. Meanwhile, ventilation systems in schools haven’t been updated in decades — particularly schools serving high concentrations of low-income students.
Many districts do not perform regular or adequate testing of students and staff. In New York City, the nation’s largest school district, only 10 percent of unvaccinated students who opt in are tested on a weekly basis. Quarantine rules are confusing and disruptive. Whereas there were centralized plans for remote instruction during the 2020-21 school year, now districts are acting as if this is the rare exception rather than the regular occurrence it is. This makes it nearly impossible for teachers to plan.
As this article was being written, the Omicron variant was creating a new surge of cases, throwing schools into chaos again and potentially putting educators, students and families at risk. At this point, it is clear that COVID will continue to shape teaching conditions for the foreseeable future. There is no “after” in which these untenable conditions are resolved. Instead, the future of public schools is being shaped by what’s happening now. Whether teachers flee the profession in large numbers or decide to fight for an alternate vision for themselves and their students will play a large role in determining the outcome.