I was at a loss for words when I sat down on the couch after teaching all day, in the first few days of 2022, when several of my students were out, sent home, and quarantining. It was overwhelming, and I couldn’t describe it. As someone who has studied and written a lot about teacher attrition and sustainability, I was just too exhausted, too busy processing to find any words.
So I tweeted just that.
And boy, did teachers and their allies understand and respond. And luckily, they had a lot to say, and no, they are generally not well. This single tweet illuminated the conditions and mindsets that teachers are facing, back in person, with a massive spike in Covid cases and fewer protections.
Feelings of Stress and Helplessness
Teachers tweeted right away about the stress of the current situation showing up as physical symptoms, such as stomach and sleep problems, anxiety, and others as feeling empty, exhausted, depleted. Teachers expressed frustration and anguish that their students and colleagues were falling ill, and they could do nothing to stop it.
And they can’t, really, other than managing mask wearing and constantly wondering, am I next? Are my loved ones next because of me?
This hyper-vigilance, constant worry, and exhaustion impact the body and the brain and is unsustainable.
Many educators pointed to the current situation being challenging to their mental health. It is painful for many to watch what students and colleagues are going through, and many are feeling a lack of joy in a profession they love.
I can’t help but think about the long-term consequences of this for the health of educators.
Impacts on Families
When I sat on the couch that night, I had nothing to offer my family. I was empty, drained, and not really available. And for the first week of 2022, that was the case. Turns out, I was not alone.
Teachers reported impacts of this latest surge on their ability to care for their families. Parenting and teaching require a great deal of emotional labor: patience, listening, planning, problem solving, and decision making. Because this is so heightened right now, by the time teachers get home, they’ve used up all of their energy, which can strain relationships and cause stress or absence on the home front. This is especially true when teachers are also managing childcare issues, ill family members, and other stressors that are so common right now.
A Need for Planning Time and Flexible and Limited PD
Teachers expressed a need for daily planning time that is currently being taken for so many reasons, such as covering for a colleague, managing in person and students isolated at home, and dealing with constantly changing schedules, plans, situations, and high emotions. They need time more than anything to do the work they need to do.
As for professional development, teachers want time to catch up, plan, and look at student work. What would it look like to honor teachers by giving them time instead of more to do, more to consider, and more to problem solve?
One of my recommendations is to simplify all PD. Make it rooted in healing, support, and time. Offer all of it virtually, so that teachers who are working in person can work from home that day, reducing their exposure and simplifying their lives. And consider the local context in the school and the readiness of your teachers with any professional development. If it can be pared down, this is the time to do that.
Teachers can’t self-care their way out of this pandemic. They need some support and changes.
A few other ideas that would help, crowdsourced from teachers:
- A stockpile of KN95 masks for kids and adults and rapid Covid test kits on hand.
- Be supportive, but avoid toxic positivity. This is all hard. Acknowledge it, and offer specific help.
- Offer increased sick/Covid days for all the sick/isolation/quarantine needs this year. Folks are running out.
- Increase personal days this year, so teachers can rest, reflect, and recover from this surge. This may mean reducing PD hours or meetings.
- All PD should be remote, flexible, differentiated, and simplified.
- Reduce assessment of students, simplify expectations, and focus on supporting mental health, connection, belongingness, and joy in learning.
Ask teachers what they need and truly listen. Provide flexibility, grace, and care. Their lives, and the future of the education system, depend on it.
And big thanks to the health care workers, parents, and folks offering gratitude and support to educators right now. It matters!