Lesson within the pandemic: "This isn’t sustainable"


Classes still start at 8 a.m. at Farmington Central Junior High in rural Illinois. However, this is the only part of the school day that hasn't changed for Caitlyn Clayton, an eighth grade English teacher who tirelessly alternates between personal and distant students.

At the beginning of the school day, Ms. Clayton stands in front of the classroom and reminds her students to put their masks on properly. Then she delves into a writing lesson and searches the room for possible virus threats. It prevents students from sharing supplies. She keeps her distance when answering her questions. She disinfects the desks between classes.

In the afternoon, just as her personal students are driving home, Ms. Clayton begins her second day: distance learning. She sits in her classroom and checks in one-on-one via video with eighth graders who have opted for distance learning. To make sure they aren't missed, she spends hours recording instructional videos that review her personal lessons.

"Those days that are more than 13 hours in school are just exhausted and hoping to get to the car at night," said Ms. Clayton, noting that many of her colleagues feel similarly exhausted. "We see extreme burnout among teachers."

Throughout the autumn, when heated debates raged over whether schools should be reopened for personal teaching, the focus was on teachers – often maligned for questioning it, sometimes warmly praised for trying to get it working . However, the debate has often overlooked how thoroughly the coronavirus has improved learning in the country's 130,000 schools, and glossed over how emotionally and physically demanding pandemic classes have become for the educators themselves.

In more than a dozen interviews, educators described the immense challenges and exhaustion they faced while trying to provide a normal school education for students in pandemic conditions that are far from normal. Some reported whiplash experiences of suddenly opening and closing their schools, sometimes more than once, due to virus risks or quarantine staff shortages, causing them to repeatedly switch between in-person and online classes.

Others described the stress of running group video courses for remote learners in a row, despite continuing to teach students face-to-face in their classrooms. Some educators said their workload had doubled.

"I've NEVER been this exhausted," said Sarah Gross, a veteran high school English teacher in New Jersey who is giving hybrid classes this fall, on a recent Twitter thread. She added, "This is not sustainable."

Many teachers said they also became spontaneous social workers for their students, directing them to food banks, serving as grief counselors for those whose family members had died from Covid-19, and helping students overcome their feelings of anxiety, depression and isolation . Often, the teachers said, worrying about their students came at their own expense.

"Teachers are out of order right now," said Evin Shinn, a literacy trainer at a Seattle public middle school, noting that many teachers put students' pandemic needs above their own well-being. "We need to create more spaces for mental health."

Experts and teacher unions are warning of an impending burnout crisis among educators, which could lead to a wave of retirements and undermine troubled efforts to resume normal public schooling. In a recent survey by the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers' union, 28 percent of educators said the coronavirus made them more likely to drop out of class or retire early.

This tiredness extended for generations. Among the respondents, 55 percent of seasoned teachers with more than 30 years of experience said they are now considering leaving the profession. The same applies to 20 percent of teachers with less than 10 years of experience.

"If we continue like this, you will lose a generation of not only students but teachers as well," said Shea Martin, an education scholar and facilitator who works with public schools on justice and equity issues.

An exodus of a pandemic teacher is not hypothetical. In Minnesota, the number of teachers applying for retirement benefits in August and September rose 35 percent compared to the same period last year. In Pennsylvania, the number of old-age pension claims for school employees, including administrators and bus drivers, was even higher – 60 percent over the same period.

In an Indiana poll this fall, 72 percent of school districts said the pandemic had exacerbated problems with school staff.

"We saw teachers start the school year and then pace themselves back and forth because of the workload or the back and forth," said Terry McDaniel, professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University in Terre Haute who led the survey.

To express their concerns, unnamed educators reached out to An Anonymous Teacher Speaks, a discussion site launched by Mx last month. Martin. It has quickly become a collective cry for help, with demoralized teachers saying they felt "defeated," "overwhelmed," "scared," "ignored and frustrated" and on the verge of quitting. Some even reported having thoughts of suicide.

"I work until midnight every night and try to lock and load all my links, lessons, etc. I never get any further," wrote an anonymous educator. “Emails, endless emails. Parents blame me because their children prefer to stay in bed, talk on the phone, play video games rather than work. "

The teachers selected hybrid programs where they have to teach personal and distant students at the same time, which is particularly stressful.

On Mondays and Tuesdays, Ms. Gross, a high school English teacher in Lincroft, New Jersey, teaches cohorts of ninth and twelfth graders in her classroom while teaching other students who are video learning from home. The second group comes to school on Thursdays and Fridays, while the first group tunes in from home.

She also teaches a third group of students who never come to school because they are only studying remotely this fall.

"You are trying to be two people at the same time and help the students who are online and the students who are in front of you," said Ms. Gross, adding that the distant students often cannot hear their peers on the classroom and vice versa.

All the while, she tries to keep an eye on the classroom to make sure her personal students are wearing masks and maintaining social distance, and the other eye online, where distant students often need her help troubleshooting computer and connectivity issues.

"It's not sustainable," said Ms. Gross. "That is the hardest part for me and my colleagues."

Teachers in distance learning schools said they too were ragged for various reasons.

During a normal school year, Mircea Arsenie, an environmental science teacher at a Chicago public high school, teaches laboratory classes where students learn through hands-on experience, such as cutting down birds' stomachs to examine the plastic waste they have ingested. After studying remote control at Chicago Public Schools this fall, he had to completely redesign his teaching approach.

However, the district's distance learning plan, which included a full day of school of live group video classes, was not designed to take into account the many additional hours teachers like him need to adapt their classes for online learning. As a result, Mr. Arsenie spent many evenings and weekends developing virtual labs and other online projects for his students.

"I'm not going to lie," he said. "It was a challenge."

However, his most strenuous endeavor is more emotional: finding the energy every day to develop a calming mindset during the live video course, even when he is worried about the health, personal life and educational progress of his students.

"I'm just exhausted today, trying to maintain a sense of optimism and normalcy," Arsenie said, adding that two of his students had just tested positive for Covid-19. "Who cares about photosynthesis in the larger context of the pandemic?"

Dwayne Reed, a fourth and fifth grade social worker in the district, worries that many school children at home are still suffering from pandemic trauma as Chicago considers resuming face-to-face classes early next year.

"The mere fact that I now have to give 9-year-olds grades doesn't seem morally correct," Reed said, noting that two of his students' grandparents had recently died of Covid-19.

Reed said the burdens are particularly high on color educators like him who teach young black students who are precisely prepared for the dual risks of coronavirus and racial violence.

"You're so exhausted after a day – after a class," said Mr. Reed. He added that at the age of 28 he started napping from emotional exhaustion. "My children are literally living with the disease of the coronavirus and the disease of racism and they experience it as 11-year-olds, as 10-year-olds."

A few weeks ago he asked teachers on Twitter for suggestions on how teaching in remote pandemics can be made more “sustainable”. He received 200 responses.

Many school administrators are aware of the widespread burnout and the possibility that it could affect their ability to return to school. They regularly contact their teachers, request self-care, and offer counseling resources. Some districts have gone even further, giving educators extra time every day – sometimes a full day a week – to schedule pandemic classes.

In early November, Minnesota Democrat Governor Tim Walz issued an executive order requiring schools to give teachers 30 minutes of extra preparation time each day for distance or hybrid classes. The Order also warned state schools that educators must teach personal and distant students at the same time.

"The teachers are too thin," wrote Walz, a former high school social science teacher, in the order.

A few extra hours a week could give the educator more breathing space. But it won't solve the central problem at the heart of their exhaustion and despair, many say.

"Three years ago we learned how to flee from armed intruders," said Amanda Kaupp, a psychology teacher at St. Louis high school. “Last year we learned how to handle gunshot wounds. This year we're trying to figure out how to restore learning in a pandemic. "