Have you ever heard of teacher burnout?
It usually hits around March in correlation with testing. Educators are given a large number of tasks for documentation, have to attend countless meetings, and are simply stretched too thin with the resources they have. Along with that, time is usually of the essence while attempting to create and teach engaging lessons before the dreaded state test. Observations are in full swing, the pressure is unreal to have the best data, and the students quickly become the easiest part to handle. It is one of the reasons that teachers look forward to summer, and for many, why they leave the field.
When thinking of the teaching profession, it is easy to forget the tasks that are on the other side of the classroom door. Teachers are unfortunately burdened with many different responsibilities that are very loosely related to teaching. As a first-year teacher, I remember being completely shocked at the overwhelming amount of tasks being asked from my team and asking “but why?” when certain emails or demands came my way- the “why” is unfortunately behind funding and accountability. For instance, there are mandated tests that take weeks for students to finish and eat up so much class time, and an array of professional development that is required due to certain programs being paid for by the district or state. There are different programs to try, tired students, and intense interventions to attempt, and by March, we are tired. We are surviving. We are looking for the light at the end of the tunnel and we are trudging through slowly but surely.
Unfortunately, this year, teacher burnout started in September.
Teachers were thrown into a completely new environment, with new mandates, brand new platforms, a ton of testing, and very little resources to adapt to the virtual educational world. To make matters worse, like many frontline workers, teachers were highly exposed to a contagious virus with students in a classroom for hours on end. Some were teaching through a screen and making it work, some teachers were teaching with thirty students in a classroom while lacking PPE, and many of us were doing both simultaneously. Students were coming to school while living with sick siblings, and parents were gambling with their children’s health while putting everyone in the school building at risk. There were times we felt unheard, isolated, dispensable, and ineffective with the resources we had. Parents were tired and sometimes hard to find, yet we would feel obligated to contact them time and time again if their child had been MIA from class for weeks. Children were struggling physically, mentally, and especially academically, and we were told to move mountains in the middle of a global crisis without even being asked if we could.
This is the harsh reality of pandemic teaching. Mental health has been a huge concern for both students and educators. More than ever, I have been on watch for suicide attempts and students harming themselves, and CPS reports have been rampant. I have seen the light go out behind my students’ eyes and have witnessed some serious behavioral change. These students have gone through trauma and an immense amount of change this year, and at times, it seemed as though teachers were the only ones fighting for their well-being.
As for teachers, social media has been difficult and where complaints seem to go to thrive. There have been glimpses of how the public has perceived teachers and schools. Several teachers have told me they stopped looking at comment sections because they were on the verge of breaking in the midst of the year we were having. Whether it is said or not, the public plays a huge part in teacher turnover, and I want to clarify any misconceptions about pandemic teaching- This has been the hardest year of teaching I have ever experienced. At times I felt like I was a performer- simply demonstrating a balancing act of virtual students staring at a screen not responding to me, while other students were in the classroom not receiving the quality education they deserved. Like I have been saying, students were struggling- especially in economically disadvantaged areas. Equity is the one topic we should have been considering with every decision, but it seemed as though it does not exist with policymakers.
With all that being said, it has been an emotional year. Everything has been magnified and unpredictable. Both school leaders and teachers felt worn and exhausted. We were hanging on by a thread that was disguised as a rope thrown at us for survival.
Even with all of these odds against us though, even with the lack of engagement and frustration, we have felt with policies, lessons, and uncooperative technology. Even though it felt like at times we were drowning and no one could hear or see us- you know who was seeing it? Our students.
I had a student this year that was face to face, and before she left my classroom one day, she stopped at my door and said, “Mrs. Lemm, I feel like I really can trust you.” When she left, I felt unexpectant tears well up in my eyes. My feelings have been so abnormally fragile through this pandemic. We all have been pushing ourselves to show these students somehow that we care for them, and that small comment simply showed me that she recognized that. That validation is so necessary to keep going. The genuine commentary from students in the class and in the chat, the excitement when we start a lesson- they are all proof that these students are seeing us. They see the hard work we are putting into their learning. They see that we are trying with all of our energy to protect them and provide some sense of stability and security through this mess.
While we have had our share of frustration with lack of communication, lack of turned-in work, and apathy- when we were on the brink of a mental breakdown ourselves, these students had absolutely no idea how much their affirmation meant. Because truly, all we wanted at the end of the day was a sincere, “Hey, what you’re doing is hard and I see you.” There is no better validation than from the students we are trying to reach, this is always the case, but it is especially true this year.
As I wrote this post, I thought to myself- have I told them that? Have I told my students how much it meant when they are engaged, willing, and listening? I have a feeling that many of our school officials and policymakers feel the same- they felt strongly about how much we were appreciated but were so overwhelmed with pressure and expectations that it had not been shared. Education is relational and is completely built on people and their needs- that should be more apparent now than ever. With that being said, this pandemic is going to follow us for years to come as we fight the academic and emotional gaps. It has shaken our already broken foundation, and we are already on the move to help students as much as we can. Allowing for appreciation, support and transparency is the only way we will get through the years that follow, and recognizing how hard it will be is the next step- because something has to change. A teacher shortage is happening across the country, and it is not a coincidence.
With that being said, as we move forward as a community, deeply love your fellow educators, listen to them, and appreciate them for a job that not many can do. Allow them to be celebrated because if not, we, unfortunately, will be left with very little to educate our youth. It is up to us as a whole to fight for them.
And if you are an educator reading this, if you found your purpose through the chaos and the mess of this last year, you can definitely continue to fight for it now. You are appreciated, you are seen, and I am so incredibly proud of you for going the extra mile when no one asked if it was possible. You have proven time and time again that teachers, can virtually do anything-
and that’s the truth behind pandemic teaching.