Teaching, like many other professions, has become a lot more difficult in the midst of this pandemic, for a number of reasons.
Forgive the following frank talk.
Teachers spend 6-7 hours a day in a room filled with human beings, many of whom are unvaccinated and don’t exactly wear their masks with total efficacy.
The clients with whom I routinely consult – attorneys, bankers, Silicon Valley executives, and business owners – are astounded by the thought that I spend my days inside a single room with 24 other human beings and that I’ve been doing this since October 2020. Most are still working remotely. Those who have returned to the office are rarely in a room with more than three or four people at a time.
To be enclosed in a space with two dozen other human beings for hours at a time is unthinkable to many of them.
Teachers are also masked for most of the day while simultaneously trying to project their voices across a classroom of students who are now spread to the far corners of the space. It’s physically exhausting. Many teachers are turning to voice amplification systems to help them be heard, often purchased with their own money.
Not surprising, of course. Most teachers routinely use their own money to purchase school supplies because the districts don’t or can’t provide enough money for supplies themselves.
Adding to these difficulties is the isolation that teachers are feeling. The realities of pandemic teaching are often unknown or misunderstood by administrators who have never spent a single day constantly masked in a room filled with other human beings. It’s not that these administrators are malevolent or uncaring. They simply have never taught in the midst of a pandemic, so their expertise on the subject is almost nonexistent.
Their opinions, when expressed, are based on theory and conjecture only.
If the administrator is removed from the school as well as the classroom, sitting in some ivory tower in the center of town, their expertise is even less relevant.
Earlier this year, for example, I was asked to attend a virtual meeting in a room with my colleagues.
Did you get that?
The content was being presented via Zoom, but after spending an entire day wearing a mask, we were asked to congregate with our fellow teachers in another room, where we would also need to be masked and unnecessarily exposed to other people when infection rates were soaring.
We ignored this directive, of course, because we believe in both civil disobedience and self-care, but it’s indicative of an administrator who lacks the experience of teaching in the midst of pandemic protocols.
Students are also masked all day, making it both challenging to hear them and exceedingly difficult to determine who is speaking out of turn, since we can no longer see their mouths moving. Just this week I scolded a student for speaking out of turn, only to discover that it was the student sitting beside him who was speaking.
Add to this that the job of teachers has fundamentally changed. Instead of encouraging collaboration and partnerships, teachers spend their days demanding physical distance from their students, timing small group encounters to ensure they are less than 15 minutes in duration, and spreading students across a classroom that once featured children in teams, centers, bunches, and nooks.
The way that teachers do their jobs has changed dramatically in the past three years, and we have frankly been making it up as we go. Building the plane while it’s already in the air.
In addition to all of this is the struggle of quarantined students, who now require at-home activities designed to promote learning and maintain skill acquisition. As we teach the students in front of us, we must also find ways to engage students at home, respond to emails from parents and students about their at-home learning, and reteach entire lessons and units that were missed when the student was away in quarantine.
Add to this the profound needs of students in terms of their social and emotional welfare. Students are more dysregulated than ever before. They are tired, scared, frustrated, worried, and depressed. They miss their assemblies, field trips, and sports. They miss working with friends without thinking about a virus. They require an enormous amount of care and love, both in the form of old-fashioned TLC as well as a multitude of lessons specifically designed to meet these new and ever-evolving needs.
All of this was plopped onto the teachers’ plates while removing nothing in exchange.
This is also nothing new.
When I began teaching 24 years ago, the internet didn’t exist in a form that was usable by students and most adults. Kids barely touched a computer. Today teachers spend enormous amounts of time teaching students how to use technology in effective, safe, and ethical ways, yet nothing was ever removed from the curriculum as these needs were added and expanded. I still teach the same subjects that I did 24 years ago, plus a lot of other stuff, too, because teachers are expected to somehow manipulate the space-time continuum on a daily basis and fit more and more into each hour of teaching.
Add to all of this the concern for colleagues. The absence of quarantined and sick teachers for weeks at a time. The loss of the parts of the job that we loved most. Contact tracing. Wellness checks. Hand sanitizer. Plastic shields. Using the same restroom as our students to limit exposure to other teachers and students. The constant, relentless concern that one slip in protocol could lead to a child becoming sick and perhaps bringing COVID-19 home to vulnerable members of their family.
The list is endless. Teachers are frayed and still fraying. Teachers sit in their cars and cry before and after school each day. We are going to lose a lot of good people and great teachers before the end of this pandemic.
Here’s the thing:
There isn’t much that can be done to make teaching any easier right now. It’s hard, and it’s going to remain hard until this pandemic eases up.
A pay raise would be good given the added pressures and responsibilities, but Americans are fond of claiming support for education while trying to pay teachers as little as possible.
Additional staffing to remove some of the burdens placed upon teachers throughout the school day would be extraordinary, but again, we love our schools but limit their funding as much as possible because increased financial support equates to an increase in taxes.
An easing of testing pressure and the overwhelming demands of the curriculum would be fantastic, but after watching these trends move in the wrong direction for 24 years, I’m not holding my breath.
Improved curriculum (or in some cases, just curriculum), an increase in planning time, and reliable photocopiers would all be excellent, too. But again, I’m not holding my breath.
But there is something that can be done, and it costs nothing:
Be kind to teachers.
Express gratitude whenever possible.
Write notes of appreciation. Send emails expressing support. Fire off a text message saying thank you. Write letters to principals and superintendents, singing the praises of your child’s teacher.
Teachers are a strange bunch. Words of encouragement mean a lot to us. Positive feedback means the world to educators who often work alone with children for so much of the day. A kind word or a paragraph or two of affirmation can sometimes mean the difference between getting through a day feeling great about yourself or ending the day with absolute certainty that you have failed yet again.
I am fortunate enough to have a principal who understands much of this. He dedicates enormous amounts of time and energy to making his teachers feel appreciated and revered. He bends and breaks unnecessary rules in order to make teachers’ days better. He works himself to the bone to make these impossible days a little less impossible for the people teaching children in our school.
But I’m one of the lucky ones. Not every administrator is like this. Frankly, most are not. Administrators tend to be tragic rule followers. List checkers. Loyal foot soldiers. But this is not a time for conformity. This is a time that demands creativity, courage, compassion, and common sense.
For many teachers, this is in short supply.
This is why Elysha and I make every effort to let Clara and Charlie’s teachers know how much we appreciate their efforts. Support their work. Love them for loving our children. We write letters and send emails and write to the Superintendent about how these professionals are so effectively teaching and loving our kids.
That’s the amazing thing about teachers:
They love their students. Every year they invite a new batch of kids into their classroom, and within a week, they love each and every one of them.
Even the annoying ones.
They take other people’s children and love them for a year while oftentimes feeling painfully unloved for all that they do.
If you want to help a teacher during this pandemic (and even after), make your child’s teacher feel loved. Or reach out to a teacher who made a difference in your life and thank them for all they did for you.
I’m sure there are many other professions in their world equally in need of gratitude. Healthcare workers come immediately to mind, as do grocery store employees. Anyone working closely with the public in a setting that is potentially unsafe, constantly overwhelming, and fundamentally changing because of the pandemic.
I know teachers well, so I’m writing about them. That’s why I’m urging you to make their days better and easier with a little bit of love.
It will cost you nothing, but it will mean a whole hell of a lot.