Wednesday started out like any other; I left my house at 7:00 am to drive to my school campus, where I teach bilingual early childhood special education. Out of nowhere, I burst into tears. I thought to myself, I don’t know if I can do this anymore. Not just today. I don’t know if I can do this any day, ever again.
This is my 18th year as a classroom teacher. I have slogged through the grueling first month of pre-K 18 times, have had 18 rounds of “First Day of School” drawings, 18 Open Houses, and 18 Back-to-School nights. In all of those years, I have never lost my composure on the way to school. Teaching through the pandemic has left me feeling more than just “burnt out” — I am gutted, empty, and wondering how I can continue to be the joyful, engaged teacher that my students need.
I am not alone. Every teacher I know is shell-shocked and exhausted. When the pandemic began, we were expected to have mastery of online teaching formats that were being developed as we used them. For months, we did everything we could to engage students through a screen. With the return of in-person learning this fall, we are spending our days navigating a system full of guidelines and safety precautions that are changing on a daily basis. I am working desperately to support children who have not interacted with society in the past one and a half years; my pre-K students have spent half of their lives in quarantine. And while students need more support than ever, we have fewer resources. If I am already feeling as if I have nothing left to give my students, how will I feel eight months from now?
We Need to Examine the Systems Contributing to Teacher Burnout
Yes, teachers need to be resilient. But is the answer to tough times really just to ask teachers to get tougher? If we truly value public education, we need to examine the systems contributing to teacher burnout — and make systemic changes so teachers can thrive in the profession.
First, we need parents’ help. The burn-out that many families experienced while working and learning from home is real. While we understand that family rules were relaxed or even abandoned during COVID (my own house felt like the Wild West by August 2020), teachers like me need parents’ partnership to re-establish some guidelines so kids can be better equipped for school success. For our youngest learners, this means ensuring sufficient sleep, limiting screen time, and practicing basic self-care routines like getting dressed and toileting.
Second, now more than ever, schools need to prioritize what they are asking teachers to spend time and mental energy on. Schools are rushing to address student learning gaps and social-emotional needs with new curricula, frameworks, and interventions, all of which fall to classroom teachers to implement. The result is that none of the initiatives receive sufficient time and attention, and teachers are left feeling exhausted and inadequate. We need to prioritize immediate needs and devote the bulk of our time and energy to those priorities. Not sure which initiatives to focus on and which to set aside? Ask a teacher. Schools also need to provide support in the form of increased teacher plan time and reduced workload. School leaders can cancel unnecessary meetings, extend deadlines and give teachers the space they need to just teach.
Third, district administrators should reconnect with what happens in classrooms, and provide direct support for educators. In every district including mine, there are dozens of educational professionals working in an administrative capacity — principals, curriculum coordinators, coaches, student resource leaders, and more. We all feel the sense of urgency to address the gaps COVID has created. However, it is different for those of us experiencing the gaps with the students every day. What might work on paper is sometimes not helpful in the moment. For the rest of this school year, what if each administrator occasionally left their desk and walked into a classroom to provide help to a teacher? They could supervise the class while the teacher took a bathroom break, offer to take a wiggly student for a walk, or lead a small group activity. Those few moments of connection would help teachers feel seen and supported and could be a very real and important reality check for administrators as to what their teachers are going through all day.
By asking teachers what they need, we’re not just supporting them, we’re supporting their students. We all want students to thrive this school year. It is up to all of us to provide the right support for the professionals who teach, inspire, and empower them every day