Schools survived the worst of the pandemic, but will they survive the aftermath?

By David Nurenberg

Across the nation, students and teachers are back in classrooms for the 2021-22 school year. Remote instruction is largely a thing of the past, and the pandemic, while hardly over, has become a familiar, normative part of daily life. With teachers and all but the youngest of students eligible for vaccination, COVID-19 has, for many schools, become more of an inconvenience than an object of dread. But teachers are reporting higher rates of burnout, experiencing less job satisfaction, and resigning in greater numbers now than during the worst times of last year. Studies by the Rand Corporation, the National Education Association, the Brookings Institute and others show record teacher shortages that are only predicted to rise. The Rand report concludes that teachers are “more likely to report experiencing frequent job-related stress and symptoms of depression than the general population.” Why, when things are looking up, are somewhere between a quarter to a third of all teachers looking to leave?

            One explanation is that things aren’t looking up that much after all. Supply chain issues have created shortages in everything from school lunches to pencils, and the mass worker exodus of the Great Resignation has included school custodians, bus drivers, support staff and substitutes upon whom classroom teachers have always depended. Teaching has always been demanding, and supports have always been few, but now they are fewer than ever – at a time when demands on teachers have never been greater.

            Students come to class carrying pandemic-related trauma and suffering learning loss, which district and state auditors have been insisting teachers “make up for” according to unrealistic schedules. Ever-changing COVID related protocols have been added to the usual proliferation of mandates that cause initiative fatigue during the best of times. Millions of dollars in targeted PAC money continues to promote manufactured controversy at school committee meetings around Critical Race Theory and mask mandates, creating yet more pressures and obstacles to teachers’ safe and effective work with their students.

That teachers are still functioning at all, still facilitating classrooms that are safe and engaging places for kids to learn, is a testament to their passion and commitment to helping young people. But it doesn’t mean they’re happy, or that they can do it indefinitely. And as education blogger Jennifer Gonzalez writes, it also means “there’s zero margin for error. They don’t have the luxury of thinking deeply about their classroom practices.” I’ve written previous columns about how the pandemic has opened up all sorts of space for rethinking practices like ability grouping, for leveraging technology to aid differentiation and personalized learning, for incorporating more socioemotional learning strategies. The tragedy is that, as Gonzalez puts it, now is also the worst possible climate to ask teachers to engage in this sort of re-visioning.

            School administrators are not deaf to these concerns, but often their attempts to help teachers take the form, as Forbes education writer Peter Greene writes, of “morale ‘boosters’ such as appreciation t-shirts and chirpy e-mails and exhortations to practice self-care, which is a nicer way to say ‘You’d better take care of yourself because nobody else is going to take care of you.’” What teachers really want, say Greene, Gonzalez–and frankly every colleague I’ve spoken to–is fewer required meetings, fewer new initiatives, and fewer high-stakes accountability measures… and on the positive side, more support staff, more compensation for extra work, and more shielding from outside political agitation. To be fair, these have always been teachers’ needs, but 2021-2022 seems to be the year teachers have begun walking away en masse when those needs continue to be unmet.

            Teachers’ working conditions have always been students’ learning conditions. The school closings and shift to emergency remote learning during the pandemic robbed millions of kids of a year of meaningful, rigorous schooling; the last thing they need now is to lose their teachers. While state and district authorities have understandably rushed to return to “business as normal” this year, they need to recognize that we are still not in normal times. For that matter, “normal” expectations of teachers may need to change permanently. Even well into the 21st century, the profession is still structured around century-old assumptions that teachers are “spinster” women with no competing relationships, whose underpaid and overexploited labor is expected as a matter of course. Maybe this was never a system that could sustain itself, and the pandemic just revealed it, in much the same way as COVID rendered undeniably visible certain inequities around students’ learning experiences. Administrators seeking to retain quality teachers—including teachers who can work effectively with the most vulnerable students—need to lighten teachers’ loads and increase their supports. Otherwise, we risk letting public education itself become another victim of COVID-19.

David Nurenberg, PhD, is an associate professor at Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, MA. He taught high school ELA for 20 years, and now trains teachers and consults for schools in the Boston area. David is also the host of the progressive-education podcast Ed Infinitum. His latest book, What Does Injustice Have to Do with Me?, was published by Rowman and Littlefield this year.

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