Teachers are burned out, and COVID is to blame
Updated: May 2
By Kalea Perez
“Behind every child who believes in themselves, is a teacher who believed in them first.”
A teacher provides kids and young adults the building blocks of education, giving them the tools to learn and ultimately succeed in this world.
Teachers motivate children to pursue avenues of interest they may have never known they had.
And for some kids, a teacher may be more present than a parent, providing more attention and care than they receive at home.
Teachers can inspire children to hope, to imagine, to grow - intellectually, socially, emotionally. .
But being a teacher in the best of times means enduring long days, not nearly enough appreciation, and finding creative ways to inspire - and stay inspired - for 10 long months a year.
Being a teacher during the era of COVID-19, a pandemic that has robbed the globe of all regular day-to-day life for the better part of two years, has been that much more difficult.
How we got here
In late February 2020, school districts across the country began taking measures to shut down schools for the remainder of the year - not anticipating it going much beyond the summer break. And by March 2020, 48 states, four U.S. territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity ordered school building closures for the rest of their academic years.
Due to these closures, over 50.8 million public school students and teachers were forced to pivot to a new form of learning as virtually everything went online.
This unprecedented and rapid change was especially tough on teachers. Just like their students, teachers had to adapt to an online environment they were not used to and shift practically overnight to online schooling. The only difference was, teachers were in charge.
But just how fast did this all happen? The first few cases of COVID-19 were detected in China in early January 2020 during their New Year’s celebrations. Fast forward to Jan. 29, 2020, the first U.S. cases emerged. There had only been five confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. when the Education Week reported that a handful of schools had begun to already take precautions to limit exposure.
By Feb. 11, 2020, teachers began to stand up for themselves and speak their minds, catching the attention of many. Just like the rest of the population, teachers were getting concerned about the overwhelmingly rapid growth of the pandemic’s threat. So much so that the American Federation of Teachers called for more federal guidance for school systems on how to handle COVID-19.
Into mid-February there were continued school closures, although they were still deemed “temporary.” These closings were primarily concentrated in Washington state and New York.
It was late February 2020 that marked the moment people really began to understand the severity of the pandemic as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned schools across the country, saying they needed to prepare for the novel coronavirus.
Little did we know this would only be the beginning of things.
The shift to distance learning began March 5 with the 24,000-student Northshore district in Washington state announcing it would close for up to 14 days. This was the first real test of prolonged distance learning to come out of COVID-19 in the United States.
Soon after, the World Health Organization declared on March 11, 2020, COVID-19 a “pandemic,” and the school district closures began to pile up. By this time more than one million students had already been impacted by school closures and that number would only continue to grow.
All U.S. public school buildings would close by the end of March 2020 as Idaho and its Department of Education Activity were the last to close all their schools.
Teacher morale would really start to plummet over the next month, so much so that 66 percent of teachers said April 8, 2020, in a nationally representative survey conducted by EdWeek Research Center that their morale level was already lower than prior to the pandemic.
Needing to do more with less
A main motivator for a lot of teachers either leaving or wanting to was lack of support from their administration and state.
Carolyn Helmick, an ESL teacher in Virginia, was one of those:
“I felt like I wanted to quit last year mainly because the administration at my old school was not supportive,.For me the support was lacking at the school level. Our administrative team was new and not cohesive which left teachers to figure things out for themselves a lot of the time." - Carolyn Helmick
Cara Butcher, a third-grade teacher at Memminger Elementary in Charleston, South Carolina, felt like teachers were asked to do so much beyond the usual and it was too taxing - emotionally and physically.
“Um, I mean, I definitely think there needs to be more support for teachers trying to do all the stuff that we were trying to do,” Butcher said.
On top of little support, teachers were faced with unattainable goal setting from school districts.
Kory Roberts, an elementary school teacher at Memminger in Charleston, South Carolina, and most recently one of the top five nominees for Teacher of the Year, has seen this firsthand.
“Because of the pandemic, we didn't do a lot of testing. So now they’re like, ‘Oh, we're loading up testing,’” said Roberts, “And these kids are just starving. They're just trying to get back to the flow.”
Roberts suggested that because of an incline in testing, kids are struggling more with mental health now more than ever.
“I think they are getting higher anxieties because of it as well, just because they're testing so much,” he added. “They're not succeeding in that. So oftentimes, that lowers their confidence, which makes them not want to try a class.”
Lacking basic learning skills
Just as many adults had some difficulty getting readjusted to work life back at the office, many kids had some difficulty jumping right back into an all-day curriculum at the next grade level.
Secondary education years hold many of a child’s most crucial learning years. These are the times where they learn the building blocks and fundamentals of schooling.
Helmick noticed immediately that her students were not up to the next grade level.
“Students are behind. Every grade level. Some students never entered a school for over a year. They forgot how to do school! They are socially immature and academically behind almost across the board.”
While this is hard for students and parents, this is especially overwhelming and pressuring for teachers who are left to pick up the pieces.
“Overall, it’s just become really overwhelming. There’s so many changes happening all the time, and requirements put on us, so it’s been hard to find time to do it all,” Butcher said, adding that teaching third-graders who “are really at a first-grade level” has been tough.
"Just the actual pressure of getting kids to be where they need to be after they’ve been super behind has been a lot.” - Cara Butcher
Collectively teachers believe that these were gaps that widened with the help of the pandemic.
Taking a toll on students
The pandemic was not the only thing taking a toll on students' mental health. Many teachers reported that they saw a serious shift in socialization skills almost across the board.
Cheryl Edwards, a high school teacher in Virginia, noted that her students were “not as motivated” and “don’t interact with me or other students the way they used to.”
Edwards immediately noticed this when the classrooms began to fill up and made it her mission to check in on her students regularly. During her check ins she noticed a common theme of struggle among students.
“So many students at my high school are suffering with anxiety and depression,”she stated.
Butcher did the same thing with her students, and although they are much younger she observed that they were still not acting how they used to.
“They definitely have acted differently from a social behavior standpoint,” she said. “It’s hard because you behave much differently in a first-grade class than you do in a third-grade class. The idea of staying in seats and things like that is much harder for them now.”