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What People Need to Hear About 2021

classroom kids pandemic          

This past summer, I was chatting with a colleague when he made a prediction that has, to everyone’s dismay, come true: “This coming school year will be worse than the first and second years of the pandemic.” At the time, his perspective seemed overly glum. The vaccine was gaining traction, Delta and Omicron did not yet exist, and infection rates were dropping. How could students heading back into school buildings be worse off than they were during virtual instruction? As we all know, things got a lot more complicated as the fall months began and teachers nationwide had to re-learn how to do a job that was once again encumbered by factors outside of our control. Now, we hold these truths to be evident: kids are not all right, teachers are not all right, and not a whole lot is happening to change any of that. Here are some reasons that everyone is feeling the weight of an ongoing pandemic in ever-increasing intensity, and what can potentially be done to mitigate some of the factors that are leading to upticks in burnout, anger and resentment.

Why Kids Are Not All Right

Reason #1: Delayed Maturity           

When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, schools abruptly pivoted to virtual instruction as buildings shut down for in-person learning. We were quick to realize the potential academic impact of remote instruction on learning, but we were slower to understand how it would affect student maturity. Consider a fourth-grade student in 2020 who, after 18 months of being on Zoom, re-entered the classroom this past fall, this time as a sixth-grade middle school student. Depending on what that child experienced at home, the last schooling memories he can access are those of an elementary school student. Therefore, his behavior might be more reflective of the child who was last in school two years prior, particularly without the benefit of seeing other classmates grow and mature. While this issue does not exist with all students, teachers have been reporting a noticeable decrease in age-appropriate behavior across their classes.

Reason #2: Learning Disruption           

First dubbed “learning loss” and then renamed to reflect the more accurate interruption of learning that may or may not have resulted in a deficit, student learning has now been disrupted for the third consecutive year. Even as children sit in physical classrooms, the reality of our space has altered to include masks, distance, and other precautions that make instruction more cumbersome. To further complicate matters, individual students or entire classes are often quarantined; if teachers are also quarantined, class coverage becomes a significant challenge to maintaining uninterrupted instruction. How can continuity be established when we are not yet at the point of putting the pandemic behind us?

Reason #3: Possible Trauma           

As teachers know only too well, we have no clear idea of what so many of our students experienced during their long months at home. At this point in the pandemic, over a hundred thousand children in America have lost parents to Covid, and that number will likely continue to increase. Even if everyone is alive and well, many parents work long hours and were therefore largely absent during school hours in the 2020-2021 academic year to help their children or keep tabs on possible distractions to learning, or worse. Finally, many children live with abuse, and being home 24/7 only compounded that. The expectation that anyone can focus on their schoolwork after experiencing trauma is simply not realistic or tenable.

Reason #4: Ongoing Instability           

Even more than adults, kids need stability and structure, which is not something we have been offering with any kind of consistency over the past two years. Our rocky footing might not be anyone’s fault per se, but reality keeps shifting. We tell kids that conditions will improve, which is probably true. However, children are unable to see life in the long term, and at this point, the pandemic seems interminable. Many kids do not even remember an existence without it, quite frankly. As a result, their faith that adults know what they’re doing has been shaken, and we have not yet restored their belief in us to keep them safe. It is as simple, and as catastrophic, as that.

Why Teachers Are Not All Right

Reason #1: No Coverage, No Breaks           

In a normal year, teachers must be gone unexpectedly. When that happens, we either have substitute teachers or a coverage system that is evenly distributed so that people do not have to give up their planning time too often. This year, that consideration no longer exists. With an all hands on deck mentality, anyone who is technically not teaching at any given moment and can supervise students legally may be pulled into coverage with frequency. If union contracts say otherwise, teachers do not usually feel that they can protest; after all, everyone is in the same boat, and many people do not want to be uncooperative or argumentative. However, the lack of recovery time to plan lessons and take deep breaths (or eat, or use the bathroom) is wearing everyone down.

Reason #2: Unstable Working Conditions           

Adults need stability too, and it just does not exist at present. Unlike many workers who still exist in a virtual space, teachers are on the ground each day without any clear idea of what to expect. Teaching has always been unpredictable, but now there is no way to see what is coming next. Will there be time to work with colleagues on looking at student data and figuring out what to do next? To meet with struggling students at lunchtime? To grade papers? Most likely, many of our carefully laid plans will be blown apart, and the result is a lot of time working after hours and before school. Burning the candle at both ends while being overworked in a job that is both physically and mentally demanding is a recipe for burnout.

Reason #3: Public Perception and Finger Pointing           

Teachers have never been given credit for the work they do, and public perception has never been worse. Parents are attending school board meetings to complain more stridently than ever before, the media publishes numerous articles about how students are being underserved, and let’s not even get started on social media. Nobody is denying that many students are not being taught as they should be, or that some teachers are not part of the solution. By and large, however, everyone is doing the best they can. Unfortunately, the constant fires are impossible to put out, particularly on a larger scale. People might have some control over their own classrooms, but what happens schoolwide is more complex and difficult to manage, particularly when the target of what we need to accomplish keeps shifting. Which brings us to...

Reason #4: Constant Pivoting            

At first, the idea of pivoting was inspiring. Educators could turn on a dime and teach kids from anywhere, anytime. Almost two years later, there is nothing novel about endless changes. We’ve accepted that we are a long way from a previous conception of normal, but we still do not know what life will look like from week to week. Now that Omicron has appeared just as children from ages 5-11 have become eligible for vaccines, we once again face several months of uncertainty. What will instruction look like? Will quarantines slow down or intensify? Will we need to hold on to masks, to Zoom accounts, to the endless supply of hand sanitizer? Only time will tell. In the meantime, we must be ready for anything, and that is exhausting.

What Can Be Done           

First and foremost, if the public at large cannot feel empathy for what people in schools are experiencing because they are not privy to what daily life looks like in classrooms and in hallways, some sympathy would be appreciated. Instead of attacking educators for a bevy of perceived wrongs, many of which are completely made up or blown out of proportion, try supporting those who remain in schools despite all the challenges outlined above. For those who work in schools, compassion is important. For example, if we teach a lesson that went badly, that is not a reason to beat ourselves up; it is a reason to acknowledge that these things happen, to learn from the experience and do better next time. If a parent is upset with our teaching, trying to have sympathy for their concerns while still insisting on civility is the best way to maintain sanity on all fronts. Other than that, knowing when we have been pushed to our limits is probably the most important piece of self-awareness needed so that we can step back when things get too hard and take a break, whether it seems possible or not. The alternative is probably breaking down, which does nobody any good. 

As happy as we were a year ago to bid sayonara to 2020, it turns out that 2021 has been no picnic. We are in this struggle for a longer haul, and people need to get a better grip on why teachers are in crisis, why kids are acting out, and why everyone should be more understanding. We are not going to get through the real burdens of our current world without better support, compassion, and appreciation. This holiday season as we look forward to what we all hope is a better 2022, let’s think about what we can do to help those around us, and ourselves, make daily life more sustainable and enjoyable.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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