Teachers feel like they’re holding their breath underwater

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By Merisha Leak

As I sit here typing this, my mind is racing and my thoughts are all over the place. Unfortunately, I think this may be the case for educators across the country, as many of us have just gotten past switching to crisis learning last spring, only to have to lean in to virtual or hybrid learning a few months later. To say most of us are feeling stressed out is an understatement.

Starting the year out with. . . stress

This summer, I watched educators across North Carolina ready themselves for a school year that started earlier than normal. The governor allowed districts the autonomy to decide which approach would work best for reopening schools—fully in person, fully remote, or a mix of the two. My district initially elected to require staff and students to report in person. This undoubtedly proved to not be the best course of action, since weeks later — after a resounding uproar from educators — they changed course to move towards fully remote learning.

With our state legislature deciding that school needed to start several weeks early (Aug. 17), there was an incredibly tiny window for educators to prepare for one of the most difficult back-to-school seasons any of us have witnessed. We quickly geared up to welcome students back for another round of virtual learning. As expected, this did not go without complications. Instead of the usual buzz of excitement the week before school started, I witnessed teachers’ frustration and apprehension over what this virtual learning was supposed to look like. The most frustrating part was the number of virtual meetings for teachers, chock-full of information and tasks to be completed — on top of learning how to use new platforms to deliver the virtual instruction.

During the first week of school, as a leader of a middle school ELA team, I spoke to teachers who showed signs of serious stress, as there were issues with students trying to log on to the learning management system. Other districts across the state also saw glitches that lead to students not being able to access the content of their online coursework via Canvas. This experience created further stress for teachers — and unfortunately, will probably be the first of several.

Right now, this profession seems incredibly taxing. We’ve had to reimagine how we deliver education and are now teaching in way that none of us previously thought possible. I’ve grown exhausted with meeting my team of teachers (all new to my school) virtually. I feel like I’ve been holding my breath under water for an incredibly long time — and I don’t think I’m alone in those sentiments. I can no longer remain in denial about how a profession that is dear to my heart seems to be having negative effects on my mental and emotional well-being.

In truth, many teachers were experiencing threats to their mental health even before the pandemic. A recent survey by the American Federation of Teachers found that 58 percent said their mental health was “not good” for at least 7 days in the past month. Even when mental illness isn’t present, we all know many factors — like unrealistic job expectations, negative portrayal of teachers in the media, overwork, and worry about students facing trauma — lead to teachers feeling highly stressed much of the time (In the AFT survey, 61 percent of teachers said work was always or often stressful).

What we can do

So what can educators do now to mitigate feelings of stress, frustration, and helplessness — to manage their own mental health? More important, what can school leaders and districts do to protect the mental health of their most valuable stakeholders? Here are three good ways school, district, and teacher leaders can support teachers now:

  1. Listen. In this time where we’re forced to maintain distance between one another, one of the most effective practices we can do is to listen. Listen carefully to teachers’ frustrations. Listen to their recommendations. While teachers may not have the authority needed to make policies or define procedures, listening to and honoring their recommendations is key when determining how best to support students in this virtual learning space.
  2. Watch and adjust. Recognize that your teachers are feeling the stress and pressure of adjusting to virtual or other new routines for instruction. They’re very vulnerable to burnout. So just as we’ve been tasked to do, reimagine what education could look like in this virtual space–and change how you do teaching and learning in ways that make the work easier and less pressured for everyone. Virtual learning is NOT supposed to be cramming eight to nine hours of on-screen time into a day, on top of the hours of work being done while not on camera.

    Let’s not forget that some teachers have their own families to take care of–or at least have their own health and well-being to tend to. Let’s help them practice self-care. For instance, some districts in my state are offering staff and students one day off a week during this time, for wellness and self-care. This incredible move will have a very positive impact. Another recommendation is to allow for a day of asynchronous learning, with both teachers and students working independently; this  gives teachers the opportunity to catch up on grading, planning, etc. and students time to catch up on missing assignments.

3. Help them learn. Provide teachers with the professional learning they need right now to be effective in the virtual space. I’ve talked with a number of educators who are reaching out to colleagues with a strong desire to get help with implementing various technology resources in their instruction, to make things more engaging. They want to make this experience work for their students. Arm your teachers with the learning they need to teach effectively while working remotely.

What we know

As we continue to move through this space of the unknown, I challenge myself and others to focus on one thing we do know. We know that educators are some of the most versatile, creative, and caring people to exist in the professional landscape. While this current task is daunting to us all, I believe both school leaders and teachers are up for the task—especially if we support each other.


About the author

Merisha Leak (@MerishaLeak) is a secondary academic facilitator in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a lifelong learner and equity champion.

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