© Jeff Roberson/AP
In this March 11, 2014 photo, Lexi Hough, 14, works through a math problem with her iPad at the ready in her eighth grade algebra class at The St. Michael School of Clayton in Clayton, Mo. Jeff Roberson/AP
- Teachers who have borne the brunt of the pandemic describe the toll distance learning has taken on them.
- Five teachers shared their experiences with Insider, some of whom have left or are considering leaving the profession.
- The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to an ongoing teacher shortage in the US.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Dana Lizewski had been thinking about leaving the teaching profession for a few years leading up to 2020. But the past year, teaching during a pandemic, cemented her decision.
“I’ve always said I’ll just stick it out,” Lizewski told Insider. “But I think this year has really solidified that it’s just not in my personality to deal with those constant changes…”
After five years in a classroom, Lizewski said she made the “very difficult decision” to leave her job as a preschool teacher in New York this month in order to prioritize her mental health after a year of “constant chaos.”
“It’s been quite difficult to the point where I’ve had severe anxiety and panic attacks and things I had never dealt with in my life before,” Lizewski said.
The choice was one she said she didn’t take lightly. But during her first week officially off the job, she wasn’t having second thoughts.
“Mostly, I feel relief.” she said. “A strong sense of relief.”
Teachers say their jobs have become significantly tougher during the pandemic.
Five teachers Insider spoke to said the past year has robbed them of their favorite part of the job – interaction and connection with students – while requiring more administrative work and flexibility in the constantly changing pandemic era.
Early teacher retirements are up in states across the country, as are leaves of absence. According to an Education Week survey, 73% of school districts said their need for substitute teachers was higher in 2020 than in 2019, while 74% said substitute applications had dropped.
Between technology challenges, low student engagement, and the risk of catching COVID-19 as more schools return to the classroom, teachers told Insider they’re struggling.
One central Florida teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, said she has had to teach three different classes of students since the school year started. She began teaching third grade virtually in September but was moved to first grade in October to accommodate the number of students who remained online when the school partially reopened. Now, she’s transitioning again to in-person learning.
“Initially I was working about 13 to 14 hours a day,” she said. “And then I moved to first grade, and because I had no training, I was just working from sun up to sundown.”
The constant upheaval and extra work began to take their toll. She said she had a panic attack. Then she stopped eating and sleeping. Her mental health deteriorated.
Eventually, she had to take a month-long medical leave of absence to have surgery. She said that she and her doctor both credit stress at work as partially responsible for her health problems.
“If I could have quit this year, I would have,” she said. “It is that stressful. And if I have to do that again next year…I will just quit.”
And she isn’t the only teacher who desires to leave the profession after the past year.
A fourth-grade teacher based in San Francisco, who has been teaching for more than 20 years, told Insider that she would “retire if I could.”
“This is too hard, like, this was taking years off my life. This is too much,” the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, told Insider. “Thirty-three kids, and constantly being expected to do work in a way that I’ve had such little training to do it.”
“I’m a little locked in for the money because I have to build my pension,” she added. “You lose a lot of money as a teacher if you walk out the door before 55, as a public school California teacher.”
The San Francisco teacher said that while she has received support from her husband, students and their parents, and the school’s principals, she said it hasn’t been enough to keep her from burning out as she tried to navigate distanced learning at the onset of the pandemic.
“The amount that’s expected and the support that I’ve been given, it doesn’t match, it’s not enough,” she said. “I’m not going to lie, I’ve had to pay people to help me just like keep up with certain things. I’ll pay out of my own pocket.”
“I’ll pay for curriculum that’ll make my life easier, to have like an online program that’ll grade the kids work,” she said. “I’ll pay a friend to help me do something. I’ll pay Ubers to go pick up my kids because I can’t, I don’t have the time or the energy.”
© REUTERS/Tom Brenner
Chrystopher Camey Lopez raises his hand to ask a question from a socially-distanced desk during an in-person hybrid learning day at the Mount Vernon Community School in Alexandria, Virginia, on March 2, 2021. REUTERS/Tom Brenner
Another teacher based in Fort Worth, Texas, who is a 15-year veteran of the education industry said she has felt supported by her family but has felt “felt zero support from my work.”
The Texas teacher, who also wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal at work, told Insider that on a Friday in February she spent a half-day at work for a “staff development” Zoom event to “de-stress” amid the struggles of distanced and hybrid learning. She said the school played a Bingo game, in which each square corresponded with an activity to do, like doing a dance or a writing activity.
But the teacher said she was already feeling overwhelmed with the work that she had ahead of her to submit grades online, fix electronic records for her students that were switching from online to in-person, and coordinate with students about missing work at the last minute.
“I knew at that moment, on that Friday, that my mental health meant nothing to my district, and that the next day on Saturday, I was going to end my life,” she said. “I knew that the stress had gotten that bad. I didn’t want to spend my entire weekend grading, correcting, putting stuff in, and knowing that this is going to be never-ending.”
“I knew that, Monday morning coming, I’m going to have even more work because I’m going to have to fix all of the grades for the kids that are switching between the two models [of online and in-person learning],” she added. “So, no, I did not, I have not ever felt supported this entire year by our district.”
The teacher told Insider that she went on medical leave for three weeks after she attempted to take her life. She returned to work for a little more than a week before taking another medical leave and currently does not have a return date.
“I think I’m part of the extreme story where I did try to end my life, and I’m slowly working through that,” the Texas teacher said, “and I’m realizing that [my work] is not the reason to end my life, you know?”
“But at the time, that was how helpless I felt,” she said.
Beyond this school year, the Texas teacher told Insider that she is sure she does not want to return to teaching at her district, which she has been with for 10 years, but she said she is unsure of what her next steps will be.
“I’ve worked so hard to further my career,” she said. “So I honestly have no idea. I’m in such a limbo right now.”
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated an already existent teacher shortage across the country.
A RAND Corporation survey of nearly 1,000 former school teachers found that stress, more so than low pay or health concerns, was their main reason for leaving. Of the 45% of respondents who left during the pandemic, 64% said they weren’t paid enough to merit the risks or stress of teaching.
A Pennsylvania high school family and consumer science teacher, who also wished to remain anonymous, told Insider she has also considered leaving the profession in the last year and will likely do so in the next few years.
“I love teaching but this year has almost completely destroyed my love for the profession,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve ever felt so overworked and underappreciated.”
She said she’s used to having to take her work home with her, but her school’s hybrid model this year has meant more than double the typical workload as she works to teach her classes to students both in class and online simultaneously.
All of the teachers Insider spoke to said they were expected to rewrite their curriculum, be on call to answer emails nearly 24/7, and be prepared to adapt to unexpected changes throughout the year – oftentimes without much support from their school districts or communities.
“Teachers have gotten so much vitriol,” the Pennsylvania teacher said. “It makes it hard to go above and beyond.”
Some teachers are struggling to see an end in sight for their burnout.
As vaccinations increase and life slowly starts to creep back to normal, teachers said they’re both excited and nervous for the next school year. They’re eager to return to in-person interaction with their students but worried this “lost year” could mean playing catch-up and another year of burnout.
“There’s this fear that doing double our job is going to become the expected norm,” the Pennsylvania teacher said.
The Florida elementary school teacher thinks things will get worse before they get better. But she said interacting with her students and hearing her kids laugh helps her get through the dark days.
“We are trying the very best we can,” she said. “No teacher I know has slacked off. I think what the teachers want is respect and acknowledgment. We’re trying. And it’s really difficult.”
Kristy Ritvalsky, a senior training and consulting specialist at Rutgers University, said, prior to the pandemic, she doesn’t think burnout was “something that we spent a considerable amount of time” talking about.
“When we’re thinking about the forefront of our work, I think that the pandemic has obviously shed light on burnout and really understanding how, as school communities, we have to be intentional about including staff wellness and self-care activities as standards of practice,” Ritvalsky told Insider.
“It is extremely important for all of us, but especially educators, to be really self-aware of regarding how you’re feeling during this time, you know, especially because burnout can be the precursor for a lot of other mental health conditions for like anxiety and depression and things like that,” she added.
Ritvalsky, who works to implement educational training programs in schools to enhance school-based mental health services, said schools need to be “intentional about creating a community of compassion” and make spaces for staff “to be able to express their emotions.”
While she said she recognized some schools have such practices in place, she said others weren’t necessarily including that work into standard practice, so “now they’re having to kind of develop those things.”
“It’s like building the plane and flying it at the same time,” she said.
Ritvalsky urged both school administrators and teachers to develop positive peer support networks – “kind of like a buddy system,” she said – where teachers could be paired with another staff member to hold them accountable on self-care practices and setting boundaries between work and home life.
While some teachers Insider spoke to are looking forward to interacting with their kids in a classroom again, others are looking toward a new future.
The teacher from California told Insider that being able to interact with the kids in any capacity reminds her of her purpose as a teacher.
“Every day that I interact with the kids, I do love them,” she told Insider. “I mean, there’s purpose and there’s energy, and even just being back in the classroom, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, you know, there’s going to be like young people in this room and their energy or their humor, their creativity,’ and, you know, that feeds my soul.”
Lizewski, who left teaching for good this month, said her school’s attempts to support teachers with burnout were “too little, too late.”
But the sadness of leaving her teaching job has been somewhat softened by the prospect of her future endeavor, one she said she’s extremely passionate about – opening a daycare.
“That’s my love and passion, is being with children and caring for them,” she said. “I’m good with interacting with the kids. I’m just not good with all those extra expectations placed on teachers.”
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