Teachers Are Barely Hanging On. Here’s What They Need.
Cult of Pedagogy 2021-10-20
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The 2021-22 school year is off and running, and what I’ve been hearing from teachers over and over, from every corner, is that this is the worst school year ever. So much worse than 2020, which should have easily held the title for “worst year ever” in every category, for a long, long time.
But for so many teachers the worst year is turning out to be this year, and that really grinds my gears, because it shouldn’t be.
Every day I see a new post on social media from a different educator shouting at the top of their lungs on this topic, so what I’m going to say here is nothing new, but I’m hoping that if I add my voice to the very large chorus, maybe it will reach some new ears.
My thoughts are not well-organized right now, but I want to get them out, so I’m going to break them into eight loosely linked parts.
Part 1: A Confession
I am not a teacher anymore because I know I couldn’t handle it if I tried.
At one time, I was able to. Sort of. When I was a lot younger, with no children of my own, I managed to pull off teaching middle school language arts well enough. Granted, I brought home at least two hours of work every afternoon, got about 5 hours of sleep a night, and was accused on the regular of being a workaholic, but I managed.
Once I had kids, things changed. Gone were the after-school hours to plan lessons and grade papers. Gone was the ability to tolerate a staff meeting that ran over an extra fifteen minutes. Gone was the ability to go into my classroom on a Sunday to catch up. After giving it a try for a semester with a newborn and a lot of support from home, I decided to step away from the classroom for a few years, knowing there was no way I could be a great teacher and a great mother at the same time.
That was 2005, before all the nonsense really got going. No Child Left Behind had started infiltrating schools, but back then we had no idea how bad it was going to get.
I had a few more kids, but I always planned to go back. I was going to stay at home with them until they were in school, then I’d return to the classroom. Ultimately, other opportunities presented themselves, then I launched my own website, so I never ended up following the original blueprint. Still, the question comes up often, from curious friends who ask if I’ve ever thought about going back, to people who actually offer me teaching jobs, to readers who dislike something I’ve written and suggest that my voice has no merit since I’m no longer in the classroom.
My most compelling reason for not taking on a full-time teaching job is that it would require me to stop doing what I do now, researching and sharing good teaching practices through blog posts and podcast episodes. There simply wouldn’t be enough time left. But equally important is the fact that I really don’t want to invite back into my life the stress and horrible imbalance that comes with a teaching job. It stressed me out in 2005; I can’t even imagine what it would do to me in 2021.
And that’s a real shame, because I know I would be an incredible teacher. I wasn’t half bad back in the day, but knowing what I know now? Forget about it. I’d be frickin’ brilliant. And yet I wouldn’t do it, because I know how much non-teaching is required of teachers, how much unnecessary and unmitigated crap is being piled onto teachers’ backs right now, and I feel 100 percent certain that I wouldn’t be able to handle it.
So if you’re still hanging in there, but you’re about at the end of your rope, hear this: The problem is not you.
It’s not you.
Part 2: The Problem, Briefly
So what’s going on? Why is this the worst school year ever? I put the question out on Twitter and got hundreds of responses. The root of the problem seems to fall into one of three categories: time, trust, and safety.
Historically, teachers have never had enough time to do their jobs well. This has been a problem for generations, but it’s gotten worse in recent years as standardized testing has become the end-all-be-all for measuring success. Pre-COVID, there was already no margin for error, no extra space or time for most teachers to thoughtfully plan, collaborate, and assess student work.
I’ll say that again: Before COVID, teachers already didn’t have enough time to do their jobs well.
Now that schools are transitioning from fully remote back to in-person classes, the problem of teacher time has reached epic proportions.
This has happened despite all the lessons we should have learned from the pandemic. The worldwide shutdown prompted lots of people to reflect on how busy life used to be. Many of us were determined to never go back to that frantic pace once things started opening up again. Unfortunately, it appears that not everyone felt that way.
Especially those in charge of schools.
Instead of trying to approach things differently, many school leaders have gone full speed ahead, putting their reopening focus on recovering as much “learning loss” as possible, as if everyone could just do the teaching and learning more quickly and get caught up at twice the speed. This is playing out in far too many districts in the form of a renewed focus on data and testing, with more frequent assessments and screenings, more documentation, and more data analysis. The message is that we are behind and we now need to work extra hard to make up for it.
On top of that, they are adding new stuff: new technology, new curricula, new programs. This stuff might be good, it might be outstanding, but it’s still new, and it comes with a learning curve, which means more time.
Meanwhile, extra work has been added in order to comply with COVID-related requirements, help students make up work missed due to quarantining, and cover classes that have no responsible adult in charge due to an accelerating shortage in teachers and substitutes.
All of this combined has created an absolute dumpster fire of mental distress for teachers. Being short on time puts us in a terrible state as human beings. When I’m running late and I hit a patch of traffic or get stuck behind a slow driver, I am so far from my best self it’s embarrassing: my heart rate goes up, I yell at every single thing that goes wrong, I hate everyone else on the road, and the profanity is off the charts. Literally nothing can go wrong without turning me into a raving lunatic. At some point, if the traffic never eases up and it becomes clear that I’m not going to get to my destination on time, I might eventually settle into a catatonic state, where I’ve accepted my situation and just go numb. It’s a terrible way to feel. It’s something I’m working on, believe me. But at least it’s temporary.
That’s the mental state so many teachers are in every day. It’s turned down to a slightly lower vibration—they may not be running down the halls shouting profanities at everyone who gets in their way—but the chronic lack of time in their lives means there’s zero margin for error. They don’t have the luxury of thinking deeply about their classroom practices or studying student work in order to adjust their instruction. People whose cortisol levels are regularly elevated don’t have the mental capacity to have tough, vulnerable conversations about bias or take in constructive feedback about their disciplinary practices. The clock is ticking and they have a mile-long to-do list so all that good, deep stuff will have to wait.
And these are smart, thoughtful people. These are people who care about their students, who are passionate about their content, and who have formal training in pedagogy and on-the-ground experience in what works best for kids. But when they are put into a constant state of stress and anxiety, the best of their knowledge, experience, and intuition is wasted.
While the impossible race to make up for lost time is the biggest culprit here, another problem makes things even worse: A lack of trust. Teachers are being required to hand in detailed lesson plans, document interventions on a daily basis, and complete all of their professional development in a setting where their participation can be observed. The message is this: We don’t think you will do your job if we are not constantly checking behind you.
No doubt, these additional duties still fall under the time problem, but they get an added asterisk because they are also demoralizing. For most teachers, this level of micromanagement is completely unnecessary; whether their work is documented or not, they’ll still do good work. Ironically, the time it takes to document their work is more likely to weaken its quality than improve it. The time lost in writing full, formal lesson plans every day is time that could be used to conference with a student, watch a video about an innovative technique, or restructure an activity that isn’t quite working.
In every school, there are probably a few teachers who need more accountability for one reason or another. But applying that to all teachers, regardless of their performance, in an environment where lack of time is already creating so much stress, just adds insult to injury.
When a teacher does not feel physically safe, they are incapable of concentrating on anything that will improve their teaching. Prior to 2020, teachers already had enough to worry about when it came to safety. In the U.S., for example, gun violence in schools is a very real concern and has been for a long time.
Now we have a virus to contend with, and we’re still not done with it. So schools that are willfully going against CDC recommendations—or not really enforcing them—are putting teachers at risk. We could go round and round about whether or not our current levels of protection from vaccinations are enough; the fact remains that we are still learning about this virus, everyone’s situation is different, and if a teacher feels that their life is at risk by coming to work every day, that’s going to eventually send them looking for a safer job.
Part 3: Not All School Leaders
I just want to pause briefly to add a disclaimer: I am not talking about all school administrators. Some teachers have reported to me that their admins are doing an incredible job and have set reasonable expectations. I have met many administrators who I know are handling this school year as thoughtfully as they possibly can.
So if you’re hearing all this and thinking, Hey, I’m not doing that stuff, then know that I’m not talking to you.
With that in mind, though…
The truly outstanding school leaders I have known are outstanding because they are reflective. Because they think they always have room for improvement. Because they seek authentic, honest feedback and use it to get better.
If that sounds like you, then what you’re likely to do is find one or two things I say here that could make things more sustainable for your teachers, apply it, and end up with a faculty that is even more grateful that they work for you.
Part 4: Things That Are Not the Solution
Before we talk about the things that will really make conditions better for teachers, here’s a list of things that won’t:
- Jeans day or other clothing-related “rewards.” For the love of Pete, we are pulling out of a global pandemic. Just let your teachers wear jeans whenever they want.
- Donuts, bagels, pizzas, etc. Food is always appreciated and enjoyed, so there’s no need to stop offering it; just know that it does nothing to fix the bigger problem.
- Surface talk about self-care without any structural changes. Encouraging teachers to meditate, do yoga, practice mindfulness, take bubble baths, get mani-pedis—none of that addresses the real problem. In fact, more than one teacher has pointed out how insulting it is to have leaders give lip service to self-care while upholding conditions that chip away at mental health.
- Surface-level invitations for teacher input. If a teacher is invited to participate in a focus group, complete a survey, or otherwise give input into school decisions, their input should actually carry weight. If a decision has already been made for all intents and purposes, or the teacher input has no impact on the outcome, then the teacher’s time has been wasted.
- Unpredictable or short bursts of free time. When it comes to doing challenging cognitive work, “free time” is not the sum of its parts. Five minutes here, another seven there and another 20 there is not the same as knowing you have a full hour of protected, uninterrupted time. Although it’s nice to randomly end a meeting 10 minutes early or show up in a teacher’s class to give them a surprise bathroom break, teachers can’t really make the most of this kind of free time. What they need is longer blocks that they know about in advance so they can plan for them and make good use of the time.
- Pep talks. Telling a room full of teachers that they are doing a great job will likely go in one ear and out the other of those who are worn out and demoralized.
Part 5: Solutions
Here are some things that will actually make a difference. Again, I’ll break these into the categories of time, trust, and safety.
Most of these ideas came from replies to a tweet I sent out asking teachers what could be taken off their plates. The specific changes needed to give your teachers more time will be unique to your school, so the best approach would be to talk directly to your teachers about it, but it’s pretty likely that something on this list is a culprit.
- Cut WAAAAAY back on testing and data analysis. You may not have the authority to get rid of all of it, but you can do two things: (a) reduce or eliminate all the in-house testing and data analysis that is not required from above you, and (b) push back harder on what’s required from above. It never did anyone any good before COVID, and it’s definitely not helping anything now.
- Fewer, shorter meetings. There are so many ways to reduce meeting time. Just a few are: Reduce the number of meetings, make them shorter, find other delivery methods for the information (a.k.a. “This could have been an email”), only require attendance for certain meetings from those who need the information presented there, and during meetings, fiercely guard against conversations that derail the agenda. The phrase “Let’s talk about that after the meeting” should be used frequently.
- No new initiatives. This is not the year for a new curriculum, room changes, new programs. The focus should be on stability, quality over quantity, building relationships, and everyone’s health and safety. Accept that you’ll have to let go of some good ideas for now. If the change is already underway and you’d waste more time going back to the old way, then find a way to cut back on how thoroughly teachers need to implement. Brainstorm ways you could put things on pause for now. It can wait a year. It can wait two. There’s no rush.
- Hire help for administrative, clerical, and supervisory work. There’s no reason teachers should be doing data entry, organizing fundraising, or managing permission slips or forms of any kind. Bus duty and lunch supervision could be handled by a few part-time people hired just for that purpose. Errands could be run by temps. Teachers are trained professionals who are being paid for their expertise in instruction. Draining their energy and time with tasks that any college intern could do is terrible management of resources.
- Compensation for extra work. If extra tasks absolutely must be assigned to teachers, compensate them for it. If you can’t get a sub and a teacher is covering another teacher’s class, you have the money for that time. Pay them.
- Treat classroom time as precious. Look for ways to limit the number of times teachers are interrupted in class. Respect and protect that time. Ask your teachers if this is currently a problem and if it is, what they’d suggest to reduce the interruptions.
- Reduce teaching hours. This may not be something that can be implemented right away, but a number of teachers pointed out that their school worked well last year on a 4-day schedule. Could that be continued this year? If not, could you add in more teacher PD days to the current schedule?
- Take over a class. If every single administrator took over the teaching of one class for a month, or even better, a full grading period, things would definitely change. If this is impossible, then do the next best thing by shadowing a teacher for a full day, then repeating that with another teacher on a different day. Just like with childbirth and parenting very young children, our memories tend to trick us into thinking it’s easier than it really is, because we forget how hard it was. Until administrators have to actually walk in the shoes of a teacher, they will continue to heap too much onto their plates.
Like any workplace, most schools will have a few employees who do less than they’re supposed to, but most teachers work hard and want to do a good job. Treating everyone as if they need constant babysitting chips away at morale until it’s nonexistent. Here are some ways you can make teachers feel like trusted professionals:
- Talk to them. Your teachers know exactly what needs to change, and they probably have some very good ideas for how to go about it. Ask them questions, listen carefully to the answers, and then seriously consider how you might implement some of their ideas.
- Stop micromanaging. If you require teachers to submit lesson plans, stop. You may have a handful of teachers who could benefit from the structure and accountability of submitting lesson plans. But making everyone do it is a waste of time, and I’d bet money that most of these plans are never even read. This article from the Principal Center offers a thoughtful discussion of lesson plan submission and some good suggestions for what to do instead of requiring it. Along those same lines, if you’re requiring all kinds of other documentation for the sake of accountability, stop that, too.
- Stop broad-brushing your staff. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: When individual teachers are doing something wrong, deal directly with them instead of reprimanding your entire faculty. Those who are doing what they’re supposed to do will be confused by the scolding and will likely waste time and energy wondering what they’ve done wrong.
- Allow for virtual meetings and virtual PD. If teachers are requesting the option to attend meetings or professional development virtually, let them. This allows them to take off their masks, relax a little bit, and have a snack. They don’t all have to be in the same room.
- Look for other things to drop. Is there a safety video teachers are required to watch every year, or something else along those same lines? This may be the time to revisit the requirement and ask what’s reasonable. Could it be an “every three years” thing instead?
Some of these requirements may be official policy in your district or state. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be changed. Every policy was created by humans and it can be dismantled by humans as well.
So much has already been said on this topic for the past year and a half; I don’t think I can add anything new. Just know that no job is worth losing your life over. So if you’re currently making teachers choose between personal safety and job security, you’re going to lose.
Part 6: Something to Ponder About Gender
I want to point something out: The teaching profession is still overwhelmingly female, right? And what we’re talking about is a system in which a whole bunch of people are basically getting exploited for unpaid labor. That exploitation seems to be fueled primarily through gaslighting, examples of which can be found here, here, and here, for starters.
If this profession were made up mostly of men, do you think this would still be happening? Yes, we have plenty of men in the classroom—never mind that most of the men I have taught alongside refused to put up with this nonsense and never worked themselves to the bone. And yes, we have loads of women in positions of leadership. Still, the culture of education was built on a pretty exploitative tradition, and as long as everyone keeps cooperating with it, it’s not going to change.
Just something to think about.
Part 7: An Apology
A few weeks ago, I had an eye-opening conversation with my sister, who has been a high school science teacher for the better part of two decades. I’m paraphrasing her here, but basically she said this: You put out really good stuff, Jenn. I mean, the ideas are great. It’s stuff I really want to try. But most of the time I’m thinking “That’ll never happen.” Because there’s no time. So I end up feeling like a crap teacher because there’s this ideal out there that I’m clearly falling short of and I know I’ll never get there. You just don’t understand what it’s like.
For the past eight years, I have been putting out content on my platform to help teachers do their jobs better. And I really hope that it has been helpful, that you’ve been able to use it to improve. But I am deeply sorry if I have ever implied that doing it should be a piece of cake, that you should happily ignore all the jacked-up expectations that make it nearly impossible to do this job well, or that being a good teacher means running yourself ragged for the sake of the kids.
Part 8: A Call to Inaction
In most of this post, I’ve been addressing leadership, but now I want to speak directly to the teachers: In the event that your administrators at all levels don’t do what needs to be done to make things better, I want to suggest to you that quitting, as appealing and cathartic as it might seem, is not your only option.
The alternative is simply saying no. It’s subversion. Conscientious objection. Passive resistance. It’s looking at the massive pile of time-consuming, micromanaging, misguided nonsense you’re being told to do and simply not doing it. You don’t even need to say no. Just don’t do it. You’re at the end of your rope anyway.
Yes, you could lose your job. That’s a definite risk. But haven’t you been thinking about leaving anyway? And if the ten best teachers in your school decided to simply refuse to perform some of the duties being asked of them, do you really think you’d all be fired?
You might be. It could happen. And yes, a lot of kids might be left without teachers. As a parent, I don’t relish this thought. But I also don’t want my kids’ teachers hating their jobs. At this point, if the people in charge refuse to make the necessary changes, it might be time for the system to completely collapse.
This might actually be a hill worth dying on.
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