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Results from the FB Survey of close to 600 US Teachers on Stress During the 2021-22 School Year

 

 

Today’s blog post is a collaboration between journalist/teacher Melissa Huff Salvatore and me. This project was a labor of love in my mission to serve the 1000’s of teachers that I have met over the past year and all of the teachers I have served with over the past 38 years.

I hope that this bring light to the real struggles that teachers are facing this year and since the beginning of Covid in March of 2019. We need leadersacross this nation to hear these stories and take action to change the problems we are facing or teachers are going to continue to leave this profession. And the ones who stay are going to continue to face unbearable working conditions.

Results from the FB Survey of close to 600 US Teachers on Stress During the 2021-22 School Year

Hopelessness and Despair: Teachers express frustration and fear as the COVID Pandemic rages on in US schools

By Melissa Huff Salvatore

This academic year is causing teachers more stress than many say they’ve ever experienced before, due to a combination of unreasonable expectations coupled with disruptive students facing little consequence from administration, the public and parents, who show little support for educators.

Becky Dukes, a teacher life coach and CEO at Schoolhouse Mentoring, LLC conducted an informal survey of about 600 teachers in mid-October.  Becky and her company provide teachers support in balancing school and home life; and in their work, they were hearing teachers begging for help with navigating the unexpected demands of this school year. Many districts began this school year as if COVID never happened and were trying to go back to school “as usual.” 

In the survey, teachers were granted anonymity, so names will not be used. The respondents ranged from new to veteran teachers, some with decades of experience. The results of the survey are summarized so that their voices can be shared with policy makers, union leaders, state and district administrators, and school leaders around the country. 

The number one stressor cited was unreasonable/unattainable expectations followed closely behind by lack of solutions for unprecedented student behaviors. The third most aired grievances were curriculum changes or misalignment with where students are academically, followed by COVID changes and administration support. 

UNREASONABLE EXPECTATIONS

The majority of educators (260) said their work as educators has been rendered much harder due to a category we dubbed unreasonable expectations. These ranged from extra duties and additional documentation, filling in due to staff shortages, losing planning time, being forced into unneeded meetings, and being given new assignments without time to prepare for them. 

One teacher said: “The demands expected of us teachers, at this time especially, are wildly  unattainable with the given time constraint. These demands from administrators, and all the other higher-ups, who are so far-removed and out of touch from the classroom … cannot be sustainably maintained because we are only human and the students are human.’’

Said another: The expectations of the job outweigh the time I have to do all of the extra things other than teach. I’m expected to meet all the needs in my classroom but my planning time is taken for things that do not help me be a better teacher.’’

Another weighed in with: “The amount of individualized instruction and data collection that is required can’t be done by just one person, much less a person who is teaching all day.’’

Some were bluntly honest: 

“I cannot keep up with all the documentation I’m supposed to do.’’

“Workload is not allowing me to effectively teach students … Having to work at home constantly and it still is never enough.’’

“I’m drowning in paperwork.’’

While some of the concerns existed before COVID, the fact that schools are short-staffed and lack substitute teachers means what limited planning they did have is now subsumed by filling-in classes. Some reported no longer having any breaks, even for lunch, this year. Some also said that they have been given more instead of less paperwork despite the short-staffing, causing them to work way beyond their contracted hours.. 

“(I’m) teaching an extra class during my prep period. I end up having to work at home in the evenings and on the weekends. No breaks is so stressful and exhausting.’’

Another educator reported “having to work 70 hours a week just to barely keep up. No lunch break. No break period.’’

A goodly number reported having too many students or having to double up classes due to a lack of teachers, raising safety concerns. “My classroom is legally supposed to be no more than 24 yet they put 32 in there. Which means I can’t run labs in one day but have to split the class in half over two days. I can’t easily monitor the classroom and the kitchens at the same time.’’

Others said they are afraid to take sick days even when they need them because they know the strain it will place on their peers. “Taking off for a doctor’s appointment is out of the question. I had to miss a funeral for a dear friend because there was no one to cover my class.’’

Many said this year has brought additional demands for documentation. “Adding another and another and another program/documentation source, etc., without removing any of the prior mandates. The redundancies are astronomical and unnecessary.’’

Others felt that more consideration needed to be placed on re-teaching and building relationships instead of forging ahead with new demands and implementing programs.

 

“We are not given the time to play catch up. Our kids have had very little instruction over the past 18 months and yet we have not been given time to make up for the lost (content).’’

Said another: “The students are so behind and the solution is to put a ton more work on our plate …’’

For many teachers, this situation is beyond dire as many contemplate following other educators who are exiting the profession in alarming numbers. Some are concerned that their health and family life are suffering severely. 

Three educator examples follow:

“No planning time, micro-managing with meetings during planning and after school that go past contractual hours: As a result, I can’t turn in my lesson plans on time. Two weeks ago my body dealt with the stress its own way and I had a seizure at school. (I’m epileptic.)’

“This is year 12 for me and honestly, I don’t know if I’m going to last the year. By the time I get home, I have nothing left for my small daughter and it’s not fair to her. … Good teachers are leaving because it’s just too much.’’

 “If I don’t take work home it won’t get done. But I have three kids and a fourth on the way, so my family life suffers. Year 15 for me and I hate my job.’’

STUDENT BEHAVIORS

Trailing only slightly behind (253), were unprecedented behavior issues from students who have been out of school for at least 1.5 years, coupled with public pressures and what is perceived as feckless administrators who don’t provide discipline. 

Many felt that while grace is being extended to misbehaving students relearning proper classroom behavior, it is not being extended to them. “The students are not (being held) accountable for their actions.  Discipline seems to be an issue no one wants to discuss. It seems the teachers get in more trouble than the students.’’

Another wondered at what point will teachers and administrators enforce rules that create a safe and effective learning environment. “How much grace are we expected to extend? How many ‘f-yous’ am I supposed to tolerate as a response to ‘Let’s get back to work?’’’

A veteran teacher who prides herself on being honest in self-assessment says she feels inadequate this year, due to behaviors she cannot seem to get a handle on. “The best I’ve heard it described as is ‘feral.’ Most high school students have been doing what they want to, when they want to, with 24/7 access to their phone for the last 10 months. Now it is a daily fight to get them to do anything. Up until now, I felt confident in my abilities … yet this year, I am failing.’’

That sense of students behaving more wildly than before was echoed by many others, as well as concerns that even younger elementary students are misbehaving to an abnormal degree.

Four educators commented:

“Kids are like feral animals after almost two years at home. They aren’t used to adults 

telling them what to do and have very little engagement or respect for the learning environment.’’

“It’s my fifteenth year and I feel like I work at a juvenile prison most days.’’

“I’m noticing that the kids coming off quarantine or the year of distance/online have completely forgotten how to be in a school setting. They are rude, talk over us and overall act as if there is no structure.’’

“Bad behavior is at an all-time increase in my five years as a teacher.”

Behaviors once reserved for teenagers seem to be trending downward.

An elementary teacher reported: “It’s awful here. I have kids telling others to ‘kill themselves because no one likes them.’ I’m just wondering who told the bullies it was okay to talk to people like that. It makes me lose hope for the future.’’

Coupled with that is a battle for students’ attention over their electronic devices at a time when they’ve grown more used to having ready access.

“A teacher asked a student to get off of their phone. The student said ‘FU’ and continued their call.’’

Some observed that cell phones in the classroom is one that has been there, and will only get worse, especially after students have had so much freedom during distance learning while schools were shuttered due to COVID.

“Honestly, I think we are finally getting the generation that were ‘raised’ by cell phones. … So children went from being pacified with pacifiers to being pacified by cell phones and they have no clue how to self-regulate. They also have no idea how to handle idle time.’’

Regardless, said one teacher, “The difference is now (misbehaving students) are getting lighter consequences.’’

While this may have been a concern prior to COVID, the increase in distrust of educators and the pressure on administrators to placate an angry public have created a perfect storm of untenable teaching settings.

“Parents … want us to ‘fix everything;’ they are very demanding and they don’t like it when we tell them their child is misbehaving. A general overall disrespect for teachers and education (is prevalent).’’

Another teacher made similar remarks. “Parents provide zero accountability for their child’s success or failure. We are the punching bag for angry parents who don’t like when their child is held responsible for their behavior.’’

Educators believe the burden has been unfairly placed solely on their shoulders with very few strategies and tools to stop the disruptions.

“Parents provide zero accountability for their child’s success or failure. We are the punching bag for angry parents who don’t like when their child is held responsible for their behavior.’’

 

Another educator summed it up thusly: “When, as a teacher, 70% of your day is behavior management and 30% instruction, no wonder students are behind. Classroom management is a thing of the past. You can’t manage with your hands tied behind your back and a blindfold on.’’

CURRICULUM 

Curriculum changes or misalignment was also cited, and teachers were passionate about the stress that this has created in an already chaotic year, where what many said they most yearned for was first a comforting return to normalcy for all involved.  “Admin pushes more on teachers when we are crying for relief. I want this year to be amazing for my students who didn’t get a normal year last year. Admin is not OK with that.’’

Educators say they feel that some of the federal recovery money was used to purchase new curriculum, despite their wishes. One reported to their administrators that a single lesson they designed with the new curriculum took them six hours to write, and the administrator glibly responded, “That sounds about right.’’

Here are four other comments that illustrate their frustration:

“We begged our district to delay the implementation (of a not fully-tested, pilot curriculum) a year, and give us time to digest. They decided to forge on anyway despite our pleas.’’

“We got a new learning platform this year. We are constantly getting new strategies, tools, etc., to try. I don’t need any more new.’’

“The new curriculum is impossible to navigate and the training we received is laughable.’’

The demands pile on, educators said: “District started a new ELA and MATH CURRICULUM in the middle of a pandemic. District is making us take a graduate level course in the middle of a pandemic. No one supports us.’’

Even in places with no changes to curriculum, teachers felt frustrated that they are teaching material beyond the student’s current abilities, due to the learning loss from COVID lock downs and quarantines. It made little sense to educators to not meet the students where they are at, instead of sticking to pre-pandemic curriculum standards. One teacher echoed others in believing it nonsensical “having to teach/meet grade level standards when students are 3-4 years behind.’’

Others agreed:  

“Lots of data entry for the same information – not really sure why? Students need to be taught where they are, not where the curriculum says they should be.’’

“(I’m) trying my hardest to teach the concepts they need, even though they have gaps in their learning, and knowing the whole time you’re going to have the test scores held over your head.’’

An ESL teacher said: “I just want the ability to teach at their grade level and help them achieve those foundational skills instead of just trying to get them through grade level content.’’

Many also complained of an excessive amount of testing interrupting instruction. ““Testing is killing teachers in my school this year! We have had very little time with our kids, but in that time we have done GKIDS, MAPS, Reading and Math, Dibels and DRA.’’

Another gave an unfiltered response: “Too many damned assessments! It feels like kids are coming to school to be assessed, not to learn.’’

COVID IMPACT 

Dovetailing these concerns is the ongoing disruption due to COVID, as well as the lasting impact of the last two years. “The trauma and exhaustion of last year is sinking now.’’ Others said they feel discouraged because they thought this academic year would be smoother, but instead it has been the opposite.

“Definitely (the most stressful) is trying to make up for the deficits we are seeing in students. I have kids testing at kindergarten levels in 3rd grade and they are expected to complete 3rd grade work without having an understanding of the prerequisite skills.’’

Another worries about  “trying to catch kids up who had all their work done at home by their parents the last two years.’’

An educator cited as most stressful “the 42% of my students who have been out with Covid. I spend extra hours digitally  preparing their work and providing written directions for 10 days, and then they come back with nothing done. … These are foundational weeks that they missed. Many of them are the same students who missed foundational weeks last year because they chose to Zoom into class, yet did none of the work.’’

Quarantines and student absences continue to disrupt the learning. A teacher reports having “one student out at a time for Covid exposure, so (I’m) constantly getting work ready for someone for 15 day stretches and then having to deal with all the late turned-in work.’

Another educator was frustrated that “Covid restrictions (change) every week. I’ve changed the furniture arrangement in my room four times this year and I’ve turned in at least four different seating charts.’’

COVID hit home for many teachers, as well, who seem to have not gotten much emotional support for their losses. “My teaching partner died of COVID less than a month ago and her position was filled BEFORE her graveside service. I realize that’s necessary but it feels like she never existed now. … This year can’t end soon enough.’’

Said another: “My dearest colleague/friend died of COVID in September. Going into the school building isn’t the same. The county hasn’t even recognized her death.’’

Educators also felt frustrated that higher-ups seem to think everything is back to normal, when it is not. “(It’s stressful and ironic) trying to tell admin that their faculty is mentally suffering all the while sitting through a staff meeting teaching us to recognize suicidal students and that we need to integrate SEL (social emotional learning) to help students.’’

“Our admin is supportive yet they behave as if this is any other non-COVID year. Every meeting adds three to six more things on our plate.’’

ADMINISTRATION

A little under 50 respondents expressed that they did not feel supported or understood by administration or that there is mistrust toward them. Every department meeting brings more demands to us. ‘Admin has decided that it is now the teacher’s responsibility to ____.’ I already am working nine hours a day. I can’t do any more things.’’

 ““(My stressor is) the micromanaging from higher ups, due to society not thinking we can teach.’’

A third responded:  “Our school grade dropped last year (big surprise) but of  course, it’s the teaching that is the problem so now we get extra ‘walk-throughs’ from the district and extra pressure from the principal.’’

Many of the respondents touched on several of these issues at once. They said, for example, that introducing new curriculum after coming off a year of virtual has created a tornado of trouble when they also have had to give up planning time and are still dealing with students quarantining and having to track work progress for dozens of students who have forgotten what deadlines mean. At the same time, they feel unsupported by administrators, district and state education officials, and the public at large.

These feelings are summed up in the comment from a veteran teacher disappointed to see her career ending at a time of such low morale:

“This year looks as if it will be the worst yet. The expectations are out of control …I’m glad I’m at the twilight of my career, because sadly, I’m not sure I’d do it all over again. … I always expected this to be a bittersweet time in my life, not hanging on by a thread.’’

It is clear from the survey that teachers and staff in our schools need respite, on-going support, and change in order for them to stay in their profession. Districts across the country are reporting that teachers and staff are leaving in droves, or making plans to not return next year. In light of the current teacher shortages across the country, it is time for the US Department of Education and State Education leaders to hear their cries for help. Or it may be too late to salvage the teacher workforce in this country. 

Melissa Huff Salvatore is former educator, newspaper reporter and writer. While working on this story, she wore her T-shirt that reads, “A teacher is more than a test score. And so is a child!’’

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