Article

December 9th, 2020

“I’m scared” – 21 teachers on what it’s like teaching in a global pandemic

CoronavirusEducation
Elementary school art teacher Kathryn Vaughn working her third job managing a car wash at night in eastern Tennessee. Vaughn has asthma and lung issues. Her husband, who served as a combat vet in Iraq, worries she will not make it through the school year.

 

Editor’s note: Twenty-one teachers from across the country shared their response to the question: Have you considered leaving teaching due to COVID? Many asked for their names to be anonymous out of fear of retaliation while others asked if we could also leave out their city and state.

 

Anon., Atlanta, Georgia

It sounds like an exaggeration, but I talk to teachers in a lot of different situations (public/private, rural/urban, currently remote/hybrid/in-person and both middle and high school) for my job, and I’m not sure I could name a teacher who ISN’T considering leaving teaching.

I’m not sure I could name a teacher who ISN’T considering leaving teaching.

The degree to which teachers feel abandoned this year can’t be overstated. We went from “teachers are angels and should be paid millions” in March to “how dare these entitled assholes making $40K a year be concerned about the health outcomes of being in the classroom with my child?” in August. Watching our bosses sit safely in their enclosed offices (or working from home!) while making decisions to put us in small, unventilated rooms with more than a hundred students a day is incredibly dispiriting.

 

Anon.

I am scared. I am a 38-year-old middle school teacher, and I’m afraid when I enter the doors of my school. NONE of the children wear masks and my colleagues are getting sick. I live in a very rural area with large community spread, and I don’t know what to do anymore. Everyday my frustration maxes out. My school does not follow science-based COVID-19 guidelines, and I had to sign an NDA just to enter my classroom to teach. We aren’t supposed to talk about students getting sick, even amongst ourselves.

My school does not follow science-based COVID-19 guidelines, and I had to sign an NDA just to enter my classroom to teach.

Why is science being so vilified? Why is wearing a mask such a sacrifice for some? My own child is doing virtual learning because I wouldn’t let her step one single toe into that school. Into MY school.

 

New York City teacher Leyna Hanan asking the public for just a “little more respect” for teachers. Recorded in October 2020, after a NewsHour EXTRA teacher COVID check-in Zoom.

 

Darren Masterson, Mayville, Michigan

I am a proud educator. I have worked as a teacher for eight years and this past year was— and is—one of the most challenging. I chose education over the small corporation I still own to make a difference in young people’s lives. Simply put, I wanted to leave a legacy in the workplace that impacted lives long term.

I trust the science to be scrutinized and recommendations to be changed over time. Yet I will not back away from serving my students and their families.

COVID-19 has brought to light deeper truths for myself. One: My primary objective is to serve and love my students over and above my personal self interest. Secondly: Science by definition should be transparent and able to be second guessed and challenged. Good scientists welcome scrutiny. Finally: Risk of life choices is often weighed in many of the decision factors we make daily. Science isn’t a means to an end but a journey. It should never be touted as a political mandate that takes a one size fits all approach.

I trust the science to be scrutinized and recommendations to be changed over time. Yet I will not back away from serving my students and their families.

 

Kathryn Vaughn, elementary school art teacher, Covington, Tennessee

I am an elementary art teacher in rural Tennessee. I have been in my classroom since August despite being classified high-risk due to my health. Before COVID-19, I was having the best teaching year of my life. I love my job and my community, but this year has me questioning everything. If I could afford not to be in the classroom this year, I would have taken a leave.

Teaching is not a career that I could just easily leave behind. Teaching is who I am. I love my students and truly believe they need art now more than ever.

Every day someone I know tests positive for the coronavirus. We have had shortages of substitute teachers in my district. Teachers are getting sick with COVID-19 at a much higher rate than the rest of the population of my state. Even with all of that, I am determined to stay strong, and trust that my school district is doing everything it can to keep my students and I safe.

Teaching is not a career that I could just easily leave behind. Teaching is who I am. I love my students and truly believe they need art now more than ever.

 

Anon., North Texas

I have not considered it for the reasons you think but have considered it nonetheless. I’m disgusted by the savior mentality we expect teachers to have. I’m more overworked than I have ever been and there’s no mask enforcement on my campus.

 

Teacher Nicholas Ferroni addresses the change in how many teachers were treated in March versus the opening of the school year. Recorded during a NewsHour EXTRA teacher zoom in August, 2020.

 

Anon., Seattle, Wash.

Considering leaving due to incredible workload and no relief in sight. Everything takes three times as long to prep remotely. I have the biggest class I’ve ever had (29 wonderful 4th graders) and many have special needs (IEPs and 504s) while others have new needs due to remote learning. The amount of time spent on communicating with families and colleagues is completely overwhelming. Working until 10 pm, 11pm, night after night and then trying to be “on” for students the next morning. Unhealthy and unsustainable.

Working until 10 pm, 11pm, night after night and then trying to be “on” for students the next morning. Unhealthy and unsustainable.

However, this is probably not the most important story to be telling about education right now. How about a story on inclusion, the history and the current state with remote or hybrid learning? So important as a civil rights issue, but where is the support?

 

Anon., Loudoun County, Virginia

I just want my high school students and parents to know that I’m trying my best and I care about their students—even though I have no idea what they look like. Teaching into a mirror for three hours straight leads to indescribable loneliness. There are no requirements that they participate at all. I say good morning to each of them and I get no response. Most days I end class early to cry. And that’s not including the amount of work that goes in just to meet the bare minimum. I miss being good at my job.

I miss being good at my job.

 

Anon., Raleigh, North Carolina

I’ve seriously considered leaving teaching almost every week since August, even though it’s only my second year teaching. Every day I’m asked to extend grace and flexibility to students, parents and administration while not receiving any in return. To be an effective online teacher you need to give feedback to students on how they can improve. I don’t have time to do that for half the assignments, and I know that’s hurting many of my students. I love my students, but that’s no longer enough to get me through the year.

 

Anon., San Antonio, Texas

I am in the process of leaving the profession. However, this process could take as long as June. I plan on staying in the classroom until I’m ready to transition out of education. I want the public to know that it’s unrealistic to ask teachers to recreate the in-person classroom experience online. Learning looks different this year, and the stakeholders need to accept that that is okay.

Learning looks different this year, and the stakeholders need to accept that that is okay.

 

Anon., Minnesota

I was a new teacher last year. This year would’ve been my second year teaching. Last year was one of the most difficult experiences I’ve ever had. Although my teacher education program was great, the reality is that teacher education won’t fully prepare you for the 10+ hours of after school work you have to do. Nor do they properly prepare you for attempting to meet the needs of 15-25 individual students while making lessons engaging, relevant and still meeting the standards of your school. This goes double when you are one of the few teachers of color in your school building.

…the reality is that teacher education won’t fully prepare you for the 10+ hours of after school work you have to do….This goes double when you are one of the few teachers of color in your school building.

 

Dr. Juliette Kayyem, former asst. secretary of Homeland Security, answers educators, parents and students’ questions in late July on a NewsHour EXTRA Zoom about adaptability of schools during COVID and the issue of the digital divide.

 

Susan K., San Francisco, California

I am a National Board Certified Teacher and award-winning, bestselling children’s book author. For the past several years, in addition to my writing career, I have trained and coached thousands of teachers nationally and internationally.

Protect kids and teachers by enhancing remote learning and putting resources towards closing the digital divide.

But I have asthma. So, I can’t be in any schools right now nor around kids and other teachers. I’ve pivoted to leading online professional development for teachers and doing virtual author visits. My friends who are teaching are being unnecessarily, incessantly exposed to COVID-19 and forced to work from their classrooms, even if their students are remote.

Protect kids and teachers by enhancing remote learning and putting resources towards closing the digital divide.

 

Jessica, Virginia

What makes school hardest this year isn’t the kids or the turned off cameras or the technology. It is the policies and plans handed down to us that force us to expend precious energy on workarounds instead of collaborating with colleagues and planning meaningful lessons that serve our kids.

At this point, the only thing more difficult than continuing to do this would be admitting defeat and leaving.

To be told “we teach kids, not content” while being held to restrictive and unreasonable grading policies. To know our physical and mental health will be disregarded as opening plans are made to appease the most vocal and demanding members of the community. To adapt week after week to new directives that allow no time to ever develop routine or stability.

At this point, the only thing more difficult than continuing to do this would be admitting defeat and leaving.

 

Dr. Gary Rosenberg answers the question of what teachers can do to help deal with their stress and anxiety during a NewsHour EXTRA teacher zoom recorded in August, 2020.

 

Lauren P., Brooklyn, New York

My biggest frustration as a teacher is that people see the value in our work but do not show that in tangible ways. We are seen as valuable but our mental, physical and emotional health is not prioritized. We are not included in important conversations around education policy. With COVID, I am tasked with being in person with my students, but I do not feel like myself. I am not doing the best teaching that I know I am capable of doing, and I am constantly being asked to go above and beyond with little capacity to do so.

 

Andrea Tehan Carnes, Greenfield, Mass.

I told my private school where I teach, which has been remote since March, that if we return to hybrid in January I’ll have to stay home due to my own children being remote and me not having childcare. Even if I did have childcare, my current private school salary (which is 40-50% lower than most public school salaries) would just about cover the childcare and negate any profit.

I cannot handle the stress of remote work prep and student upkeep on top of my adopted traumatized children having another change in their schedule. I have been asked to wait until December 11th when the school will announce return plans to fully commit to quitting. So, now I prep my resume for other remote work and I wait to hear my fate.

 

Alexis from Perris, California

I have considered it. I think even though we [teachers] love what we do, we have all considered it. Last school year, I was an intern special education teacher with little support. As a first year special education teacher I have even less support. While I am told I am valued by admin, I don’t see it. We have had to come up with all our plans to adapt without any training, and the paperwork seems like it doubled. While I feel like I have finally found a stable routine for distance learning, I haven’t received any feedback from admin or our coaches if I am doing this right. As a new teacher, I have no guidance.

We have had to come up with all our plans to adapt without any training, and the paperwork seems like it doubled.

 

Steven, Hudson Valley, New York

I’d like the public to understand that schools are here to serve the community and to change outcomes for individuals within it. We haven’t lived up to that promise.

The root cause of much of this stress we observe in children, including the rise in suicide rates since COVID-19 is embedded in the never ending demands that students perform each day and that their teachers teach to a test, collect performance data and prove that they are skilled practitioners. It’s unsustainable. It’s dehumanizing. And continues to perpetuate systems of inequity.

 

Anon., Chicago, Illinois

I have not left teaching or considered it, but this IS incredibly stressful. It isn’t the remote aspect. It is the incompetence of the people in charge that is truly maddening.

As usual, Chicago is the tale of two cities. Rich kids have computers, their parents are working from home and they are able to properly quarantine. Poor students are not being provided with enough technology and their parents are either out of work or are working in dangerous situations and getting exposed/sick.

Poor students are not being provided with enough technology and their parents are either out of work or are working in dangerous situations and getting exposed/sick.

A return to school plan is not taking these students into account. My students are sick right NOW and we aren’t even back in the classroom. They are suffering because all forms of government are putting the economy over the people. We need another round of stimulus, rent freezes, more technology and an actual stay at home order.

 

Teacher Juan Gonzalez addresses the key need for “self-care” and how teachers should find support from one another. Recorded during a NewsHour EXTRA teacher zoom recorded in August, 2020.

 

Matt, Portland

Here’s what it all boils down to: Teachers love kids. We love teaching, but not like this. We are exhausted. We are stressed. We are worried about the health and safety of our students and ourselves.

We spend our entire day policing masks, distancing and hygiene on top of teaching content. …Quite simply, we are burning out.

We spend our entire day policing masks, distancing and hygiene on top of teaching content. In addition to teaching all day we are planning, doing report cards, having conferences, emailing, having staff meetings, PLC (professional learning communities) meetings, etc. before and after school. Quite simply, we are burning out.

Teachers are crying in their cars. They are crying in my classroom. They are at a breaking point, and I’m worried for all of us.

 

Jayme, Columbia, Missouri

My husband and I are both secondary teachers. We have been in education for 15 years, and this year has been the first where I have seriously questioned my career choice.

It is absolutely heartbreaking to hear students testify that they aren’t learning anything virtually while their parents suggest that teachers who don’t want to teach in person need to get new jobs.

In our community, we have a lot of families who are upset about virtual/hybrid learning (understandably!) and have taken to questioning and criticizing our Board of Education and the teachers in our district who are hesitant to return in person. It is absolutely heartbreaking to hear students testify that they aren’t learning anything virtually while their parents suggest that teachers who don’t want to teach in person need to get new jobs.

 

Kristin, Winston Salem, North Carolina

I have been teaching virtually, from my home, since March of this year. We are being forced by the district to teach virtually from our classrooms right after Thanksgiving when people have just completed their holiday travel.

The connections I have with my students are bright spots, but we are still being evaluated formally, kids are being state tested, and the content is harder than ever for them to grasp.

This has been the most isolated, questionable, bizarre year of teaching. The connections I have with my students are bright spots, but we are still being evaluated formally, kids are being state tested, and the content is harder than ever for them to grasp. Our districts are leading with no compassion and all compliance.

 

David Lane, Worcester, Mass.

I am considering leaving. I feel like I’m participating in a system that is doing harm. We should be taking the opportunity to do things differently. Instead, we’re pushing obsolete “standards” and irrelevant tests.

We’re too afraid to do what needs to be done: throw out the playbook and look at programs that put kids in charge of their own learning.

Kids are not “falling behind.” They ARE learning. They’re learning a lot. We should be celebrating them and supporting what they need to thrive during a global crisis. We’re too afraid to do what needs to be done: throw out the playbook and look at programs that put kids in charge of their own learning. What do kids need right now? To be independent, to see problems as opportunities, to communicate, to collaborate, to be creative, to relax, to be healthy, to play.

Post-Zoom conversation from our first Zoom teacher check-in in October. Sari Beth Rosenberg, Kenneth C. Davis, Kathryn Vaughn, Amanda  Amtmanis and Leyna Hanan.

If you would like to contribute to Educator Voice, please send your idea to Vic Pasquantonio at vpasquantonio@newshour.org.

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