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Sending Up Flares: Teachers Are Calling For Help

Nicole Wolff Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Mentoring, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership

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“Is anyone else feeling like they are just hanging on by their fingernails?” This question, asked by a middle school teacher, interrupted a grade level discussion about a common formative assessment. The question opened the floodgates. Anxiety, dread, and frustration began to pour out of the teachers with whom I was meeting. Even through zoom, the stress was palpable. I stayed silent and listened. At one point, I sent a private message to my co-facilitator, “This is breaking my heart.”

She messaged me back, “I should have realized they probably needed time to debrief.”

We adjusted our meeting and gave the teachers time to check in with each other and verbalize their worries and fears. Most of their anxiety was rooted in the type of teaching they are being asked to do.

Teachers all over Arizona are being required to teach in-person students and online students at the same time. Some districts are falsely calling this model “hybrid” while others are calling it “concurrent”. No matter what it’s called, it equates to an enormous amount of work and stress for classroom teachers.

Teacher stress is nothing new, but the intensity of the stress teachers are suffering this year is disturbing. It’s distressing because an overwhelmed and exhausted teacher is simply not able to work as effectively, which means students are inevitably impacted. It’s also troublesome because Arizona cannot afford to hemorrhage more educators from the profession. Yet, the burden teachers are feeling will cause exactly that. We already have evidence of it happening.

Educators are beginning to speak out. They are saying to anyone who will listen that teaching in this model is not sustainable. They say the responsibility of teaching two different groups simultaneously is too much for one person to shoulder. But, so far their voices aren’t travelling very far or gaining the attention of those who have the power to make changes.

Alarmed by what I’m seeing and hearing from teachers, and inspired by the teacher who had the courage to interrupt our meeting, I decided to dig deeper into the concerns of teachers.

I developed a simple survey and sent it to some educators who are teaching in-person students and online students simultaneously. Within 2 hours, I had dozens of responses. For context, I’ve used surveys to gather teacher input for blogs in the past. I usually get about ten responses. The enormous amount of responses to this survey demonstrates the utter desperation teachers are feeling. They are sending up flares, hoping help will arrive.

What’s causing stress?

 The survey results indicated on average teachers are working 55 hours per week, with a few working closer to 80. When asked if they felt like the expectations being made of them are reasonable, 74% said no. Even more concerning is that 69% of those who responded said they didn’t believe their district leaders empathized with their current teaching challenges. As one teacher wrote, “I think they only see their perspective and expect us to be superhuman.”

The level of stress teachers are experiencing can be directly tied to the unprecedented amount of extra work associated with teaching two groups at once –work that comes with no additional compensation, support, or training. One of the survey questions asked about the biggest source of stress. The following is a small, but representative sample of the answers:

Double the planning due to online. All the stress of cleaning and preparing. Getting sick is always possible. All the extras put on us by the district like quarterly planning, when we can’t even work at a normal pace in the classroom.

Everything takes longer! We have to convert all of our lessons to this new model, grade everything electronically, and problem solve. I just need time to meet the needs of all my kids but we have meetings so much throughout the week and only having our prep periods 3-4 times a week is not nearly enough time so it has to be done after school hours.

Having to be at the top of my game for in person students, the online students, the parents who are listening in, the teachers who randomly need to be uplifted and telling them they are doing great, and knowing I am going to be graded on my performance with an evaluation. It is all too much.

Having to plan everything double by making it for in person and for digital.

Having to meet all normal expectations PLUS all the additional planning and creation of digital materials so it works with both groups.

An overarching theme among the survey respondents was that this level of work and stress is not sustainable. Several indicated it was likely they would leave the teaching profession.

Solutions

So, what are some solutions? How can school leaders help alleviate the enormous amount of stress under which our teachers are crumbling? I asked this question in the survey. Three key solutions were repeatedly offered: give teachers time, stop pretending it’s a normal school year, and be consistent.

Time

Even in a typical year there isn’t enough time to get everything done. This year is far worse. With being responsible for in-person and online students, there isn’t even enough time for the priorities: lesson planning, parent contact, academic feedback, etc. Here is some of what teachers had to say about the need for more time:

More planning time. Not only are we having to plan things double, but we are also attending our PD or having additional work to do from PD which adds to the stress. 

Give us more time to prep and apply the strategies we have already learned through our professional development instead of continuing to introduce new strategies.

More planning time, less meetings.

Cancel all the extra stuff this year

Give us a break. We’re being fed too much

Allow PD release once a month for self-care.

Stop having meetings and give us time to work with our grade levels! We don’t need PD right now, we need time.

This year isn’t normal

Woven throughout the survey responses was the frustration teachers feel with school and district leaders trying to do business as usual. One thing decision makers can do to alleviate stress for teachers is acknowledge this year isn’t a normal year and adjust practices and demands accordingly.

Teach one of our lessons in our current configuration before adding more and more demands; realize that our situation is anything but normal before trying to hold us to normal standards and expectations.

Stop acting like this is normal and stop giving me phony praises when you aren’t helping me

Focus on one thing per week and not trying to run a regular school year.

Hold off with the spirit weeks, curriculum nights, Red Ribbon weeks, etc. (extra responsibilities.) 

Consistency

It shouldn’t be surprising that teachers are asking for consistency. Teaching during a pandemic creates enough uncertainty. We don’t need to unnecessarily create more. Educators need leaders who will build environments of stability that allow teachers to learn how to navigate this unprecedented school year.

[Stop the] constant change, week after week.

No last minute major changes (over and over again).

Don’t make up new rules or hoops to jump through for everyone.

Stick with one thing for more than a week before deciding to make changes.

Focus on one thing per week.

Analyzing the survey responses caused me to reflect on my own practice as an instructional coach. Am I providing the right kind of support to teachers who are forced to teach in different modalities? Am I lifting teachers up or am I giving false praise? How can I help remove unnecessary demands from teachers? I hope school and district administrators will ask themselves the same questions and then actually work to find meaningful solutions. Our teachers are calling out for help and waiting for someone to answer.

 Photo credit:

<a href=’https://www.freepik.com/vectors/travel’>Travel vector created by upklyak – www.freepik.com</a>

 

I'm a California native. However, I've spent my entire career teaching in Arizona public schools, as well as instructing at the university level. My passion for teacher advocacy and support led me to become an Instructional Coach in 2013. I am currently a coach at a K-8 school in Goodyear and love the students and teachers I get to work with every day. I have spent my career actively involved in instructional improvement, chairing many committees including Response to Intervention, Academic Accountability, and Professional Development Committees. I was named Dysart Hero (teacher of the year) in 2012. I was honored to serve as a 2017-18 Arizona Hope Street Teacher Fellow. I earned a Bachelor’s in Elementary Education and a Master’s in Education/ESL from Ottawa University. I am a National Board Certified Teacher. I’m also endorsed as an Early Childhood Specialist, Reading Specialist, and Gifted Specialist. In my free time, I enjoy reading, camping, and spending time with my family.

Comments 8

  1. Susan Collins

    Nicole, I love this blog. Your insights and the input from the survey complement and strengthen each other. I have said multiple times that we are building the airplane while learning to fly it!

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  2. Paul Forehand

    This post is AMAZING! You managed to condense and congeal the myriad ramblings of many teachers (including myself) into a succinct statement of the problem with actionable, fair solutions. I will definitely be sharing this with just about everyone I know. Thank you!

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  3. Caitlin Gawlowski

    I think you hit the nail on the head with this blog. It is so overwhelming. I keep reminding my teammates that this is not a normal year, and we cannot expect the same of our students. We can still have high expectations for our students, but we need to be realistic about what our students can achieve given the current circumstances. Great post!

  4. Rachel

    This! Thank you for reading your teachers feedback because I often feel we’re asked to reflect but then no one bothers to read it. I cried through the first two check in surveys we did this year because I literally couldn’t think of anything that was going well and was struggling. I cried during yesterday’s check in because I had the realization that no one was actually looking at what we wrote…

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