Teacher burnout was already a big problem prior to COVID, and without policy changes, it’s about to get a lot worse
Public school educators in North Carolina continue to manage the immediate needs of students under shifting instructional conditions and an uncertain future, as the debate around in-person and remote schooling dominates policy discussions. However, a broad, complex challenge is around the corner; hopes are dimming that the state will do anything but farm off the task of facing this challenge to teachers already emotionally and physically strained by present challenges.[Trigger warning: Any educator wishing to retain the last shred of their mental and emotional peace may wish to stop reading at this point, because it’s time to talk about the 2021-22 school year.]
Under pre-pandemic conditions, teachers already faced a monumental responsibility to tie off one school year and face the next. Toward the latter part of a school year, they do their best to evaluate student needs and wants, counsel, and build a supportive bridge to new classes. A lucky few have lightly compensated opportunities over the summer to prepare, or extra duty committee work with meager stipends that place them in a position to identify those students most in need.
However, most take on this labor well beyond the traditional boundaries of the school day or the school year with no additional compensation. As the next school year begins, teachers drink from a firehose of information about their new students. They adjust curriculum, instruction and systems of evaluation to meet the new opportunities and challenges of new classes. Even more, there are schedule changes, relocations, and students adjusting to the norms and systems of a new year and in many cases, a new school.
That is the picture of student identification and support under the best conditions. These same teachers will now have to pick up the pieces from this past year and face the 2021-22 school year with an even heavier burden.
Based on my conversations with teachers, my observations of instruction as a teacher educator, and a larger conversation in the media and in parent communities, there are many new complicating factors. Teachers are physically and emotionally exhausted from managing instruction and student assessment under either remote conditions or shifting, unstable, and risky in-person environments. There will be an incoming student body with wildly different experiences over the course of the previous year; a significant number of students, due to circumstances beyond their control, will have been missing entirely . Furthermore, an unusually high number of students will be experiencing the transition to a new school.
On top of all that, local communities, the state and the country look to schools and educators to bear the weight of our social desire for a “return to normal.” Their email inboxes at the start of the year will likely reflect this expectation.
As national attention remains fixed on taking the weekly pulse of the nation’s physical, social and economic health to determine when, where and how instruction will take place, will we repeat the same old story in schools, now under the pressure cooker created by a global pandemic? Will we lean on the same top-down hyperfocus on constructed grade-level academic expectations?
A lack of capacity or will above the school level to meet the emotional, social and intellectual needs of students eventually lands at the feet of classroom teachers who then bear the full weight of every institution, lawmaker, and leader above them who could not do so. I am not talking about the subjective and mostly contrived notion of “learning loss”  as measured by standardized tests, but the more fundamental human challenge of identifying students’ social, emotional, physical and intellectual needs in the wake of a collective national trauma.
This is a weighty but foreseeable challenge as it concerns adequately funding and equitably distributing resources and school labor to meet student needs. Will we wait for teachers to take on nearly all of this planning alone because they won’t have a choice once the school bell rings? Will we simply hope a loose patchwork of overburdened counselors and social workers, already at capacity, will step in the breach?
Unfortunately, teachers are familiar with implementing unfunded mandates. They are also familiar with taking on additional responsibility at a moment’s notice and navigating shifting institutional expectations. These responsibilities are rarely coupled with a clear indication of where they will find additional time or money to meet them, or what existing responsibilities they may forgo to meet the new reality.
Let’s optimistically imagine a scenario in which educators, barely exhaling from the challenges of this school year, face the next one with a sense that their burden is shared with others. In order to do this, a few suggestions:
- Lawmakers must release available funds to meet their legal obligation to provide a sound, equitable education to every student . Without a commitment to use available money to meet student needs, public laments about the plight of children during remote instruction ring hollow. The state has a legal obligation to students that extends well beyond the form that instruction takes for the next three months.
- The state must revisit and eliminate unnecessary testing requirements that consume teacher and staff energy toward the end of the school year. These assessments draw labor away from the more primary concern of identifying students whose greatest challenge hasn’t been meeting a third-grade benchmark, but simply attending school, or finding housing and food under conditions beyond their control. This year more than any other, the benefits of a data autopsy as measured by standardized evaluations do not justify the cost.
- Families and parents: Those of us whose social, economic, and racial capital has afforded the ability to weather the storm intact must work in our communities to manage expectations and support the distribution of financial resources and teacher labor to the students and families who have not had the same advantages. Are we willing to support efforts from now and through the next school year focused on those most vulnerable to the uneven consequences of COVID-19? If we can’t muster the will for that, the apparent racial and social awakening of the summer of 2020 will have clearly been a mirage.
- As it concerns school leaders, I am sympathetic to the task facing administrators, who continue to be held responsible for pre-Covid benchmarks of progress and now face a more pressing challenge in meeting the physical, social and emotional needs of a generation living under the shadow of a pandemic. They know better than most that it is getting late early as it concerns the 2021-22 school year. It is up to the rest of us to lift up, support, and sustain those administrators who look five or six months into the future and consistently prioritize support over punishment and discipline, knowing that students should not bear the consequences for the previous year.
If the state of North Carolina and its local school districts follow a familiar pattern, many educators will face their disproportionate responsibility with knowing resolve, but all stakeholders, including lawmakers, should not be surprised when more prospective and current teachers decide that enough is enough and justifiably choose other lines of work . Let’s imagine and enact a different vision.
Christoph Stutts is an assistant professor of education at Meredith College and former high school social studies teacher in Wake County Public Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools