By Nancy Gannon, Senior Advisor for Teaching and Learning, FHI 360
Throughout this global pandemic, educators have worried about the well-being of young people. But we also know our teachers and principals have faced unprecedented stress and disruption. How do we make sure we are tending to the well-being of educators? When schools reopened, many teachers were relieved to move away from teaching to zoom screens and to connect with young people in person again. At the same time, I’ve heard from schools across the country that this school year is harder than last.
Why So Stressed?
While many teachers had smaller classes last year because of COVID restrictions, this year many schools reverted to typical class size. The result: teachers have the same number of young people, most of whom have far greater needs than they did in the past. A math teacher friend of mine has been consistently reporting her 8th graders coming with math gaps she’s never seen before, but her school has handed her 8th grade math curriculum with no discussion of how things might look different this year. Another principal was near tears when talking to me about how her students have been acting out in unprecedented ways, including knocking an administrator to the floor. Teacher absence has been at record highs and schools have had to close on scheduled days of instruction because so many teachers were absent. Subs are unattainable in many districts and so teachers end up covering classes during their prep or lunch, increasing their stress levels. Everyone is stretched too thin. A repeated refrain I hear from principals and teachers is that strategies they’ve used in the past don’t work this year and thus, it’s hard to feel successful.
Stress Balls and Pizza Are Not the Answer
The current challenges won’t be solved with stress balls and pizza in the teachers’ lounge. Strong education leaders are looking for ways to move teachers and administrators out of reaction mode so that they can feel successful, and that takes time and space. Many schools found ways to create space last year, with one afternoon or one day a week where students worked asynchronously and teachers met and planned. Schools and districts that have retained that time for teacher collaboration see that it pays off. Teachers can plan for ways to support students who arrived with real gaps in their learning from a year of remote study. And administrators have time and space to provide professional development, bringing in strategies for trauma-informed instruction and restorative practice to help teachers create spaces more conducive to learning.
Systemic Responses Are Key
In addition to finding time for planning and learning together, strong leaders are identifying trends and creating systemic responses that stop the reactive cycles that leave teachers exhausted. Does your 6th grade melt down every day at lunch? Are your 9th grade teachers frazzled by the unprecedented failure rates after first quarter? Principals and district leaders are stepping back to examine trends and build responses, rather than trying to react to each problem individually. Maybe it’s a good time to rethink 9th grade entirely in response to students who are struggling and whose last “normal” year was 6th grade.
Branch Out to Build Support
Education leaders are also looking for ways to bring more adults in to support young people. New funding streams have allowed schools and districts to hire more social workers and guidance counselors. Funding community partnerships allows a school or district access to an array of staff people who can bring in arts, music, and other enrichment activities, and if those activities are scheduled during the school day, they may allow teachers time and space to collaborate. Districts need to be creative in hiring during this national staffing crisis. Are there ways to bring in more aids or paraprofessionals to support teachers in classrooms and provide increased attention for young people?
Ultimately, I hope that we can see this as a message telling us what many have known for a long time: the current design of classrooms and schools is not working and it’s time for significant change.