On weekday mornings, the bell in the schoolyard near my home still rings. The gate to the field is locked, and the grass has grown too long. The parking lot is empty because the people for whom the bell starts the day are at home, watching screens.
Both of my next-door neighbors are teachers—one secondary and the other Special Education at a local Junior High. Their cars have been parked in their driveways for I don’t know how long. One came out of the house wearing a mask, and I shouted across the street, asking how she was coping.
“I haven’t felt this good in a long time.”
I was surprised, expecting her to say something about how worried she was that her kids weren’t getting the education they needed or that it was hard to feel so disconnected. Instead, I heard joy. She was home, and it wasn’t even summer yet.
At first, I was tempted to think of her reaction as callous, but that was too simple a judgement. Instead, I realized she was giving voice to an obvious truth that is easy to forget amidst our current chaos—teachers are burning out in this country. It has been happening since long before COVID-19 and, unfortunately, unless things change, it will continue to happen for a long time still. Perhaps at a faster rate.
I’ve spoken to enough teachers and administrators to know that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. There are trends among the stressors facing teachers, however. Many educators don’t feel supported or heard. They feel a constant pressure from parents, administrators, students, colleagues, legislators. The list goes on.
Formal education in this country is a complicated undertaking. Not only does everyone have an opinion about how it should be done, those opinions are often codified in law and passed down to schools to enact, sometimes without the proper context, contradicting what local administrators and teachers know to be true about their own educational communities.
Administrators and teachers are often left to interpret vagaries, or to fit yet five meetings or classes into a schedule that is already bursting at the seams. Their school and district report cards are listed on dashboards and websites and real-estate apps that rate the quality of local schools. While all these data give an impression of transparency, they only make the day-to-day, human task of teaching all the more challenging. A lot of information is being shared, but is anything valuable being communicated?
It’s tempting—and sometimes cathartic—to lay blame on one person, one entity, one link in the chain. But the truth is, much like any system created by humans, it’s much more complicated than that. This is particularly true in an endeavor like education, filled with so many well-meaning people who got in it to help the kids or make a difference.
The pandemic has shaken our traditions, our systems. It has forced us to be resourceful. We must be flexible and abandon our comfortable routines, trading in the keys to our classrooms for those on our keyboards. Some have thrived under the pressure while others have been exhausted by it.
To pretend we know what the future of education will look like after the pandemic would be foolish. But whatever it looks like, we should use this opportunity to look at what we are asking our teachers to do. Since all of our assumptions are being challenged, the greatest use of our time is to acknowledge where our communication is breaking down and where our newfound flexibility can help us to reform our standard, rigid approaches.
While more and more of our human connections are being mediated by computers, now is a better time than ever to speak clearly and to listen empathetically to one another, whether you’re speaking to colleagues, employees, students, or friends. Fear and egos can get in the way, and picking a side is an easy way to feel accepted and understood. But if we don’t spend our quarantine time getting better at talking to one another, there may come a day when the pandemic is over and the kids are back at school, but the parking lots are still empty because the teachers aren’t coming back.