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By Rachel L. Harris, Alisha Sawhney and Lisa Tarchak
Teaching is a demanding job at the best of times, but these past two years educators faced countless roadblocks trying to do their jobs. Hopelessness, burnout and the call of other careers are just some of the issues teachers grappled with. “Most teachers know that our system had fault lines way before the pandemic,” said Kristin Fink, a middle school language arts teacher from St. Paul, Minn. “The last two years just emphasized how much our cultural fabric needs us but is unwilling to listen to us.”
The pandemic years have also brought a long list of difficult news events — the murder of George Floyd, the Jan. 6 riot, the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, to name a few — that teachers have had to process for themselves and figure out how to discuss with their students.
To get a clearer sense of what it’s like in America’s classrooms, we asked pre-K through high school teachers to describe the past two years for us — the challenges, wins, misunderstandings and advice they’d give themselves in 2020, before the Covid pandemic upended American education.
Over 1,000 submissions later, it’s clear that teachers feel forgotten, disillusioned and tired.
Here they are in their own words. With the school year winding down, we hope these notes will inspire thoughtful conversations about how to support teachers and their students and make American education better for everyone.
These comments have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
— Alisha Sawhney
Setting the Record Straight
A lot of people thought we were on vacation
I’m sure there were some teachers who took advantage of the time away, but most I know were working longer days, creating and rewriting every assignment for online learning, grading and sending emails to students with missing work. On top of that, I was teaching in my guest room with my own children (2 and 6 years old) at home, making noise. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, and I received zero training on how to be successful. The self-care memes and yoga videos sent by district leadership had the opposite effect: They made me so angry! I have never felt so disconnected from my district leadership in my 20-year teaching career.
— Molly Peters, 20 years teaching music, currently at a public high school in northern Los Angeles
I am not loyal to either political party
I’m just trying to teach your child how to read. I barely have time to use the restroom, let alone push an agenda for anyone.
— Brooke Lundgren, 21 years teaching in public primary schools, currently second grade in Littleton, Colo.
We are so much more than disseminators of information
The general public doesn’t realize how much students depend on their teachers, classrooms and school programs for a sense of community and stability. I provide services to students with disabilities across two very rural districts, and a lack of stable, reliable internet for families has been a big challenge. I had to collaborate with service providers and paraprofessionals to get students what they needed. We provided one family with several hot spots so online speech and occupational therapies could continue. We drove weekly out to a remote ranch so a student with multiple disabilities could get services.
— Ann Gortarez, 27 years teaching, currently director of special education for public schools in Patagonia, Ariz.
Our institutions and culture value money over children
We were already triaging because of large classes, funding and staffing shortages, more demands and fewer resources for students with food and home insecurity, and a lack of mental health care and early childhood interventions. The pandemic just made the divides greater and the need higher. It’s no surprise, given our willingness to do nothing when kids are victims of school shootings. A society willing to put guns and money ahead of meeting our children’s needs should take a hard look in the mirror.
— Carrie Whitney, 15 years teaching visual arts, Washington State public schools
Many students and parents don’t take the public health crisis seriously
The misinformation I encountered was a huge emotional drain and a slap in the face of educators who teach the importance of validity and credibility. The pandemic will never end if the general public won’t treat it as the health crisis it is instead of some conspiratorial agenda.
— Elliott Barnett, eight years teaching English language arts, currently at a public secondary school in Los Angeles
I am being stretched to my limit, with no support
I teach special education classes. The past two years have been a nightmare. At my previous job I was placed in a general education position in a grade I’d never taught right in time for in-school instruction. At my current job, my caseload continues to rise; I have 16 students in each of my classes, with no paraprofessional support. I also have to co-teach in three different grade levels. I’ve had to go back to therapy and anti-anxiety medications just to be able to go in every day.
— Kissena Fibleuil, four years teaching special education, currently kindergarten through second grade, Atlanta
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