Teachers: Honor Your Struggle In 5 Steps

The general public jokes that it’s not hard to be a teacher. That’s certainly reflected in the wages American educators earn, and in the public discourse surrounding pandemic education.

Even if some teachers haven’t been personally accosted with the sentiment, our society has been steeped in the message that “those who can’t do, teach.” This stigma leads teachers to feel undervalued and criticized for their struggles during the pandemic.

If I return to the classroom, how will my family stay safe? (They won’t.)

How do I adapt my curriculum to Zoom? (Through trial and error.)

What keeps a first grader engaged through a remote school day? (Nothing.)

Instead of speaking for teachers, as many decision-makers seem to be doing, Supportiv wanted to get to the roots of the real problems for teachers, and hear about the solutions that seem to be working.

Teachers’ Struggles Must Be Honored

To learn about the struggles of teaching during a pandemic, firsthand, Supportiv interviewed a number of elementary through middle school teachers across the country — anonymously, so that interviewees could speak openly.

One anonymous teacher summarizes the emotional dilemma quite well: “You need your job, and you want to help, but…you don’t get paid well enough to self-isolate from your family, and society doesn’t seem to hold your skills in very high regard.”

“It’s extremely invalidating. It’s like people think you only have to know sixth grade math in order to teach sixth grade math.” There’s a lot more to it, and that’s part of why teachers are struggling right now.

The vast majority of teachers were trained for in-person instruction, plain and simple. So the transition to remote education cuts through uncharted territory, rife with pressure, anxiety, and responsibility for the future of America’s students.

Teachers know how the child’s brain works in a classroom setting — even then, kids are nuanced and unpredictable. So how do kids process information when it’s solely through a screen? How can teachers keep students on their toes and get information across? Figuring that out for your Zoom classroom is like being a sheriff in the Wild West.

How could that not impact you emotionally? How do you feel when your job suddenly becomes entirely different from what you were trained for, and you have little say in what changes take place?

What does this all feel like from a teacher’s perspective?

“Not educated to do this.”

“Imposter syndrome.”

“Unprepared to help those who depend on me.”

“Helpless because I have no power over the choices of the educational system.”

As one teacher interviewed puts it:

“There is nothing I can do right in this situation. Teachers have always been undervalued, but now we’re suddenly responsible for sacrificing our lives and families’ to return the world back to normal in the middle of a pandemic? We care about the kids, and most of us will answer when duty calls — if and when we’re allowed to return to in-person instruction.

“But we aren’t crazy to feel reluctant. We’re being asked to sacrifice our own wellbeing for a job we didn’t sign up for, for a wage that isn’t enough to care for ourselves.”

Another interviewee opines: “This is the opposite of why I chose this job.” Most teachers are in it for the human interaction part. Over Zoom, it’s not the same.

“When my students’ parents talk to me about the state of affairs at my school, they talk as if I’m the one that did it. As if I had a choice about the school’s policy.”

Teachers bear the brunt of criticism toward the educational system, even in pandemic times. If anything goes less-than-optimally, teachers are blamed, rather than the system which constrains them.

“I know I can say no to going back, but then I’m left with no income, a ton of guilt, and the anger of my students’ parents.”

The moral of the story? Let’s have patience with each other — especially with our teachers. Let’s cultivate empathy and understanding. Parents are definitely struggling right now; but teachers are here to help, and they’re having a hard time, too.

4 Ways To Honor Your Struggle Of Pandemic-Teaching

1. Take it one week at a time.

The biggest advice from one of the teachers interviewed by Supportiv: “Take it one week at a time.”

Amy Weinstein, fourth grade teacher in the Bay Area, elaborates based on her Spring 2020 experience:

“At the beginning of shelter-in-place orders, I avoided cabin fever by diving deep into lesson planning. I was excited by the challenge to adapt and complete the year’s curriculum. But since school policy ceaselessly adapted to official messaging as the pandemic unfolded, most of my detailed plans became obsolete.”

Nobody knows what to expect as this school year plays out. We don’t know what will happen politically, economically, or with the virus. So whatever your plans are — plan for them to change. Official guidance or school policy could shift, and if you take your time to thoroughly prepare for the next 6 weeks, you may be crushed when plans change.

Instead of over-planning, teachers should encourage themselves to take breaks and rest, so they can continue rolling with the punches. This upcoming school year will take stamina if nothing else.

2. Know that you may not want to do important stuff after the day ends — even if it’s “just” zoom.

Multiple teachers mentioned the inability to do chores, grocery shop, and exercise on school days during the first round of distance learning. Hobbies, relationships, and sometimes even physical self care can fall to the wayside as teachers are pushed beyond their mental and emotional limits, within their own homes.

Before the pandemic, “85 percent of teachers reported that work-life imbalance was affecting their ability to teach.” Now, that number is up to a whopping 95% according to some sources. If teachers are too stressed to teach, then no one wins.

High expectations about your remote-teaching productivity set you up for pressure and disappointment. So, plan according to the reality. Assume that you won’t have energy to do any more than the bare minimum on school days.

Plan to choose from a set of self-care, relaxation, or mindfulness activities that help you feel recharged. Or just do something fun. Every weeknight, give yourself permission to do these things, or just to rest all evening. Don’t fret: you can use a chunk of the weekend to accomplish your list of higher-energy to-do’s.

3. Create a comfortable and customized teaching space.

Set up your favorite things around you, so that you feel you’re at least getting something out of WFH.

  • Computer charger
  • Phone charger
  • Extra pillows to cushion your “back and bum”
  • Water and fun drink or two
  • Snack with protein, and something crunchy for jaw stress
  • A plain wall for zoom virtual backgrounds, which serve multiple purposes (see below)

4. Shore up your boundaries ahead of time.

Zoom backgrounds, most importantly, help you maintain your boundaries while working from home. You might not care whether your students see into your personal life, but maintaining some distance may aid your peace of mind.

This strategy allows you, as a teacher, to control what parts of your life students see, and removes some of the pressure of remote instruction. It allows your room to remain your room, instead of your (class)room.

Secondly, you can use Zoom backgrounds to shock everyone back to attention, or to set the mood for a particular remote lesson.

While you’re at it, set boundaries for your students within Zoom lessons so you’re not constantly putting out fires. No name changes, no inappropriate backgrounds, no private chats, etc.

5. Have a venting buddy.

When frustration threatens to boil over, identify a friend who welcomes the griping. Airing your grievances as they crop up is known to bolster emotional wellbeing; in the home stretch of 2020, you’ll certainly need that boost.

Shoot off a snarky text, snap your most exasperated reactions, or even visit an online forum to vent.

There’s also always Supportiv, where you’re connected with peers in similar situations, to chat 24/7 and anonymously. You can always find an understanding ear in the moment, and that support can make the difference between resilience and collapse.