• Jennifer Smith

Teachers Don't Need to Rest--They Need to Heal

Photo Credit: Nikko Macaspac on Unsplash

“Mom, I am still so exhausted, “ I said after 2 full weeks of my summer vacation.

“Well, you have had quite a rollercoaster ride over the last 18 months. You can’t expect to recover after only 2 weeks,” was her wise response.

I had been expecting to feel better and more energized after a week away from school like I usually did in the summer. Yet, I had not experienced a normal school year. As my mother put it, I had not experienced a normal 18 months.

Languid and unmotivated, I found myself mindlessly scrolling through Twitter as I sat by my community pool. In my feed, I read a teacher post asking educators if they were struggling to recuperate and regain their energy after the school year. The post resonated not only with me but many others; it received hundreds of responses. I was curious to learn of other teachers’ experiences as I was clearly not alone in my fatigue. Teachers from all experience levels and backgrounds reported being so burnt out that basic daily life was challenging. I scrolled through and read nearly every single response. I felt completely validated.

Why are teachers so burnt out?

During the pandemic, the switch from in-person learning to virtual learning meant teachers had to reimagine their craft. We could not simply do the same tasks at home that we complete at school. Teachers literally had to redesign every single lesson, method, and strategy we use to effectively reach our students. From creating collaborative spaces over Zoom to rethinking assessments and projects, teachers had to reconsider every detail of their job. Living long 6-8 hour days constantly on Zoom calls, we also did not have the time to reflect on our lives and the situation as many others did. Rather, teachers worked late into the night preparing and planning for the next day of school.

Aside from the medical profession and first responders, educators bore witness to the pandemic like no one else. We viewed students inside their homes on a daily basis and shared in their moments of stress and chaos. I had students who went to work with parents and connected to class from small hideaways at the office. Others had to wear masks during virtual school as they traveled to communal learning spaces. I had students whose parents were in the medical profession and isolated in the basement away from the family. I had students whose siblings were all in the living room together to attend different virtual school classrooms. Teachers had a unique window into student lives through Zoom.

Educators also watched as students struggled with the isolation, and we made concerted efforts to uplift them. Despite their own struggles with the isolation, teachers used jokes, funny stories, or games to keep students engaged and positive. We offered support as students’ families became sick with covid-19 or as students were quarantined due to their own symptoms. We listened as students who were home alone during virtual school needed reassurance and connection. Hiding our own fears during in-person school, we frankly explained the mask guidelines, social distancing rules, and reminded students that talking loudly can be dangerous. We answered students’ constant questions about the virus but with caution so as not to burden them or add to their fears.

In addition, with government and school decisions swinging back and forth like a pendulum, teachers faced constant uncertainty about the return to in-person school. For teachers, going back to school was not only terrifying but complicated by the need for additional lesson planning. Learning units are completely different for a physical classroom as opposed to a virtual one. All units and assessments require extensive planning and have completion targets so the uncertainty surrounding a return to the classroom became stressful as teachers would have to once again redesign each lesson and strategy. We tweaked, adjusted, and created on a daily basis to do what was best for our students, and yet we still often felt unsuccessful.

And then, society’s response took its toll. We cannot underestimate the impact of the feedback educators received from parents and our communities as well as the country at large. Social media was filled with negativity about schools’ failings. News reports focused on “learning loss” and schools’ inadequacies. All the while, teachers continued to plug along to ensure students were learning, socializing, and connected.

We spent the past year trying to swim in a tumultuous sea, and the waves just kept pummeling us.

Now, we have the time and space to breathe, reflect, and assess our experiences. Simply resting will not prepare teachers for returning to schools in the fall. Processing our emotions and experiences will take both time and energy. Healing is what teachers need. I wonder if one summer will be enough to regain our strength and rejuvenate our souls.

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