When Boston public school educator Neema Avashia was a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University, she volunteered in a Pittsburgh classroom helping a 5-year-old boy learn to write his name.
“He got it during our time together — he learned how to write his name — and I remember thinking, this is something he is going to be able to do for the rest of his life. And that was it for me,” she says. That was the moment she realized what it meant to be a teacher: “You have this ability to shape minds and shape lives in a way that is really humbling and powerful.”
That experience Avashia described — the sense that you are making a meaningful impact on a student — is the reason many people become teachers. Not for the summers off. Not for the pay. But for what Dan Lortie, author of the seminal book Schoolteacher, calls “the psychic rewards” of teaching. But the COVID pandemic, which separated teachers from students, placed everyone behind screens, and left educators feeling less effective than ever before, has made it more difficult for teachers to experience those rewards, leading many to question whether or not to remain in the job.
“I’ve never felt as unsuccessful as a teacher as I did during that initial March to June 2020. It was really an identity crisis as an educator,” says Avashia, who taught civics in Boston schools for 17 years and now teaches ethnic studies part time. Her new book, Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, was published in March. Avashia is not alone. A 2021 RAND survey found that nearly a quarter of teachers thought about leaving their jobs at the end of that school year. In an industry where 75% of district leaders and principals report moderate to severe staffing shortages, according to a 2021 Education Week Research Center survey, that number is concerning.
Polarized views of parents during the pandemic didn’t help matters. The public accolades teachers received in the early days of the pandemic from parents struggling to teach their children at home was quickly replaced with online vitriol when teachers expressed safety concerns about returning to school. “The narrative that teachers are lazy and don’t want to work is exhausting,” says Avashia. While the challenges of the pandemic are partly to blame for recent teacher stress and disillusionment, it started well before COVID. Enrollment in teaching programs had been trending downward for some time before dropping sharply during COVID — nearly 20% of undergraduate-level and more than 10% of graduate-level teaching programs saw a significant drop in 2021, according to a survey by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. In 2018, a majority of parents surveyed by PDKInternational said they would not want their children to become teachers. Many are pointing fingers at the profession itself as the reason teachers are feeling stressed and disillusioned.
“Teaching has become de-professionalized in recent years,” says Professor Heather Hill, faculty cochair of the new Teaching and Teacher Leadership Program at the Ed School. “It’s not the profession it used to be, where people came in and had a lot of leeway to use their professional judgment to do what they felt was best for kids,” she says.
Remote learning exposed inequites
“Teaching has never been a punch in, punch out job,” says Stephanie Conklin, Ed.M.’06, who teaches math to high school students in an urban-suburban district outside Albany, New York. Her concerns for her students often linger into the evenings and weekends. During the spring of 2020, she and her students did school remotely. One of her greatest frustrations during that time was her inability to see up close how her students were doing — academically or personally. “Every day it was so hard to find out what was really going on with the kids,” she says.
“Teaching has become de-professionalized in recent years. It’s not the profession it used to be, where people came in and had a lot of leeway to use their professional judgment to do what they felt was best for kids.”
When she noticed one of her students wasn’t handing in work, she called her at home. Her student’s mother got on the phone and started to cry. She had lost her job and said they had no food in the house. “How could I expect my student to be doing algebra if she didn’t have basic things at home? I felt like a bad teacher,” says Conklin.
“We know from research that teachers stay in teaching because they experience success with kids and that’s what drives them,” says Hill. “So when they don’t see that or are having trouble reaching them, it risks burn out. The rewards aren’t there anymore.”
What COVID did “was make visible all the inequities in our public education system,” says Avashia, who teaches in Dorchester, one of the largest neighborhoods in Boston. While it may have been easier for wealthier communities to move to remote learning, without the infrastructure and supports of school, such as Internet access, breakfast and lunch, and mental health services, many students were left destitute. In Boston, teachers, staff, and other city government employees “were literally putting Chromebooks in the backs of cars and going house to house to drop off computers to students. The pandemic made clear that we are not in the same boat; we are in the same storm. Some people are on yachts and some people are on, like, a door,” she says.
Returning to school placed additional stressors on teachers
Returning to the classroom has presented new challenges for teachers. In fact, 84% of teachers surveyed by the Education Week Research Center in March 2021 said that teaching is more stressful than it was before the pandemic started.
Dani Perez, Ed.M.’22 , is a first-year teacher at Brown Middle School in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Most of the school’s 500 students identify as Latinx and many come from immigrant families, according to Perez. Unfortunately, there are only about four counselors for the entire student body.
As a result, “teachers are doing a lot of emotional labor for students because the kids want people to talk to,” says Perez, who teaches English and Spanish language arts, and welcomes those conversations. Perez was a senior in college when the pandemic happened and remembers being too exhausted to show up to classes. Now, as a teacher, “I try to offer the same generosity that I would have liked to [have] received,” Perez says.
“The U.S. has a ridiculous shortage of counselors assigned to schools,” says Professor Jal Mehta, faculty cochair of the Learning Design, Innovation, and Technology Program. According to The National Center for Education Statistics, the average student to mental health staff ratio is 260 to 1.
Catching up their students for so-called learning loss is another stressor teachers experienced when they returned to the classroom this year.
“My students are well behind where they should be,” says Conklin, who teaches 125 students each day and has been using the free periods between her classes to meet with students. “It’s exhausting.” This leaves her little time for class preparation and lesson planning. “What’s frustrating is that we still have hanging over our heads state assessments at the end of the year.”
Others agree that state testing, which many states have continued to require this academic year, should be suspended temporarily. “This is not the time to be worrying about ranking schools, for instance, on the state test,” says Hill.
“What’s hard for educators is that recognition that what kids are saying they need is so different from what the metrics demand. Students need more autonomy, for us to go slower,” says Avashia.
There were already a lot of forces working against teaching at a structural level, pre-COVID, according to Mehta. In the United States, he says secondary schoolteachers typically see up to 150 students per day, 30 at a time, across five periods. That kind of schedule doesn’t allow teachers to form relationships with their students let alone grade papers or plan their classes.
That schedule is hard on teachers’ mental health, too.
“When I was working full time, I didn’t have time to exercise or take a walk,” says Avashia, whose workday used to start at 7:45 in the morning and end around 6 at night. But during the early days of the pandemic, when everyone was home, she had a chance to do those things, which is what led her to move to teaching part time. “It’s nice to take care of yourself a little bit,” she adds. “Most of my friends are teachers and they are asking themselves, can I keep doing this?”
Are some schools getting it right?
As a first-year teacher at Boston Collegiate Charter School in Dorchester, Lucia Couto’s experience has been different. Couto, Ed.M.’22, teaches 50 seventh-graders in two separate classes. Where some of her peers at larger schools see their students only once a day, she has multiple touch points with her students.
“I see them at homeroom, lunch, and recess. Then for class one to two times per day. I have a lot more proximity to kids” than do teachers at nearby [traditional] public schools, she says. “It feels great. I can get to know them and find out what they like and don’t like and what triggers them.”
When it comes to catching up her students because of learning loss, Couto doesn’t feel pressure from school administration. “We’ve been given leeway,” she says. “Yes, there are standards to meet,” but she says she was able to take the time students needed to revisit the previous year’s material. Learning loss wasn’t the biggest issue. Rather it took her students time to reacclimate to learning in general. “I need to remind them, you should have a notebook and pencil. There is a lot of ‘re-normaling,’” she says. She credits her mentor and coach at school, who observes her once a week and provides detailed feedback on her teaching, for making her feel supported and successful. And the practice she says is not just reserved for first-year teachers at her school. “Here, they do it for everyone. Everyone has someone who watches them and gives feedback.”
What COVID did “was make visible all the inequities in our public education system.”
Many teachers at traditional public schools, such as Avashia and Conklin, also report feeling personally supported by their principals andadministrators during COVID. “She trusts our judgment in terms of going at a pace that makes sense to us,” says Avashia about her principal, but she feels this acknowledgement needs to also be made at the district and state level.
What educators say needs to change
Two years into the pandemic, workers in other industries are demanding more flexible work schedules, more autonomy, and greater access to technology innovations that support those objectives. Likewise, the pandemic is an opportunity to reimagine the teaching profession, says Lecturer Victor Pereira, faculty cochair of the Teaching and Teacher Leadership Program. He says we need to ask ourselves, Are we going back to the way school was, or are there lessons we can learn from teaching through the pandemic?
“The stressors on our current systems are an opportunity for us to be innovative in teacher preparation programs, school community design, curriculum, and how we use technology,” he says. However, it’s a tough shift that Pereira is not sure everyone is ready to address.
But it’s a change the profession will have to make. “If you want things to be good for students, you need working conditions to be sustainable for teachers,” says Mehta, who added that collaborative leadership that values teacher perspectives and consults them in decision-making will also help bring about change.
Here are some concrete ways people in the field say the public education system needs to change to make the teaching profession an attractive and sustainable profession well after the pandemic is behind us:
MORE PLANNING TIME: U.S. teachers spend 1,100 hours per year in front of students compared to 550 hours in Japan, says Mehta. This gives teachers in Japan more time to plan, collaborate, and meet and build relationships with students. “If I could change one structural thing, it would be time,” he says. “As a society, we don’t value giving people time and space to reflect and think and work and collaborate.” Expecting teachers to plan on their own time is not sustainable.
FOCUS ON LEARNING ENJOYMENT, NOT LEARNING LOSS: “Less focus on learning loss and more focus on learning enjoyment” is important for both students and teachers, according to Pereira. Teachers will derive greater satisfaction if their students are more engaged in deeper, more meaningful learning. To do this, we have to rethink the structure of the school day, for example, reducing the number of classes that meet each day.
“The stressors on our current systems are an opportunity for us to be innovative in teacher preparation programs, school community design, curriculum, and how we use technology.”
TRUST TEACHERS’ PROFESSIONAL JUDGMENT: “Teaching has become heavily bureaucratized,” says Hill, who says that teaching isn’t just about executing instructional techniques; it’s about being creative and using your professional judgment to make decisions. Hill would like to see the profession allow teachers to experience the intrinsic rewards that Dan Lortie wrote about in Schoolteacher. “Bright people are looking for jobs they can grow in and express themselves in,” she says. To do that, teachers need more flexibility, freedom, and trust to meet the needs of their students. “That might mean not staying on that day’s pacing guidelines and not being overly consumed with end-of-year state assessments.”
APPRENTICE NEW TEACHERS: When Mehta was on The National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future in 2016, the groupnoted that teachers repeatedly cited student teaching alongside an accomplished veteran as the most useful part of their preparation. And, yet, only 20% of first-year teachers had practice teaching before taking their first job. Mehta believes just as strongly today that every new teacher should have a year of apprenticeship with a master teacher like a medical residency. This in-classroom support and training that gives new teachers the time to learn will enable them to be more successful over the short and the long term. “You can fill the shortage through emergency certifications, but if you don’t give new teachers the tools to succeed, you are going to lose them in a year or two,” he says. And there should be more support for veteran teachers, too, for example, by having specialists in the classroom to support students at different reading levels.
RECOGNIZE WHAT TEACHERS ARE UP AGAINST: “Being mindful of what teachers are being asked to do on top of teaching,” would go a long way in making her feel supported, says Couto. She would like to see occasional staffmeeting time used to allow teachers to finalize grades and progress reports. “That would show me that you recognize that you know what I am under and you are finding ways to help me achieve it,” she adds.
GREATER DIVERSITY. “We have a teaching force that is 83% white women,” says Mehta. “We need to diversify the profession.” For example, only 7% of public school educators are Black, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, leading to feelings of isolation as well as racist microaggressions that impact Black educators’ decisions to leave the profession.
MORE COMPETITIVE PAY. “This might sound basic,” says Conklin, speaking about her salary, which she says is competitive compared to other schools in her area. With her salary, Conklin can afford to hire a morning babysitter for her two young sons. “I can get my work done and know my boys are taken care of,” she says, adding that not every teacher can afford that kind of childcare.
USE TECHNOLOGY TO GIVE TEACHERS MORE FLEXIBILITY. “We had a chance to pilot a lot of technology during the pandemic,” says Pereira, who feels that technology, such as videoconferencing, could be used to free up hours during the workday. For example, teachers could host virtual offce hours outside of regular school hours to further build relationships with students.
Hope for the future?
There is a lot written about why changing the way we think about, structure, and run schools is diffcult. But for meaningful change to happen, many experts agree that there needs to be a willingness at the highest levels of the education sector to do so.
There’s no doubt the pandemic added pressure to an already over-stressed system, revealing problems in the teaching profession. But despite the challenges, there is reason to be hopeful about the future of teaching in the United States, says Mehta. That’s because the changes the system needs to make in order to attract and retain the best teachers — more respectful leadership, more planning time, moving at slower paces through the curriculum — are not pie in the sky theories. “Plenty of schools are doing these things. As people see it, it will spread, and the way we normally do things will diminish,” he says.
Another reason to hope? The fundamental rewardof teaching hasn’t changed. Teachers are still motivated by the difference they can make in a student’s life. Perhaps that is what offers the greatest hope for the profession. “Even though the past two years have been exhausting,” says Conklin, “what refreshes me is being with my students.”
Elizabeth Christopher is a freelance writer living north of Boston.
Starting this fall, the Ed School is welcoming its first group of students to a new master’s program designed for those who are both learning to teach and who are already developing their leadership as teachers. Called Teacher and Teaching Leadership (TTL), the program builds on the work of the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program and the school’s long-running Teacher Education Program. A $40 million gift announced earlier this year — the largest gift in the school’s history — will support endowed fellowships for students, ensuring financial support that will enable teachers to enter the profession without significant debt. Is there anyone you know who is interested in making a transformative impact in the lives of young people? Recommend that they explore TTL.