School Daze

The pandemic has burdened teachers like never before, and many don’t know how much longer they can take it.

A teacher waves to her students in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo: Jon Cherry/Getty Images
A teacher waves to her students in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo: Jon Cherry/Getty Images
A teacher waves to her students in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo: Jon Cherry/Getty Images

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Before the pandemic, the behavior of students in Dyonne Diggs’s high-school classroom was a “toss-up.” The high-school English teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina, said that after her students spent most of last year in remote schooling, they returned changed. They’re anxious, even depressed. Some parents have told her their children have begun to cut themselves. Then there’s the aggression. “I’ve been called, by students, a fat B,” she said. “I’ve been charged at several times.”

“I feel like with the pandemic and students having been home for two years, raising themselves or helping with siblings, they feel grown,” she explained. At school, however, no one treats them like adults. “They have to take another role, and they just don’t know how to do that. And the principal is not going to suspend you, at this point, for anything as long as you’re in school. So there is no recourse to change that behavior.”

As a result, Diggs — who is recovering from COVID-19 — is now rethinking her career. She’s been applying for community-college positions and for roles as an educational consultant, and is even thinking about going back to school for another master’s degree, this time in public history, not education. “I’m African American and I love my history, and to be able to learn more about history is just more thought-provoking and meaningful to me,” she explained.

Diggs and other teachers across the country said during interviews this month that the grueling demands of pandemic teaching have left them exhausted. Some are even thinking about leaving the profession. A RAND Corporation report from March 2021 found that nearly one in four teachers said they were “likely” to leave their jobs at the end of the 2020-21 school year, especially Black teachers, compared with one in six teachers who said the same before the pandemic. If they do leave the profession, their decisions could worsen an existing national shortage of educators.

For teachers like Nicholas Ferroni, a 19-year veteran, their profession has been central to their identity. “Honestly, there’s nothing else in the world I wanted to do more,” said Ferroni, who teaches high-school history in New Jersey and is something of an education influencer, with over 98,000 followers on Twitter. “But being a teacher and dealing with all the attacks and underfunding and criticisms and expectations is sucking the life out of me,” he said. “Do I leave something that I love so much, that I’m so good at and I’m getting such recognition for, and I have a position to help other teachers? Or do I find something that pays a livable wage where I don’t have to work multiple jobs, where I don’t have to deal with the stress and the anxiety and the expectations and the demands?” The question remains unanswered, but he’s updating his résumé for the first time in his career.

Many teachers told Intelligencer that the pandemic has inflamed problems that have long plagued public education. “What a lot of us were feeling is that this job has always been on the verge of unsustainable, and COVID, at least for me, really pushed it over that edge. For a number of reasons,” said Rebecca Mazonson, a middle-school teacher in Acton, Massachusetts. She often spends her evenings and weekends grading assignments and planning lessons for her students, many of whom have individualized education programs that require special accommodations. “You’ll hear a lot of teachers say, I’m a teacher, but I’m also a therapist and a parent and a food provider and all these other things that are increasingly expected of teachers,” she said.

Hybrid learning made the challenges even greater, with two lesson plans for each segment of students who were at home and in school, where teaching was no longer the same. “We had to have the desks six feet apart. We had the windows open, even if it was 20 degrees outside, we’re not able to do really any of the teaching methods that I learned in grad school, you can’t really interact, the kids can’t face each other. You can’t have them moving around the room. It just felt super-sad,” Mazonson explained. The risk of contracting COVID at work led to a sense of isolation. “My social networks didn’t want to interact with me because I was more exposed than most of my friends who worked from home, which I understand,” she said.

With time, Mazonson’s mental health began to suffer. “I just got to a point last winter where I was having trouble making decisions in general. I would be sitting in a chair, staring into space, being like, I have to do some grading. I have to do some grading. I felt like I don’t know if I can keep doing this,” she said. Television ads that praised doctors and teachers as heroes left her cold. “I just felt like last year, I’ve never felt so undervalued as a human, as a professional,” she said. She’s grateful for the support she does have, she added, citing therapy and the advice of mentor teachers. Still, she took a leave of absence and is trying to decide whether to return to the classroom next year.

“It’s really difficult to be in a profession where you’re constantly burning the candle at both ends and then being asked why you didn’t find a third end to burn from,” said Carol Concha, who teaches first grade in Brooklyn. Though she’s taught for ten years, as her only career, Concha’s planning to leave education because the pandemic “provided me some space from the classroom where I was able to think about other things and think about other possibilities in a way that when you’re on the treadmill, you aren’t as able to do.”

Absent necessary resources, teachers struggle to be all their students need, especially in lower-income areas. “Teaching has gotten a lot harder, even in the last ten years, and the demands of our students are so much greater, especially in communities like mine in Biddeford,” said Beth Donohoe, a 25-year teaching veteran in Maine. A lack of funding means necessary support positions go unfilled or are deemed unnecessary by officials. That doesn’t work out well in practice, she said. “Where some of our schools could really use more school counselors, social workers, mental-health professionals, we’re not getting that.”

Even among older teachers, retirement can feel like a mirage in the distance. “I don’t personally want to leave at this time, but I don’t see how I can make it to 62 or 65 with both the physical rigor and the emotional rigor of this job,” said Elisabeth Grace, who teaches in Seattle, Washington. “So I’m just hoping that once the pandemic settles, it’s more comfortable. The main thing is I feel powerless.” She feels strongly that teaching is still her calling. “There’s something about having to teach remotely for almost a year and a half and then coming back in person, I bonded with the children in a whole different way,” she explained. “This will be a very special group of 7- and 8-year-olds in my life.”

The RAND report suggests that pandemic stress could threaten the nation’s teacher supply “absent efforts to address challenging working conditions and support teacher well-being.” That parallels a similar phenomenon in the nursing profession, which like teaching is traditionally dominated by women. In both professions, the failures of the social safety net can be uniquely visible. “I don’t feel that early childhood education is valued,” Concha in Brooklyn said. The U.S., she added, “has really put its money where its mouth is, but then complains about where they put the money afterwards.” That places an enormous burden on teachers, she said. “We’re expected to be saviors and angels, sometimes like magicians, with nothing,” she said.

Speaking after she finished teaching her classes in Charlotte, Diggs likened teaching right now to the famous image of a dog sipping tea while the room around him is on fire. “That is teaching, doubled,” she said. “Instead of the room being on fire, the building, everything, is on fire. But then everybody’s pointing at you like, Why can’t you just be normal? This is the most gaslighting I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

School Daze