The past few years have been difficult for teachers.
The consequences of the pandemic continue to place additional demands on their work, even as the days of distance learning and hybrid teaching are behind them. Teachers say they are exhausted from the stress of the past two years, and students are alsowhich makes it more difficult for them to be engaged and motivated at school.
At the same time, a slew of new state laws have imposed restrictions on how teachers can discuss race, gender and other so-called “dividing” issues in the classroom. Educators say these bans have limited their ability to teach an accurate account of history and a diversity of literatureand that the legislation has put a target on the backs of teachers in the culture wars.
Teachers’ job satisfaction is at an all-time low, according to a recent survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center and commissioned by the Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College. More than half of teachers in this survey said they were unlikely to tell their youngsters to pursue a career in teaching.
And yet, some teachers still see it as a reason for hope.
Education Week spoke with four recipients of the Milken Prize, an annual recognition for the “outstanding educational talent” and leadership of the Milken Family Foundation. They spoke, in their own words, about the lessons they will learn from the pandemic, how their colleagues have inspired them, and the moments with students that carry them forward.
These personal perspectives have been edited for length and clarity.
Michelle Iwasaki, Academic Coach, Kalihi Kai Elementary School, Honolulu, Hawaii
The past two years have been unprecedented and very challenging for all educators across the country. And we really had to come to our senses and figure out, how are we ever going to be there for our kids? There has been a lot of professional development on blended learning and distance learning and technology-based online platforms.
Before the pandemic, I didn’t even know how to set up a Zoom conference or anything like that. But now we’ve had to train all of our staff to learn how to do Zoom, WebEx, Google, all the interactive and tech stuff. We want to keep adapting to keep up with the times. And so technology is always a strong point, and it should always be integrated into education. And I think the pandemic has really challenged us to learn more about technology. It was positive, because now that we are in person, we still use a lot of the programs and technological devices that we used during distance learning.
I also think the pandemic has forced us to come together as a school and discuss what is most important to our children? What is the priority? This forced us to prioritize. And so it was really good. It gives me hope. Even though we are back in school, we are still seeing the negative effects of the pandemic on learning. And so all these conversations that we’ve had about what’s most important to our kids, that’s still going to apply and be important in the next few years.
Michelle Wolfe, English/Language Arts Teacher, East Hardy High School, Baker, W.Va.
In our county last year, especially with high schools, we went back and forth. We would be away for a few weeks as the infection rate was high and we would be virtual and then we would be back in person.
I think one of the challenges people at my school faced was that students had the option to go virtual for the entire school year. We were also responsible for these students. It was like I was teaching double the grades. Fortunately, we have been in person all the time this year.
It was the students, ultimately, who gave me hope, even last year when we were dealing with the turbulence of being in and out of the virtual and in person. Great, just really tough. And they were – the vast majority of kids and parents – we were all in it together. When things changed, we adapted together. We knew things were going to be difficult. They weren’t going to be perfect. And we may have to make some last minute changes, but we are pursuing a common goal and trying to make the best of the situation we have.
This is my 13th year of teaching. And again and again, I just think we’re raising a generation of students who are more aware and more compassionate.
The students are always watching what the adults are doing in the room. And we had this opportunity to really show them how to find ways to compromise and listen to someone’s story. You know, some students have lost loved ones, had family members who were in the hospital for long periods of time. What they were faced with, they brought into the classroom. And teachers had the opportunity to extend grace and make accommodations. We were able to make those concessions and show that grace and look at someone’s background, their story and what was happening to them, and let that inform our decision.
I know that in my school, that’s what the adults did. Children will treat people as they are treated. And we had the opportunity to show them how to do that.
Tyler Finch, science teacher, Loving High School, Loving, NM
Last year, we were still virtual; we started coming back in person in the spring. We kind of slipped. We were just trying to be really diligent and protect our kids from the virus and make sure we had everything to protect them.
This year we got closer to what we have done in the past, your more “normal” aspect of the classroom. We do a lot of hands-on activities in my class, we do a lot of lab work. Lots of group activities, open discussions, hands-on work – which allows students to grow in the areas they need, but also at the same time have those resources and help they need to ensure that they feel good. They can continue to learn and improve at their own pace. It has been a blessing for us as teachers and also for our children to come back to that.
It’s always the kids [who keep me hopeful]. Your job as an educator is to make sure it’s a comfortable learning environment for them, that they feel like they can be themselves, that they feel like it’s a safe place to can enter and grow as an individual – at all levels of their lives, both emotionally and academically. It’s always what keeps me going and pushes me forward, it’s just knowing that you have this opportunity, this blessing to make an impact.
John Rosenbaum, Professor of Social Studies, Segue Institute for Learning, Central Falls, RI
[The pandemic] has been a real struggle for our school, as we pride ourselves on being a full-service school serving the community. We are a food bank; we give our students three meals a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner; we put bags of food in their backpacks when they leave. It was a real struggle to end so abruptly and pick up the pieces over the next year and a half.
At one point, our city had the highest COVID rate in our state, and our state had the highest COVID rate in the country, and our country had the highest COVID rate in the world. We were hottest spot to hottest spot to hottest spot. We had to find a balance between keeping this school full-service, keeping our doors open, while keeping our communities safe and preventing the spread of this disease.
The hybrid model That’s what we finally got when we were able to start taking in students. And it was a real struggle, both for the students and for the staff. You were teaching both school students and home students at the same time, in person and via Zoom in the same room, which was incredibly frustrating and stressful for me. And I realized how incredibly stressful it was for the students back home.
It was just a horrible, horrible situation. But the best possible situation we can find for these impossible conditions.
Only with the perspective of the past two years can you catch your breath and realize how crazy it was and how amazing it is to go back to teaching students as normal, in a classroom where they can work together, side by side.
John Rosenbaum, Professor of Social Studies, Segue Institute for Learning, Central Falls, RI
At the start when, towards the end of winter, when we were going to come back in force, I was against it. I still didn’t feel safe. But our headteacher, our co-founder, Mr. Garcia, he’s got a lot of foresight, he’s got a ton of experience in this community. He realized it was the best thing for the students psychologically, and we still tried our best to be safe. He was right.
Only with the perspective of the past two years can you catch your breath and realize how crazy it was and how amazing it is to go back to teaching students as normal, in a classroom where they can work together, side by side. It was so hard to do things like that for the last two years.
It’s the little things like being able to see a child’s face, and being able to see your face and understanding social cues and body language and things like that. Little things like being able to hear quiet children. Because if you can’t hear children who are more withdrawn and quiet or shy, then they tend to become more withdrawn and shy.
Just finished filming some ancient Egyptian infomercials today. I assigned groups of four or five students a different piece of Egyptian technology, like irrigation tools, or a sickle, or a mummification. And then we watched a bunch of infomercials, like slap chop, and some of the most ridiculous. Their job was to present this thing – a sickle or some form of mummification – as if they were presenting something in an infomercial, using light special effects, like green screens and goofy wigs and props.
They couldn’t have shared accessories, worn wigs, or even been close to each other before. It’s all about small and big and in between that really gave me perspective on those little things.