I firmly believe the teacher makes the most difference in the classroom. The classroom culture, pace, success, everything, really, rests pretty squarely on individual teachers. Yes, the team in which a teacher works is important. Yes, the make-up of a classroom has impact. The culture of a school and therefore the leadership of that school? Important. But the teacher is essential.
A blog I read this year, Steve Nelson’s The Teaching Profession in Crisis stated this: “Renowned cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner and many others have determined that social context is the most important variable in real learning. Relationships among and between teachers and students determine the quality of school experience.” This is always true, and next fall, when students and their families navigate in the receding pandemic, the calm, capable, and knowledgeable presence of teachers will be even more paramount.
When we think about our school experience, it is the teachers we had and how we felt about them and what they had us see about our own abilities and the content that matters.
Here’s the thing, though. Teachers are more prone to stress. They’ve tied with nurses to be the most stressful field (source) with 46% of teachers reporting daily high stress, and that poll was before the pandemic, which didn’t treat teachers or nurses with kindness. A reason for the stress is that we as professionals are “faced daily with caregiving situations in [our] work lives, often with inadequate pay, inadequate help in [our] jobs, and with too many patients or students in [our] charge” (source). We teachers, and I know that I am blessed to be in a well-resourced (and yet still often see my needs not met) district, often are indeed often placed in impossible situations routinely.
This stress is not from the pandemic as much as the pandemic revealed it. This NPR source focusing on teacher stress and using that 46% number is from 2016. The trend for teacher stress indicates stress is increasing. More evidence: “A 2017 survey revealed that 58% of educators characterized their mental health as “not good” for at least a week out of the last month, which is up 24% from just 2015” (source).
This spring, the impact of chronic stress seemed clearer to me. I knew I was running on empty. Running on empty for myself, my family, my colleagues, and my students. Each time I triaged email and saw, perhaps a parent email asking for help because their child/my student just lost a loved one, or perhaps a college rejection letter was playing havoc in my student’s psyche, or perhaps… oh, so many things, I felt the weight differently than in years past, perhaps because the classroom itself was not there in its normal capacity to refill and replenish me and I increasingly refuse to look without comment at the costs exacted on teachers.
There was hope this fall with somewhat of a return to normalcy would be better, but it isn’t. The students are in different places, all methods have been blown apart, digital files are in disarray– nothing, no nothing is in place. For my school, we have the added chaos of a brand new building and layers and layers of new admin, but every educator I speak with, new building or no, says the same: this is unsustainable.