The pandemic has made clear the deep inequities in our society, especially within the educational system. And it became clear the many roles schools play beyond academics: like getting lunches to those who can’t afford them and providing a robust childcare system that makes it possible for parents and guardians to be employed outside the home to keep our economy open.
But with so many educators working remotely, the pandemic also gave teachers a glimpse into a different kind of working life, one in which they have more time to reflect, review student work and plan, thanks to the decrease in student-facing time. The experience of teaching from home underscored the wellbeing gap that the teaching profession as a whole faces.
Once it became clear that we were in a full-fledged pandemic last Spring, most schools shifted to a “distance learning/distance teaching” model. By and large, the ways of teaching and the expectations of student learning were the same as they were before the shutdown. But teaching over Zoom in this way was challenging even for the most adept, experienced, and tech-savvy teachers. Zoom fatigue set in quickly. Teachers felt disconnected and distanced from their students. They felt unprepared to work from home, from one location in front of the screen—a huge pivot from their largely active and movement-filled days of the classroom. Things that they could have influenced more easily in the classroom, like troubleshooting tech or addressing student wellbeing through smiles and high fives, became much more complicated—if not downright impossible.
It can’t be said enough: teachers moved mountains last spring to meet the needs of their students as best as possible. But it’s time to honor teachers with the quality of their working lives.
At the organization where I work, The Teaching Well, we partner with school systems to more-effectively support, retain and leverage the brilliance of their educators. We do this by providing tools for healthy dialogue, emotional regulation and mindful stress resilience through whole-staff professional learning opportunities and one-to-one coaching sessions with educators—including front office staff, school leaders and teachers.
In the one-to-one coaching sessions I held with teachers, I witnessed both the pain points and the gains of teaching from home. And some of the small gains revealed wellbeing gaps the best.
One teacher, a single mom to a 4th grader, was able to be more involved in her daughter’s education. Because she was working just a few feet away, she knew about her daughter’s triumphs and struggles more intimately than ever before. The two even had lunch together on a daily basis.
Another teacher, like so many in the profession, had long prioritized her students’ needs over her own physical health. While working from home, she resurrected a previously favorite way to care for herself: running. She was suddenly able to do this in the middle of the day—when she most needed the energy infusion only a runner’s high can produce—rather than trying to squeeze in a trip to the gym or an early-morning workout before teaching. This was possible because of the reduced student-facing time, down to three or four hours a day from six.
The push to work from home caused by the pandemic leveled the playing field for many knowledge workers. For the first time, teachers got to experience the kind of flexibility that their counterparts in tech and business have long enjoyed: flexibility in scheduling meetings, the ability to shift working hours to meet the needs of the family or self (think: dental checkups, meeting with your own child’s teacher, or taking your car in for repair).
I’m a former teacher myself, and I’m married to a middle school teacher. During the pandemic, I had an up-close view of the ways my partner’s orientation to teaching shifted. Pre-pandemic, more often than not, he was staying at school later than he meant to because of “just one last thing” he wanted to do to support his students or colleagues. Working from the kitchen table forced him to draw a boundary between his work life and home life since there was no room for dinner until he put away his work station. This small necessity empowered him to make other lifestyle choices to support his efficacy as a teacher—like reducing his caffeine intake in favor of actual breaks throughout the day and incorporating daily workouts into his routine. These gains improved his wellbeing, and they also translated to his students’ success because the more resourced the teacher, the more he or she is able to stay attuned and present. And that’s arguably the most important teaching skill there is—in a Zoom classroom or a physical classroom.
There is perhaps no better evidence that my partner’s small shifts had a big impact on his efficacy than an interaction I overheard in our small house on the last day of class. He was saying goodbye to one of the seventh-grade students he’d been working with all year, a reluctant reader many grade levels “behind” in reading. The student had been reticent to come to class and even more resistant to participate in front of his classmates. Because my partner was spending less time teaching all the students at once, he had more time to provide extra 1:1 support for the student, which in turn increased the student’s willingness to attend. The student may not have turned on his video camera the whole year, but his reading increased several grade levels, and on that last day when my partner congratulated him, the student said, “I’d like to take your class again next year.” When my partner told him he wouldn’t need the class next year, the boy said, “Well, I hope I can still come see you then and say hi.”
Pre-pandemic, this success would only have been possible if my partner had been willing to meet with the student after work, thus postponing time with his own family and children.
During the pandemic, our work at The Teaching Well has increased because wellbeing cannot be ignored in the face of a deadly virus. A teacher who gets to use the bathroom as needed, who can take a micro-nap in the middle of the day, who takes a sick day when they first start to feel run down, and who has more time for planning and reflection is a teacher who is better able to attend to their own emotional activation in the face of so much grief in the world.
This becomes even more important for teachers, like the three I mention here, who work in high-trauma communities. A teacher who is cared for can be the grounding presence their students need, and that grounding is the foundation for learning.
I hope that teachers will be able to take the few things that worked for them about online teaching and incorporate those into their days back at school. This might mean actually sitting down for lunch or closing their eyes for 15 minutes in between the end of the school day with students and all of the afterschool tasks that need a teacher’s attention.
After all that our teachers did for us last year, it’s beyond time we care for them by shifting expectations about how and when their work has to get done. There’s no doubt that students will reap the benefits.