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Yes, the next few months of American education might well go down as the most challenging time in the careers of most classroom teachers.
But the waves of change instigated by the Coronavirus crisis should not obscure the real story of American education. It is this story that policy-makers and parents should heed. While the current crisis will certainly transform education and possibly accelerate changes that were already in their infancy—hybrid learning, for example—we should not allow ourselves to forget how messy, arduous, and stressful modern teaching had become in recent years.In the past decade, the corps of American teachers have sadly transitioned from a profession of hopeful optimists to one defined by various states of perennial burn out, potent stress, and utter unsustainability. Click To Tweet
In the past decade, the corps of American teachers have sadly transitioned from a profession of hopeful optimists to one defined by various states of perennial burn out, potent stress, and utter unsustainability. The world’s largest teacher survey conducted in 2019 revealed that 65% of teachers were showing signs of burnout. As if burnout were not bad enough, this same survey exposed the intensity of teacher workloads as 85% of respondents said their current work level was “unsustainable.” In 2017, the American Federation of Teachers reported 61% of teachers always or often found work to be “stressful.”
No wonder over half of the teachers from the same poll look back on their careers and find themselves “less enthusiastic” about teaching than in the recent past. And this was before the current crisis struck.
For over fifty years, the Phi Delta Kappan Journal has conducted an annual poll to assess the public’s opinion towards education. In 2018, however, they ominously titled their report, “Teaching: Respect but dwindling appeal.” One of the questions the poll consistently posed for fifty years was, “Would you like your child to become a teacher?”
Never in the history of the poll had Americans answered “no” more than “yes.” And yet, in 2018 for the first time, a majority of Americans, 54%, said they would prefer their son or daughter not to pursue teaching as a profession.
As a child of two public school teachers, I found this particular polling result to be profoundly demoralizing. I never doubted there was a resonant pride in the profession my parents chose. They didn’t have to give big speeches or write books to express their unbounded delight for teaching. They took pride in their craft. They viewed it as a calling, not a paycheck. They had faith their efforts would echo in the long-run of their students’ lives.
Indeed, if anything, this pandemic has enlightened, focused, and yes, exposed, once and for all, a pitiful tragedy most was woefully ignorant of: American schools have become band-aids for broken homes, triage for emotional instability, and advocates of last resort for millions of American students. The list of obligations and responsibilities of the average American school and the teachers working in them is seemingly infinite. Academic needs. Social needs. Emotional needs. Nutrition needs. Safety needs. Political controversies. Catastrophic mental health issues.American schools have become band-aids for broken homes, triage for emotional instability, and advocates of last resort for millions of American students. Click To Tweet
Everything, it seems, gets harder. The tasks on our plates get higher. The list of responsibilities gets longer. The students are distracted by their technology. The parents often refuse to take the side of teachers over the word of their own children. Violence, vulgarity, and a disquieting array of social pathologies accompany children to school every day. Standardized tests loom on the horizon. School shootings are on everybody’s mind.
It is now an unchallenged verity of the profession that we can never make everybody happy.
- Channel the spirit of Socrates but don’t hurt any feelings.
- Be funny but don’t say anything inappropriate.
- Use technology, communicate with students using various digital channels, make sure to utilize the latest app, access all the technological wizardry now available to modern teachers, and don’t hesitate to gizmo-up the classroom.
- Make sure to be friendly without actually being a friend.
- Communicate expectations and make sure those expectations are high, because if they aren’t, then low expectations are a form of “soft bigotry.”
- But if the students don’t listen, don’t meet expectations, and sometimes act unruly, teachers really need to have compassion, really need to demonstrate empathy, and ultimately need to possess infinite reserves of goodwill.
- Teach bell-to-bell but don’t overwhelm the students.
- See to it that various teaching modalities are employed.
- Make sure pedagogy and curriculum are culturally appropriate and always inclusive.
This list of expectations is a drop in the ocean of the teaching profession, a single tree in the forest. Now go back five months and tell American teachers, “You think you have it tough now, just wait!”
We’ve waited. We’ve seen. And now all we can do is warn our fellow Americans: Don’t expect a miracle.