Teachers nationwide are at their wit’s end

Just take a look at the Pacific Northwest, in the small University town of Eugene, Oregon.

survey conducted in November of 2021 by the Eugene Teachers Association paints a dire picture: 90 percent of respondents said this year’s workload was difficult or unmanageable. Over 80 percent said stress was more extreme than in 2020.

And this was all before the Omicron surge.

Students’ increased needs have driven teacher exhaustion levels to a new high. So high that many are considering leaving the job altogether.

Despite high hopes for normalcy, returning to classrooms this past fall hasn’t been smooth. By October, Oregon’s Teacher Standards and Practices Commission began allowing school districts to drop the bachelor degree requirement for substitute teachers. It was a move designed to address the 43 percent drop in registered subs across the state.

The shortage caused principals and administrators to fill in for absent teachers in Central Oregon. And in Beaverton, the school district offered up to $3,300 bonuses and a pay raise to attract news subs.

Indeed, shortages are a national problem. Like Oregon, Missouri temporarily dropped requirements for its substitutes. In Florida, teaching vacancies numbered over 5,000 in October 2021. And in Pennsylvania, one Bucks County high school closed for the day after 33 teachers didn’t show, and substitutes couldn’t fill the gap.

To be sure, teacher burnout has been an issue for decades, but the trials of the pandemic appear to have been the proverbial camel backbreaker.

Nicole Mirra and Antero Garcia — former high school teachers and current education professors — summed up the problem in a 2021 Ed Week article this way:

“Student needs are unprecedented. Teaching responsibilities are overwhelming. The old ways of doing things are just not working.”

Mirra and Garcia went on to lament the seemingly missed opportunity of the pandemic: the chance to reimagine schooling for the better, to create an improved classroom experience for students and teachers. Despite the pandemic’s schooling setbacks, there certainly were advances in how we think about education.

While nowhere near perfect, remote learning expanded options for students who typically faced in-person learning challenges. And while anxiety and depression spiked among students as COVID-19 spread, schools also dedicated more resources to mental health. This is an expansion that will last beyond the pandemic.

Finally, the outdated model of the classroom as a site for one-sided transfers of information faced more questions than ever before. As Yong Zhao, professor at the University of Kansas’ School of Education, pointed out, students have been working together to drive their learning through online projects throughout the pandemic. They didn’t just have to follow a rigid curriculum.

Among Mirra and Garcia’s course-correcting prescriptions for pandemic disruption: allowing teachers to craft courses that give students the chance to unpack the challenges they face in their communities.

With that aim in mind, the Journalistic Learning Initiative developed the Effective Communicators Course, which empowers students to pursue topics they value. Students collaborate to research, write, and publish stories about local issues. In short, teachers reengage students with relevant content and meet them where they are.

For burnt-out educators, the old ways aren’t working. It’s time to try something new.

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