Teachers are on a tightrope with no safety net
by Emily James
After more than a month into New York City's experiment with reopening schools in a hybrid format that has students alternating between classrooms and their homes, teacher Sapphira Hendrix still finds herself working until 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning, planning lessons and responding to students. One night in particular, she recounts, when finishing up a lesson plan for one of her classes, she glanced at the clock and noticed it was 4:30 a.m. "I realized I had just finished my work for the night at about the same time I normally would be getting up to start my day."
Hendrix says this was one of the moments she finally was struck with the absurdity of what educators in her community, and in many school districts across America, are doing to carry their work in a pandemic. "This isn't healthy or sustainable," she says.
When New York City schools opened their doors with a plan for students to cycle in and out of classrooms and learn remotely the rest of the time, many doubted this big city would pull it off. Educators, parents, and students had questions about the logistics of an undertaking so enormous by a Department of Education that has struggled for years, even without a pandemic.
Hudson High School of Learning Technologies in Manhattan, where Hendrix works, seems like a great example of a school that's doing hybrid learning right. Founded in 2010, this relatively new school serves a disproportionately high-poverty (84 percent) population of students, yet has a high rate (43 percent) of students taking Advanced Placement courses. Educators I've spoken to at the school say they have banded together and created a school learning plan that's functioning well during the pandemic, mixing in-person and remote learning and providing their students with high-quality education.
And yes, we can look to a school like HHSLT to find lessons in making miracles happen in unbelievably challenging times. But too often, when we hear stories of educators who are reaching above and beyond, we applaud them briefly and move on from the story too soon. A closer look reveals that educators are suffering beneath the taxing workload and unreasonable dedication this hybrid opening has required. What's happening at HHSLT symbolizes what's happening citywide and across the country: a group of people with little resources creating something out of nothing, who desperately need and deserve more support.
Hendrix, a math teacher who also serves as the school's programmer, is tasked with creating the school's continuously changing schedules, making sure students have a schedule that provides them with a diversity of subject matter and propels them toward graduation, and providing teachers with the increasingly complex rosters of who is in their classes and when.
"All of this planning to reopen schools, and I doubt they asked any programmers for advice," Hendrix says, reflecting on the impossible nature of doing the job this year. Even after countless summer meetings discussing program options, the real planning couldn't even begin until after August 7 when the district closed the opt-in window for parents to choose in-person learning for the first quarter. This led to a frantic race to make it all happen.
"On August 10, 25 percent of students were remote, and a handful of teachers [were planning to work remotely as well]," Hendrix told me. "So I started to plan for that."
Because the district continued to allow parents to opt out of in-person learning on a rolling basis, the student numbers still changed daily, with more students switching to remote learning, all while more teachers were approved for accommodations to work remotely.
By the end of the summer, the number of HHSLT students who were expected to learn remotely had increased to 51 percent. Hendrix had to reprogram on a daily basis, and still does. Even months after the start of school, she still has to notify 10-15 teachers of program changes every evening.
She considered taking a childcare leave because the taxing workload was not sustainable. "It felt like my job was never complete. I could never finish and move on to my next task."
Glen Pandolfino, a global studies and economics teacher at HHSLT, moves room to room throughout the day in order to minimize the students' exposure and help them remain in their "pods." He describes what it's like to instruct with a mask on as being difficult to be engaged and be heard.
Technology has helped. "I can't get over how well the staff uses digital education," he says. "I'm an old-school teacher, but it [hybrid learning] is forcing me to do things differently, and I appreciate it [digital education tools] a lot more. And I appreciate the younger teachers taking time out to help me learn all of this."
When I ask Pandolfino if he feels like kids are learning, he chuckles in a warm way that makes me feel like I'm his student. "Oh yes, they are learning great content." He goes on to tell me about the political revolution project his students are working on that they are presenting to each other the following Monday—his excitement about the project is palpable.
Pandolfino says that despite all the challenges, he's really proud of the work his staff has done to make school happen this year. "I think we are doing a good job of providing some semblance of 'normal' for the students," he says, and that an "even bigger lesson" the teachers convey is that, "Whether in-person or online, the kids understand we are there for them."
Dr. Jody Wurzel, the school's guidance counselor, agrees that this school year has been the most trying one of her career—and it isn't even December yet.
But even with the strange new environment—with the six-foot distance and students spread out awkwardly around a big room—during Dr. Wurzel's walk-throughs of classes, she is able to sense kids are happy and at ease.
"I'm so glad to see the kids here, and engaged to the best they can be," she told me. "You can see a smile through a mask. As a counselor, I [now] have to be able to look into [students'] eyes and see the emotions there, instead of their mouths. I have to be able to look at the top of a face and assess through that—the eye contact, the cheekbones moving, the tone of their voice."
She described her visit to an advisory class earlier in the day, where she saw kids helping each other from a distance, laughing with each other. "I was able to feel the energy walking into that room. And in an entire classroom of kids, not one of them was in distress. They were all happy, taking everything they could from the time they had together."
Schools like HHSLT seem to be managing the impossible—but these educators' successes don't exist in a vacuum. For solutions to work for students in the long term, the work of educators needs to be paired with considerations of how parents and communities can support schools and educators so they can do this work on a sustainable basis.
Educators are the strongest army right now trying to create normalcy for America's kids, but at what expense? How many of them will be able to continue this way without the support from elected officials, from local budgets, without protections from layoffs? If these are the people who are solving the education system's Rubik's Cube on a daily basis, what can we do as a society to make sure we don't lose them?
We can start by asking teachers what they need. What better experts are there on this than educators themselves? They can best tell us what models make sense and what resources we need to provide.
"All of these decisions about how to return to the building were made without anyone who works in a school building, without their input," Hendrix laments. "We're just not heard. We have no voice."
She also comments on the criticism educators have taken for the parts of the model that haven't worked—the lack of staffing and ballooning class sizes. "It's so unfortunate that teachers are being blamed for the shortcomings of the system," she says.
Of course, teacher burnout was a common issue even before the pandemic. Its causes have always been multifaceted—ranging from lack of autonomy within the classroom to a frenzied environment with too little rest and inability to regroup. Schools chronically lack resources, budget, time for the lessons, and time to prepare. Insert the pandemic and hybrid learning model, and all of these causes intensify drastically.
This year, in-person teachers struggle without breaks, without a home classroom, and with health and safety fears. Remote teachers struggle with technology issues and ballooning class sizes. Both types of teachers struggle with the time necessary to adjust curricula to support virtual learning.
"Everyone feels like a first-year teacher this year," Hendrix said, referring to the stress, strain, and amount of planning involved.
Many teachers feel that their workload is invisible to society. While across the country, people are discussing the education of children on a daily basis, our communities and leaders are not addressing teachers' well-being and quality of life. This huge oversight will have a grave effect on our education system if we don't focus on it before it's too late.
According to a 2017 Learning Policy Institute report, teacher burnout (called "dissatisfaction" in the report) is the number one reason educators leave the system before retirement, and the leading cause of teacher shortages. The effects of the way our teachers are treated and the lack of support they receive have undeniable consequences for our education system. According to an analysis of the report by the Graide Network, "Teacher burnout leads to reduced educational quality, because it increases the numbers of underqualified or straight-up unqualified teachers in the system."
The message is clear: Schools are making the hybrid learning plan work as best they can, but our teachers are likely not okay. Yes, they are getting the work done—but their physical, emotional, and mental health may be suffering in the process.
To continue on this path without providing educators the support and resources they need is a huge disservice not only to our educators but also to the future of our schools. Our children deserve a proper education, but they deserve to learn from teachers whose basic needs are met, who have not been up until or since 4:30 a.m. It's the educators doing the saving now, but we need to save our educators too.
This article was produced by Our Schools. Emily James is a writer and former teacher in New York City. She currently works as a member rep for the United Federation of Teachers. On Twitter, follow her at @missg3rd.
This story has been updated to correct a description of Hendrix's class.
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