Exhausted and Grieving: Teaching During the Coronavirus Crisis

ByCatherine Gewertz

Educators’ stress is skyrocketing during pandemic

Stress isn’t new to teachers, but what they’re experiencing now makes their typical stress seem like a picnic. Driven by a pandemic to the front lines of an unprecedented rush to distance-learning, the nation’s teachers are scrambling to manage an armful of new challenges. And they’re exhausted.

That exhaustion emerges from a tangle of dynamics. Teachers are grappling with unfamiliar technologies. They have to retrofit—or reinvent—their lessons and find new ways to do familiar things, like grading homework. They’re inundated with emails, texts, and calls from principals, parents, and students. They’re trying to “be there” for students and their families. And many are also juggling the needs of their own children or other loved ones while managing their own coronavirus fears.

Amy Pollington, a kindergarten teacher at Saint George School, a private K-8 in Seattle, didn’t mince words when she described her first week of distance-teaching.

“By the fourth day, I started to have a panic attack,” she said. “I hadn’t slept. I was feeling like the walls were coming in on me.”

Sitting there in a living room chair, her $6 Amazon classroom-backdrop poster taped up behind her, Pollington had to shut down her laptop and her phone to regain her composure. She was trying so hard to “give 150 percent, to be there every moment of the day and night” for her families. But she had to stop. Just for a few minutes.

She isn’t alone. In interviews with Education Week, teachers described staying up until 2 or 3 a.m., answering emails, trouble-shooting technology or planning lessons. They can’t seem to shut it off. Papers are strewn across their living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms. And on top of the stress and exhaustion, they’re grieving.

Angie Shaw connects with her 1st grade students in Scottsbluff, Neb., in a recent evening circle time on Zoom. She says she misses the close individual connections she can get only by sharing the classroom with her students.

Angie Shaw connects with her 1st grade students in Scottsbluff, Neb., in a recent evening circle time on Zoom. She says she misses the close individual connections she can get only by sharing the classroom with her students.
—Courtesy of Angie Shaw

“I’m sorry I’m crying, but just to be with them, their little faces, every day, in person, I miss that so much,” said Angie Shaw, who teaches 1st grade at Longfellow Elementary in Scottsbluff, Neb.

She aches for the familiar routines and rituals of her brick-and-mortar school day and how she knew every loose tooth, every hurt feeling, in her students’ lives. Shaw holds a weekly evening circle time on Zoom, but she can’t get the kind of connection she’s used to with each student.

A New Level of Multitasking

One of Rana El Yousef’s recent days illustrates the complexities that teachers are now managing. El Yousef, a high school chemistry teacher in Glendora, Calif., multitasked during her morning dog-walk, using it as her twin 9-year-old sons’ “recess” and as a quick tutorial in writing and fractions so they could get started on their teacher’s assignments.

Rana El Yousef, a high school chemistry teacher in Glendora, Calif., helps her son Xander, 9, with a Khan Academy lesson on fractions. El Yousef is juggling the schooling needs of her twin sons with the new demands of teaching from home.

Rana El Yousef, a high school chemistry teacher in Glendora, Calif., helps her son Xander, 9, with a Khan Academy lesson on fractions. El Yousef is juggling the schooling needs of her twin sons with the new demands of teaching from home.
—Courtesy of Rana El Yousef

Home again, she made the boys breakfast and got them logged onto their Chromebooks. Then El Yousef tackled a brimming inbox, scanning each email’s demands: There’s a science department Zoom meeting at 2 p.m., as well as her sons’ 3rd grade Zoom meeting. There’s another Zoom meeting at 3 p.m. for honors and Advanced Placement teachers.

It’s hours before she can get to her own students, and the emails were flooding in. El Yousef had posted YouTube videos with lessons and worksheets, and a do-at-home science experiment and a Google quiz. Students were asking: How do I answer this lab question? How do I submit my answers? Between emails, she graded her AP students’ practice quizzes and surveyed her students about their online access. And there’s the small matter of planning new lessons, too.

“I’ve been staring at a computer for eight solid hours, my eyes are strained, my shoulders are tense, and I have to keep reminding myself, all this is new, and we are all learning, and it will get easier, I hope,” El Yousef said.

Teachers also feel caught between their students and families, who are overflowing with questions, and their principals who often can’t provide answers yet.

“Families are asking, what is grading going to look like? What are they going to base promotion on? And we don’t know yet,” said Theresa Bruce, who teaches 8th grade social studies at the KIPP-Harmony School in Baltimore. “We’re used to being able to quickly get answers for our parents. But not being able to answer, it plagues your mind.”

Haunted by the No-Shows

Bruce and her students are more comfortable than many with technology-based instruction, since their school is a blended-learning environment, with 1-to-1 computing. Even still, teaching from home is a massive and difficult change, she said. Among other things, she’s lost the cues that she can pick up only from seeing her students in person, she said.

Theresa Bruce, who teaches 8th grade social studies at KIPP-Harmony school in Baltimore, is haunted by what could be happening with the students who aren’t showing up for online sessions.

Theresa Bruce, who teaches 8th grade social studies at KIPP-Harmony school in Baltimore, is haunted by what could be happening with the students who aren’t showing up for online sessions.
—Courtesy of Theresa Bruce

“When I’m with them, I can see what’s really going on with them,” she said. “But digitally, they can hide it: their joy. Their depression. Anybody can put their game face on for an hour on Zoom.”

Bruce is haunted by the ones who aren’t signing on for virtual sessions. In the past, she wouldn’t hesitate to call home if a child missed class. But now, with parents losing jobs, or maybe caring for ill relatives, Bruce isn’t sure if a call is too intrusive. She agonizes: “Should I reach out? Is that too much?”

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