November 20, 2020
Many students and educators entered the 2020-2021 school year facing unprecedented changes, such as remote schoolwork, hybrid models, and new safety requirements. As school systems were forced to rapidly pivot to atypical instructional practices, teachers served as the front-line workers of the educational system. Teachers were tasked with implementing new teaching practices to promote student learning while also maximizing student safety. However, education and policy stakeholders have struggled to provide clear guidance during these new transitions, leaving teachers feeling undervalued, unsupported, and underrecognized.
No single policy alone can fully support solutions to the many challenges teachers are facing. Therefore, policymakers must approach teacher support from all angles—teacher-centric, student-centric, community-centric. Yet, some policymakers have overlooked teacher needs during this time, which not only detracts from teacher well-being, but has a negative impact on students as well. Lack of support coupled with new changes and mandates have shown to heighten stress and worsen pre-pandemic teacher burnout and retention rates, which were already concerning to many stakeholders.
Schools across the nation have struggled to fill thousands of vacant teaching jobs – and this teacher shortage has only gotten worse during the pandemic, with many educators opting not to return to classrooms they deem dangerous. This shortage is further exacerbated by teacher pay. Evidence finds that after accounting for education and experience, teachers’ weekly wages are 21.4 percent lower than their nonteaching peers. Financial stress is a prevalent issue for teachers, especially those in high poverty schools. This discrepancy has caused many teachers to weigh the risk of entering school buildings during the pandemic compared with the salary they earn. Some states, including Michigan, have introduced teacher hazard pay as a result, but the hazard pay amounts are often not enough to keep teachers who on the fence in the classroom.
Additionally, 85 percent of teachers report that work-life imbalance has affected their ability to teach. Studies have found that teacher stress and burnout is strongly related to a lack of leadership, increased job demands, lack of autonomy, and limited-to-no training in social and emotional learning to support both educators’ and students’ emotional needs. Recent data shows that nearly 14 percent of educators are either leaving their school or the profession altogether. The new teacher pipeline has also suffered, with fewer individuals entering teaching programs, and higher turnover rates, specifically in high-poverty schools.
Teachers have the ability to set children up to be successful citizens but are not necessarily treated as the professionals they are. Teachers are driven out of this profession by the lack of competitive professional wages, scarce resources, and an overwhelming focus on standardized testing that curbs creative and innovative teaching. Therefore, policymakers and education stakeholders should consider promoting policy that prevents teacher burnout and provides support during challenging times.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt classrooms across the United States, education and policy stakeholders should aim to address the needs and concerns of educators by ensuring they feel supported to mitigate and prevent teacher burnout.
Prioritize Safety & Wellness: Teachers and staff should have the resources necessary to address the social and emotional needs before they feel pressured to teach. While adequate resources such as personal protective equipment and learning material are imperative to the success and safety of teachers, “new supports for teachers should go well beyond face masks and shields.”
Some districts have already taken some steps, such as encouraging teachers to take days off for self-care and setting boundaries between their work and personal lives. Other districts have provided virtual support groups to teachers that are facilitated by mental health counselors. Financial support from the state should aim to promote the wellness and safety of teachers and staff. States should ensure that not only are schools receiving sufficient PPE and sanitization equipment, but that schools also feel financially secure to invest in programs such as virtual support groups.
Evaluate Resources Equitably: States should be mindful of resource inequities associated with inequitable distributions of teachers, and establish a plan for addressing such inequities, which states are responsible for monitoring. Further funding can be used, among other things, for the development of career-advancement opportunities that provide differential pay, and other incentives to recruit and retain quality teachers specifically in areas of high demand such as low-income schools. Furthermore, states and districts could potentially develop successful teacher pipelines in high-need fields. Districts could invest and develop partnerships with local institutions of higher education to develop programs that support the creation and expansion of teacher residency programs.
Communicate Clearly: When releasing information to teachers and staff, stakeholders should aim to provide it in a simple and clear manner. Lack of clear guidance from the state in learning goals and requirements has created uncertainty for educators and districts. To combat this, states should provide districts, teachers, and staff with unified messages through aligned communication.