Pandemic burnout causing teachers to rethink returning in the fall

For many teachers across the country, the stress of managing their own health concerns during the pandemic, juggling classroom and online education and trying to maintain a connection with students has brought them to a breaking point.

A January survey by RAND Corporation found that because of pandemic-related anxieties, one-quarter of U.S. teachers plan to leave the profession by the end of the year.

“One of the most consistent narratives you’ve probably heard over the past year is [that] teachers who are stuck in these hybrid situations feel like they’re doing justice neither to the students who are in the school room, physically present, nor to the students who are at home via some sort of remote, virtual instruction,” Henry Seton, a former ninth-grade English teacher at KIPP Columbus High School in Columbus, Ohio, told Yahoo News. “Juggling the two of those is no joke.”

Seton, who has written articles on teaching and mental health, said that the pandemic’s disruption to in-person education was the main factor in his decision to take the year off.

Henry Seton
Henry Seton teaches English at a high school in Columbus, Ohio. (Courtesy of Henry Seton)

The same, he said, was true of many of his colleagues.

Teachers he has spoken with, Seton said, described the “increased secondary trauma for teachers, just increasingly working with students who are living through trauma brought on by COVID, whether specifically sickness or death or economic casualties in their family.”

Compared to other government workers, K-12 teachers have reported feeling more stressed, burned out or anxious at work during the pandemic, according to a February survey conducted by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence at ICMA Retirement Corporation.

In all, 46 percent of K-12 teachers said they found adjusting to changes in their job brought on by the pandemic either extremely or very difficult, compared to just 22 percent among other public sector workers.

The same study showed that K-12 staffers have feared they were at higher risk for exposure to COVID than other government workers.

“These findings should ring the alarm bell for policymakers grappling with the short- and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the U.S. education system and the K-12 workforce,” Rivka Liss-Levinson, senior research manager at SLGE, said in a press release accompanying the survey.

Seton emphasizes that the changes and increased stress teachers have endured during the pandemic is a recipe for mental health problems.

“Tending to one’s mental health is just such a critical part of staying in the game,” he said.

Many school districts around the country have initiated new measures during the pandemic to address the health concerns of their teachers.

Maribel Reyes with students
Teacher Maribel Reyes follows a hybrid model at an elementary school in Anaheim, Calif. (Paul Bersebach/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

“We have launched a robust virtual wellness platform that includes cooking and exercise classes, meditation, laughing programs and a one-on-one health coaching opportunity with our dedicated onsite Cigna Health Coach,” the Miami-Dade County Public Schools district in Florida told Yahoo News in a statement.

The Independent School District in Dallas also experienced an increased need for mental health services for teachers since the start of the pandemic.

“Teachers are always encouraged to seek help when they have concerns or feel overwhelmed,” the district said in an email. “Each campus has their own processes and procedures for communicating individual campus needs. Additionally, the district has a variety of readily accessible resources to meet the needs of teachers both personally and professionally during these difficult times.”

For Daniel Jocz, a high school social studies teacher at Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies in Tarzana, Calif., and the winner of the state’s Teacher of the Year award in 2016, the last year exacerbated problems such as bringing students up to grade level and a lack of access to technology.

“The pandemic just kind of amplified and kind of put a spotlight on many of the challenges we were already facing and then added a whole host of new ones,” Jocz said

But Jocz was quick to add that the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the country, has handled the pandemic as well as it could.

Brashawn Washington with students
Brashawn Washington teaching math at Pasadena High School in California. (Sarah Reingewirtz/Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG via Getty Images)

As for burnout at his school, Jocz said he’s seen a lot of teachers who were the end of their careers decide to retire early.

“They still had that passion,” he said, “but I think kind of hitting this wall of uncertainty and all of these challenges that are out of our control, I think gave them that extra push.”

Seton believes that now that the pandemic is receding, the exodus of teachers may subside. But he also thinks school districts could do more to improve employee morale and quality of life.

“My advice, coming from the teacher-mental-health lens, is do whatever you can to remove requirements and burdens from teachers over the summer,” Seton said. “Teachers have survived an unprecedented, herculean school year. Give teachers a genuine opportunity to rest and recharge.”


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