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Abrupt Changes To Education Take A Toll On Teachers' Mental Health

When Margie Whetsell walked into the classroom her first year of teaching, she never imagined the pandemic nearly four decades later that would upend how she’d been taught to teach and how she connected with her students. The sixth-grade teacher at Lakeview Intermediate School in Stow says it was teaching an old dog new tricks.

“Everything was new,” she said. “It was almost like being a rookie teacher again but at least I knew the curriculum, thank goodness.”

Margie Whetsell, a sixth-grade teacher at Lakeview Intermediate School in Stow, is retiring after 38 years of teaching. She says that the amount of changes within a short time brought on by the pandemic was stressful. [Margie Whetsell]

Whetsell is retiring. She considered staying on for an additional year or more, but her experience with the changes forced by the pandemic cemented her decision to bow out this year. She says some teachers experienced burnout before the pandemic, but the chaos of the past year loaded on breaking-point stress.

“The amount of change in such a short period of time in everything — that was the burnout,” Whetsell said. “That was like I can’t take one more thing. It’s all hitting at once. And it’s not that our administrators didn’t help; they sure did, but they’re in the same boat that we’re in.”

Swift Changes, Increased Workload and Work Hours

A recent survey revealed that work hours increased substantially for teachers, and stress levels soared; more than one-third considered changing jobs during the pandemic.

Doris Santoro, a professor at Bowdoin College, has studied teacher burnout and demoralization. She says that teachers have been stretched thin and are exhausted, and the only constant for them over the past year has been uncertainty and change.

“I think that the conditions that teachers have faced in terms of the amount of learning and change, and especially when teachers are working in multiple teaching modalities at one time, that is just a recipe for burnout,” Santoro said.

Doris Santoro, Ed.D., professor of education at Bowdoin College who has studied teacher burnout and demoralization, says that educators have experienced an unsustainable level of intensity during the pandemic. [Doris Santoro]

Sean Belveal, a high school teacher and athletic director at Northeast Ohio College Preparatory High School in Cleveland, says trying to keep up with his students was the toughest part of the changes that he experienced. His teaching schedule changed, his workday was extended, and he had to learn new technology within a short time. He admits that this was his first time dealing with burnout.

“I pretty much sat on the couch for like five straight days during winter break and just pondered existence, which was not something I normally do,” Belveal said.

Belveal believes more attention must be focused on the mental health of K-12 employees.

“I do know of some teachers that have left the profession or that are leaving the profession, hoping to come back,” he said. “And I think that’s the big thing is I’m seeing really, really good teachers, I mean good teachers that just need a break, can’t do it.”

Sean Belveal, high school teacher and athletic director at Northeast Ohio College Preparatory High School in Cleveland, experienced burnout for the first time in his career during the pandemic. [Sean Belveal]

Will Making Up for Lost Learning Bring on More Stress?

The extra stress may not be over. As another school year comes to an end, there’s a lot of chatter about lost learning and summer school and other ways to help students catch up. Professor Santoro is concerned about what that means for teachers and their students.

“The past over 14-15 months has been, for many people, an unsustainable intensity,” Santoro said. “And, to tell teachers that that they’re going to have to even ramp that up for the next 12 months feels cruel, and it feels cruel to students, too.”

She hopes that schools make a commitment to social and emotional learning and well-being and that they are thoughtful as they plan to make up for lost learning.

“There needs to be space for teachers and their students, both separately and together, to grieve what’s happened and for some real healing to take place,” she said.

But with concern about measures of student performance, she’s concerned that communities aren’t making time for that healing .

“When you hear that rhetoric of, ‘Alright, we need to get back in there and push twice as hard to catch up,’ I can see a number of teachers saying that’s not something I want to be a part of,” Santoro said.

Attracting Future Teachers

Whetsell, who will not be returning to the classroom this fall, is worried that people will be discouraged from considering the profession.

“I just hope we get qualified people in the future because monetarily they’re going to look at this job in its entirety and go, ‘Man, I could make a whole lot more money with a lot less stress and more perks if I did this instead,’ and that’s a real shame,” Whetsell said.

But Santoro says there’s an alternative scenario she’s hoping for young people.

“They may be really inspired by how they saw their teachers showing up for them,” she said.

There’s hope that some of those students will be showing up a few years from now as teachers themselves in a post-pandemic classroom.

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