The fourth school year of the pandemic has begun, and educational professionals are still torn in many directions. From adjustments to COVID safety protocols to intense scrutiny over what they teach in their classrooms to fears about being caught in the next school shooting, teachers are forced to contend with enormous stressors, and many are doing so with even less administrative support and fewer resources than before the pandemic. Teachers are being pressed beyond their capacity, and many are questioning if their love of teaching and their students is worth the constant strain.
According to US News, 44% of public schools had one teaching vacancy as of January 2022. Of those with vacancies, 61% named the pandemic as the primary reason for the vacancy. Teacher retention was already a major obstacle school districts faced at the end of each school year; the pandemic exacerbated this reality by placing teachers in a precarious position of limited options and competing personal and professional priorities where their physical and mental health are often on the line.
The expectation that teachers should adhere to pre-pandemic academic standards without considering how they and their students have been affected by the pandemic is a significant source of stress for those in education. Educators are tasked with meeting the needs of students struggling to adjust to the changes created by the pandemic or traumas they’ve endured, including grief and loss, sickness, family financial uncertainties, and changing family dynamics. Simultaneously, teachers are enduring trauma, loss, and catastrophic change in their own lives. Administrators and elected officials claim that teachers matter but paradoxically do little to nothing to enable teachers to function and survive, both in and out of the classroom. And Black teachers continue to pay a distressingly disproportionate toll both personally and professionally for these systemic failures.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), teachers who identified as Black made up 7% of all public school teachers during the 2017-18 school year. And now many Black teachers are considering leaving education altogether. In addition to the dangers of the pandemic, Black teachers are facing increasing threats from right-wing white nationalist harassment campaigns and sometimes hostile school boards and parents. Many are agonizing over whether to stay out of responsibility and care for their students or to leave for their own welfare and that of their families.
I talked with two Black women who have worked in education about why they decided to stay in or leave their profession. Porsha, who has asked to go by her first name, was a seventh-grade English teacher who entered the profession in August 2020. The 2020-21 school year was her first and last as a teacher—though she loved her students, she realized that under the current circumstances, it was impossible for her to meet the demands of her job while sustaining a balanced life as a person and as a parent of three.
Charlotte, who is using a pseudonym, is an elementary school administrator who has worked in education since 2006. Having worked as both an administrator and a teacher over the span of 16 years, she’s experienced both sides of the educational coin regarding the hardships teachers endure and the dilemmas that plague administrators.
Black teachers do matter, and their lived realities must be considered as our communities consider proposing and implementing policies to better protect and support educators for the school year.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Vilissa Thompson: Share with me what inspired you to become a teacher. What have you observed during your time in the field?
Porsha: I was a teacher cadet in high school. As I approached the end of my senior year, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I initially wanted to be a nurse, but Winthrop, my first choice for colleges, did not have a nursing program. Two of my teachers told me I would be a great teacher, so I chose teaching. By my senior year in college, it was very apparent that I did not want to be a teacher, but I felt stuck. I couldn’t change my major in the middle of my senior year, and going back to college was out of the question because I had already accumulated a ton of student loan debt. So I decided to graduate with an English degree and maybe find some work in communications or something else English-related.
Even pre-pandemic, my colleagues endured heavy workloads, extremely large class sizes, low student accountability, and low support from administrators. They also experienced high turnover rates. For example, a couple of teachers quit in the middle of the school year. One of my colleagues had to teach sixth grade and eighth grade simultaneously. She had a section of eighth graders and a section of sixth graders on [opposite sides] of her classroom [at the same time]. She also lost her planning period and had to teach the entire day, forgoing time to plan her lessons, decompress, and even use the restroom. My colleagues also experienced micromanagement. They weren’t “allowed” to order food from outside of the school or leave campus during lunch/planning unless the principal OK’d it.
Charlotte: I wanted to become a teacher to make a difference. I’ve seen the impact of educators in my family.
Pre-pandemic teaching was different because the only exposure to anything online was students going on virtual field trips, researching information for projects, or practicing skills on district-approved educational websites. I never would have imagined instructing students online.
[My colleagues and I experienced] low pay, heavy workloads, and the pressure of having good class averages so the school and administrative staff looked good in comparison to other schools. We were expected to look at curriculum standards to guide instruction and pacing, implement learning experiences with the necessary rigor while meeting the needs of all learners, and assess students’ learning. Work-life balance was always a concern but definitely easier as a teacher rather than a school administrator.
Thompson: What impact did you see the pandemic have on your students during the first few months in 2020?
Porsha: While I wasn’t teaching, my daughter was in the third grade. From March 2020 to June 2020 she didn’t feel connected to her teacher or classmates anymore. They did Zoom calls, but she said most of her classmates were not on or playing around. My daughter attended class regularly and did the school assignments, but it wasn’t actually graded. She received a 100 average at the end of the year in all of her classes; all of the students did. I believe the unearned grades for the last quarter of the 2019-20 school year gave low expectations for the 2020-21 year. Parents and students were expecting to get that 100 average again for little or no effort.
Charlotte: The biggest impact was on their personal well-being and safety regarding nutrition, safety, ability to sleep comfortably if multiple relatives were in the home, etc. My school converted its Little Free Library into a food pantry. Luckily, my district began providing meals to families using a drive-thru system for anyone who was in need. Local churches also provided meals and assistance as it became necessary. The second biggest impact was students’ access to schooling, regardless of the level of non-traditional instruction that was given. Everyone tried to figure things out, and teachers had to become [used to teaching virtually] overnight. This also impacted students receiving special services as some Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals were difficult to address virtually.
Thompson: Many students have struggled throughout the pandemic, particularly those from marginalized communities. How have you seen our institutions treat your students during this crisis?
Porsha: When I was teaching, the majority of my students were going to school online, and I noticed the low-income students were less engaged. Some wouldn’t turn their cameras on because the conditions of their homes or work space were poor. Other low-income students couldn’t concentrate because they were caring for younger siblings while their parents were either sleeping, working from home, or working outside of the home. The lower-income students’ parents seemed to just be concerned with surviving. School during a pandemic didn’t appear to be their top priority.
I had one ESL/Spanish-speaking student, “Joe.” During the pandemic, he just fell through the cracks. He didn’t speak English at all. At my school we shared one ESOL teacher with several other schools. The ESOL teacher only came to the school once a week, but they didn’t actually speak Spanish. Joe went all day only being able to communicate with two other Spanish-speaking students. They acted as his interpreter, but they were struggling academically themselves and couldn’t really help. Eventually the ESL student just stopped coming to school altogether. He would attend online sometimes, but he did no work. In the end, I was not allowed to fail him. So I’m assuming he was passed on to the next grade even though he’s most likely [unprepared].
Charlotte: Some students who struggled academically continue to struggle. Others are facing challenges because they have lost time [in which they should have been] learning and mastering foundational academic skills. Last school year, students who could benefit from participation in special programs were found eligible longer than usual since the pandemic was often used as the reason for students not performing satisfactorily. Now, more students are receiving intervention services and are being found eligible for special programs.
Thompson: Porsha, you decided to leave teaching after only one year. What was your breaking point? How has leaving the field impacted you?
Porsha: I was overwhelmed. I wasn’t equipped with the resources I needed to help the students. Students were unruly, and during the pandemic disciplinary actions were not and could not be taken. I was also pregnant. During the first semester, students didn’t come to school on Fridays. I told my principal that I was pregnant and would set my appointment for Friday mornings. The principal asked if we could play it by ear and suggested that I switch OB-GYNs or ask if she could see me after school hours. I believe this is the moment I knew teaching wasn’t for me. I wasn’t valued. My life outside of school wasn’t valued. After some back and forth and some pushing, I was “allowed” to do my prenatal visits on Friday mornings and be late without penalty, but I didn’t like that it took coaxing.
[As the pandemic wore on] I became depressed with no regular schedule or routine. Working from home, I had no separation of work and home. I wasn’t getting dressed or taking care of myself. Now, I have a routine again. I work as a key account manager for a technology company. I work three days in the office and two days from home. I like the hybrid schedule, the company, and the job. The perks are adult interaction, being able to go to the restroom when I need to, and lunch breaks. I’m not micromanaged, and my performance isn’t based off of the performance of others. Plus, the [considerable] pay increase didn’t hurt.
My family and I still value and spend time together as often as we can, but our schedules are back to being hectic with school, work, and sports.
Thompson: Charlotte, as a school administrator you’re juggling multiple responsibilities and concerns. What is keeping you in the profession?
Charlotte: I love knowing I’m making a difference in students’ lives. Before the pandemic, I often heard equity associated with students’ access to technology devices. The pandemic has forced us to see that equity is more than access to technology devices, but also food, water, shelter, and internet.
Sometimes I find myself being a voice for those who are often marginalized or have been put in a box because of punitive actions of teachers. I am passionate about instruction and ensure students have access to high-quality instruction. They deserve this so they have a chance to compete in a society in which high-quality companies look for candidates who are collaborative, innovative, and problem solvers.
After committing more than 15 years in the profession, I feel I’d better stick with it to fully see the fruits of my labor. At times I question if I want to stay in it for the long haul. Deep down in my heart, I do feel this is my ministry, so that keeps me going on my toughest of days.
Thompson: Schools were already facing an exodus of teachers before the pandemic, which has gotten worse in the years since. What do you think is worsening the shortage of teachers in U.S. schools?
Porsha: Stress. Teachers are overworked and underpaid. They also deal with micromanaging and unnecessary meetings and trainings. Teachers are the only group held responsible and accountable, not parents or students.
I feel like older Black teachers are more willing to stay even if they’re extremely unhappy. Some stay for the benefits, and others stay because they’re just not sure where to go or they may be afraid to step out [of the profession].
Charlotte: The pandemic forced teachers to do many [new] things and be good at it right away. Many teachers, like myself, were not prepared for virtual instruction. They had to learn very quickly despite their comfort levels with technology. In the virtual setting, teachers were still responsible for tracking attendance, managing behaviors, and giving assessments while managing parents whose assistance could result in superficial student scores.
As teachers returned to the building, they were forced to teach students virtually and in-person simultaneously. This meant managing two classrooms, keeping both sets of students engaged, and implementing two different schedules. Politicians politicizing the work of teachers and deciding whether teachers should return to classrooms without teachers’ input further exacerbated the exodus.
Teachers also began taking a closer look at their overall health. At my current school, the majority of teachers leaving are retiring. At my previous schools, younger teachers were leaving the profession due to the demands. It is like whatever they pour out is never good enough even after spending time on weekends and late in the evenings focusing on school.
Thompson: As someone who’s served as both a teacher and administrator, Charlotte, what is missing from the conversation about the current education crisis that involves race and being in a heavily gendered profession?
Charlotte: Hiring, retention, and promotion of Black women in leadership positions is critical. There’s a particular need for more Black women educators and representation of Black women in teaching math and science.
Not having many Black educators [negatively] impacts our Black and brown students, especially in Pre-K through lower grade classes. Black men typically go after teaching positions in the middle and high school levels because many coaching opportunities are presented.
Thompson: What advice would you give graduating students, particularly Black graduates, who are beginning their teaching career in the 2022-23 academic year?
Porsha: I would tell graduates to be flexible. Your college coursework and internships will look totally different than the real thing. Assess and adjust. Find a good trusting mentor who can help you through the tough times.
Charlotte: You are responsible for teaching the students you have, not the students you dreamt you would have. Never let the words of a student’s previous teacher negatively impact your perception of a student new to your classroom. Everyone deserves a fresh start. And depending on where you live and what school level you teach, you may be one of five Black educators (or the only one) that students have had thus far. Use it to your advantage to give them all the magic they deserve.
Thompson: What’s at stake for students and education as a field, especially with the effects of the pandemic?
Porsha: There’s already been a mass exodus from the school system. My old school had to bring in foreign exchange teachers. The turnover rate is so high. They can’t get or keep qualified teachers. I think the teacher shortage is just going to continue to grow.
Charlotte: If things don’t change, the school-to-prison pipeline will continue to be perpetuated by teachers and schools. Sometimes everyone is hellbent on giving consequences but minimizes the opportunities to engage in conversations for the student to reflect on their actions to help them become better people. Also, if we don’t get a grasp on reading performance so that more students are reading on or above grade level, the trajectory on a student’s life and opportunities presented to them will be limited. We must do something ASAP as our current students are our future.
Thompson: Charlotte, as an administrator who cares for the welfare of your school community, what words of care do you have for your colleagues as they face another year affected by COVID-19?
Charlotte: We are living in a new normal. As we continue with pandemic schooling and moving out of the pandemic, it is a reality that education has taken a hit. We can’t, however, keep blaming everything on the pandemic without doing better for students. Fortunately, a lot of great practices have been implemented. We cannot let our guards down as we continue educating our youth. And we must incorporate self-care as burnout comes at a much faster rate than it has ever before.