Teacher Morale Is at a Low Point. Here’s Where Some Are Finding Hope

It’s been a hard few years for teachers.

The consequences of the pandemic continue to pile additional demands on their work, even as the days of remote learning and hybrid teaching are behind them. Teachers say that they’re burnt out and exhausted from the stresses of the past couple of years, and that students too are making it harder to get them engaged and motivated about school.

At the same time, a slew of new state laws have placed restrictions on how teachers can discuss race, gender, and other so-called “divisive” issues in the classroom. Educators say that these bans have limited their ability to teach an accurate account of history and a diversity of literature, and that the legislation has put a target on teachers' backs in the culture wars.

SEE ALSO : Stress, Burnout, Depression: Teachers and Principals Are Not Doing Well, New Data Confirm

Teacher job satisfaction is at an all-time low, according to a recent poll conducted by the EdWeek Research Center and commissioned by the Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College. More than half of teachers in that poll said they likely wouldn’t tell their younger selves to pursue a career in teaching. And yet, some teachers still see a reason for hope.

Education Week spoke with some recipients of the Milken Award, an annual recognition for “exceptional educational talent” and leadership from the Milken Family Foundation. They talked, in their own words, about the lessons they’ll take forward from the pandemic, the ways their colleagues inspired them, and the moments with students that are keeping them going.

These personal perspectives have been edited for length and clarity.

Michelle Iwasaki, academic coach, Kalihi Kai Elementary School, Honolulu, Hawaii

Michelle Iwasaki
Michelle IwasakiCourtesy of the Milken Family Foundation

The last couple years have been unprecedented and very challenging for all educators across the nation. And we really had to kind of scramble and figure out, how are we still going to be there for our kids? There was a lot of professional development about blended learning and distance learning and technology-based online platforms.

Before the pandemic, I didn’t even know how to set up a Zoom conference or anything like that. But now, we had to train our whole staff to learn how to do Zoom, WebEx, Google, all the interactive, technological stuff. We want to keep adapting in order to keep up with the times. And so technology is always a strong point, and it should always be integrated in education. And I think the pandemic really challenged us to learn about techThat was a positive, because now that we’re in person, we’re still using a lot of the technological programs and devices that we used during distance learning.

I also think that the pandemic forced us to come together as a school and have a conversation about, what is most important for our kids? What’s the priority? It forced us to prioritize. And so that was really good. That gives me hope. Even though we’re back in school, we’re still seeing the negative effects of the pandemic on learning. And so all those conversations we had about what’s most important for our kids, it’s still going to apply and be important in the next few years.

Michelle Wolfe, English/language arts teacher, East Hardy High School, Baker, W.Va.

Michelle Wolfe
Michelle WolfeCourtesy of the Milken Family Foundation

In our county last year, especially with the secondary schools, we were back and forth. We’d be out for a couple weeks, because the infection rate was high and we’d be virtual, and then we’d be back in person.

One of the challenges that I think people at my school faced was that students did have the opportunity to go virtual during the whole school year. We were responsible for those students as well. It was like i was teaching double the classes. Luckily, we’ve been in person the entire time this year.

It’s the students, ultimately, who kept me hopeful—even last year, when we were dealing with the turbulence of being in and out of virtual and in person. Super, just really resilient. And they were—the vast majority of kids and parents—we were all in it together. When things changed, we adapted together. We knew that things were going to be difficult. They weren’t going to be perfect. And we might have to make some last minute changes, but we were pursuing a common goal and trying to make the most of the situation that we have.

This is my 13th year of teaching. And over and over again, I just think that we are raising a generation of students who are more aware and more compassionate.

Students are always watching what the adults in the room are doing. And we had this opportunity to really show them how to find ways to compromise and listen to someone’s story. You know, some students lost loved ones, had family members who were in the hospital for long periods of time. What they were facing, they brought that into the classroom. And teachers had an opportunity to extend grace and make accommodations.

I know that in my school, that’s what the adults did. Kids are going to treat people the way they’re treated. And we had the opportunity to show them how to do that.

Tyler Finch, science teacher, Loving High School, Loving, N.M.

Tyler Finch
Tyler FinchCourtesy of the Milken Family Foundation

Last year, we were still virtual; we started to come back in person in the spring. We kind of trickled in. We were just trying to be really diligent and protect our kids from the virus and make sure that we had everything to keep them safe.

This year, we moved more towards what we’ve done in the past, your more “normal” look of the classroom. We do a lot of hands-on activities in my classroom, we do a lot of lab work. A lot of group activity, open discussion, hands-on work—that allows students to grow in areas that they need to, but also at the same time have those resources and that help that they need to make sure that they feel successful. They can continue to learn and improve at their own pace. It’s been a blessing for us as teachers and also our kids to kind of get back into that.

It’s always the kids [who keep me hopeful]. Your job as an educator is to make sure that it’s a comfortable learning environment for them, that they feel like they can be themselves, that they feel like it’s a safe place for them to come in and grow as an individual—on all levels of their lives, emotionally as well as academically. That’s always what keeps me going and pushes me forward, it's just knowing that you have that opportunity, that blessing to have an impact.

Source: Teacher Morale Is at a Low Point. Here’s Where Some Are Finding Hope

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