Let’s just teach

A director of math and science argues that going back to basics is the way forward.
By: | March 7, 2022
Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Dr. Christine Schepeler is the director of partnerships at STEM Ed Innovators.

Something weird is happening in our schools. After two years of upheaval, and in some cases, trauma, we are all dysregulated. We do not have the capacity to understand how to feel our feelings in any way that doesn’t threaten to consume us, to steal the passion from our practice. We do not have the energy to invest in going above and beyond. We do not have the patience to navigate the quagmire of “well-intentioned” policies and procedures, layered on top of one another, that have ruled our classrooms and our lives for the better part of our careers. The only way to move forward is to go back to basics and embrace the core functions of our jobs in ways that have sometimes felt impossible. We cannot and should not accept things that don’t help us educate children.

Burnout is real and precedes the pandemic

While there’s currently no indication that teachers nationally are leaving the profession en masse, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey, more than half of teachers said they were somewhat or very likely to leave the profession. About a third said they would have answered that way if they’d been asked before the pandemic began.

And it’s certainly true that the pandemic may have put educator morale in the spotlight, but teachers were feeling burnt out and underappreciated before COVID added its own challenges and traumas. Only about one-third of U.S. teachers reported feeling appreciated in a large international study based on data collected prior to the pandemic. In fact, as EducationWeek reported, in 2015, “78% of teachers reported feeling physically and emotionally exhausted.” Imagine what that number is likely to be today.

Out of the respondents, 55% asked for more support and respect from administration, parents, and community members, with the number of respondents who said they feel supported by their supervisor declining since 2018. This year, 64% of respondents said they feel supported by their supervisor in their current position. This is down 7% from the 2018 survey.

Essential roles

One thing that likely makes burnout difficult to navigate is the differing roles of principals from district to district. Is the principal also the instructional leader? Do they represent the parents? Is their main focus compliance with state and federal guidelines? Are they the chief safety officer—and if so, how does that role change in a pandemic that seems like it will ebb and flow forever?

As a teacher, I want to see school leaders give teachers autonomy, support growth in their practice, be consistent with student behavior, respect teachers’ time, and cover teachers’ backs in tough parent conversations.

We’ve been waking up to the realization that teacher roles need to expand for at least a quarter century and are still working on making positive change. Today we’re much more likely to see teachers as guides enabling student learning rather than knowledge holders passing information down, or as community builders creating a safe space to grow and learn rather than taskmasters drilling students to pass a test. Or at least that’s how we want to see educators, how we’d see them in the education system we’d like to have.

What can we do?

Systemic change takes time, but as individuals we can begin working toward healthier and more nurturing classrooms every day. Here are a few steps we can take.

Social-emotional learning is hugely important every day, but especially right now. We have to stop thinking about it as a separate thing that we do as a break from our other work. SEL should be embedded with content.

Community building must be more intentional than ever before. Educators just don’t have the same “street cred” we had with students before remote learning, and administrators have lost it with teachers. Our students aren’t used to seeing us in class, in the hallways, or at lunch every day. We can rebuild that credibility through something as simple as getting out of our silos. Grade papers in the hallway, so you can see students as they go to the restroom or grab books out of their lockers. Stand in the hallways between classes. Schedule lunches with small groups of students. Just get your face in front of them.

Technology can also be very useful for community building, but sometimes it adds a barrier between teachers and administrators. If there is something that can be achieved in a five-minute conversation versus an email or logging information into a database, err on the side of face-to-face interaction.

Reevaluate grading practices. Do you really need to grade four assignments each week? Do you really need to ask your teachers to grade four assignments every week? Do those grades provide the students receiving them with valuable feedback, or would they get more out of a 5-10-minute conversation?

Teacher accountability practices are necessary, but so many systems and processes end up piling onerous busy work and bookkeeping on teachers, robbing them of time and energy that should be devoted to helping students grow.

If administrators invested time in visiting classrooms, they could tell pretty quickly who is an effective teacher and who is not. It would also give them insight into what specific professional development opportunities are appropriate for individual teachers. If administrators are collecting data through qualitative, rather than quantitative means, the process can be streamlined and teachers can advocate for their needs more effectively.

Democratic principles in the classroom will encourage the growth of both community and individual relationships. We can be a little less prescriptive and allow students’ voices and interests to lead our teaching as much as possible. We have to accept them as they are and not as we wish them to be. If we can appreciate them for who they are, we can learn from them as well.

Our processes are often cumbersome and not in service of focusing on the things that make education better. Now is the time to reevaluate our policies and practices and do our best to get back to basics.

Dr. Christine Schepeler is the director of partnerships at STEM Ed Innovators, a nonprofit committed to democratizing STEM education. She was formerly the director of math and science at the Charles Sposato School of Graduate Education. She can be reached at christine.s@stemedinnovators.org.

More from DA