Teaching in a crisis: Educators discuss morale amid COVID-19

Six teachers across the country reflect on instruction, time management and learning in 2020.
By: | November 24, 2020
Rich Vintage/Getty Images

(This is the first in a three-part series on teachers and their roles during the coronavirus pandemic.)

Superintendents and principals have hailed teachers as heroes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March, they have given a seemingly endless supply of time and support to students and parents while providing comprehensive instruction in changing environments.

Despite the challenges presented by technology and the long hours, they have pressed on day after day – sometimes behind face shields – to deliver the best education they can with a smile.

This week they are finally getting a break. Thanksgiving will give teachers a time to rest and relax, and for some, a chance to reflect.

Recently, six of them shared their thoughts on the past nine months in the online session “Voices from the Classroom: Teachers on Teaching in a Pandemic”, co-hosted by FutureEd, TeachPlus, and Educators for Excellence.

Moderated by Thomas Toch, education policy expert at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and the founding director of FutureEd, the panel featured educators from New York, Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver and the Boston area for a wide-ranging discussion on topics most affecting K-12 schools.

This is what they had to say:

MORALE AT SCHOOLS

Just as those in leadership positions have lauded their work, all of the teacher panelists highlighted the efforts of administrators to be both receptive and encouraging throughout the pandemic.

“Admin are fighting with us to make sure that teaching is equitable, to make sure that we’re not overburdened and the students are not feeling overwhelmed,” said Nafeesah Muhammad, an English teacher at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis.

Though it’s tough to be “enthusiastic” to come to schools every day, she said “students give us really good energy. We look at their surveys, and they say that they feel supported. Students feel like we care. That energizes us, to help us feel like we’re doing the right thing by our students.”


Teaching in a crisis Part 2: Life on the front lines and on video screens

Teaching in a crisis Part 3: Finding solutions in a pandemic


But the challenges don’t disappear. Jamita Horton, a third-grade charter school teacher at Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest in Denver, said instruction at her school is a decision that can hang on COVID numbers.

“There are three teachers for every grade level,” she said. “One of them has remained remote, and the other two are on call to be in person. It’s stressful. But I think that’s just the nature of this time. There’s a lot of uncertainty on what’s to come and what the school year is going to look like here on out.”

Daniel Helena, a sixth-grade teacher at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools in Los Angeles, expressed that teachers at times have a feeling of helplessness that takes a lot of strength to overcome.

“What makes most of us excellent teachers is our persistence to problem-solve, but there are so many factors that are outside of our control right now, factors that we’re learning how to control better and manage better.”

One thing Helena said he is thankful for?

“We’re especially excited about Thanksgiving break,” he says.

FACING THE COVID MOMENT

Mike Loeb is a seventh-grade science and special education teacher at the Urban Institute of Mathematics in New York City, one of the hardest hit areas during the pandemic. Aside from the stresses of being on the job, Loeb and his family are expecting a child. Maintaining that teaching mindset hasn’t been easy.

“I would say a lot of things are keeping me up at night this year,” Loeb said. “As a New Yorker, I still feel a bit shell-shocked. It’s hard to put into words how horrible it was in New York City in March and April. I would hear ambulances every 10 minutes bringing people to the hospital. And that is something the city felt for a long, long time. Reopening schools in the fall, there was a lot of trepidation around health and safety, as of course is true around the whole country.”

He said his school and community have done a good job maintaining safety. But other issues have persisted.

“What’s really keeping me up though, is our neediest students,” he said. “Typically, in a pre-COVID world, when we talk about our neediest students, we think of students with special needs, we think of students learning English as a second language. I’m certainly concerned about them. But I’ve got a whole new category of student who is struggling with learning fully remote.”

He said some students are having to manage their own education because parents are working or watching over young siblings.

“On a number of occasions, I’m teaching a student and they have to pause and get up and go take care of their 3-year-old brother in the other room,” Loeb said. “And I’m expecting academic achievement and high performance? Obviously, I’ve been very understanding of what this child is facing. This was not necessarily in the front of my mind as a concern going in.”

THE HYBRID ENVIRONMENT … IT’S BRAIN SURGERY

Takeru “TK” Nagayoshi is an English teacher at New Bedford High School who was named the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year in 2020. His school operates, like many others, in a hybrid environment, which forces him to not only be a dynamic teacher online and in person but also a scheduling whiz.

He offered a small snippet of how he must manage his time and those students.

“We teach in person for the first and last two days of the week, and then remote on Wednesday,” he said. “Since we’re such a big school [more than 2,000 students] we have to divide our kids into six different cohorts. So, in my case, that means I have to keep track of Monday and Tuesday C1 cohort kids; Thursday and Friday C2 cohort kids, full remote kids, cohort B kids across five different classes for two separate preps, and then homeroom and advisory kids alone. We’re really hybrid in every sense of the word.”

Sound daunting? Try being on the teaching end.

“Just keeping track of our students in and of itself becomes this huge nightmare,” he said. “We as teachers aren’t [prepared for] this degree of logistical organizational legwork, especially when our bandwidth is already filled to the brim with mastering pandemic teaching on the job.

“There’s this famous study that says teachers make over 1,500 decisions a day, as many as a brain surgeon does. This year, it feels like we are performing brain surgery on a rocket while troubleshooting that same rocket and occupying two space and time dimensions. The decision fatigue, the burnout that comes with it, is real.”

Loeb said his experience is “a little more simplified” than Nagayoshi’s but nonetheless is complex. He films video for students in the morning, meets with colleagues and then teaches 10-12 children in an in-class environment. He then goes into an empty classroom for four periods to teach to remote students.

“There are definitely some modifications,” he said. “It has to because it’s remote, but I try to keep it the same as best I can. The kids who are home, I want to give them that in-person experience. And students who may be home on Monday are coming to school on Tuesday.”

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES

Shayna Boyd is a middle school English/Language Arts teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, which started fully remote and haven’t deviated because of COVID cases and the threat of what opening them in pandemic could look like.

Although district leaders tout staying safe as first priority, many agree that remote instruction has its drawbacks. Most notably, Boyd pointed out, is the simple connection and bond between teacher and student.

“It is very difficult, especially if they don’t turn their cameras on,” she said. “When I’m in person, I can pick up on their faces hanging low or if they didn’t say hi as enthusiastically as they would. The student is usually on top of their game [in class]. They’re usually submitting their work. … They’re not doing that. So, it’s frequent communication with parents. They can reach me whenever they want. I feel like I’m on call. I feel like I’m a doctor in an ER sometimes.”

Being in that position brings with it a special ability to balance time and instruction. When Toch asked Boyd about the biggest challenges she has had to overcome this year, she said:

“Not losing faith. Making sure that my kids are OK. I worry all the time that they are not adequately prepared to do this work remotely. I worry about not being able to reach them. I worry about engagement. I worry about being able to prepare them not just academically, but social-emotionally. I am deeply concerned about how things will look when we do return to the building. And I know that all of my colleagues are as well.

“Trying to help them process something that I don’t think any of us are really equipped to process. Trying to give them strength and give them tools to succeed and overcome these challenges that have been placed before them this year. And just trying to be there as best as I can via this computer.”


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