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How Teachers Are Coping With the New Realities of the COVID-19 Classroom

A woman teaches an online class. She holds a clipboard up facing her laptop, which is open on the desk in front of her. There are papers on the wall behind her and a tripod smartphone stand on her desk with books.
Teachers say the pandemic has changed everything in their classrooms.

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Key Takeaways

  • The pandemic has almost rewritten teachers' job descriptions. Many of them are doing more than they ever were before, and it's taking a toll on their mental health.
  • Research shows that teacher stress and burnout might affect their students, and vice versa.

Megan, a 37-year-old Kindergarten teacher in North Carolina, logs onto Zoom at 7:45 a.m. every morning. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, she teaches 19 five-year-olds virtually until 11:45 a.m. Her Wednesdays are packed with online meetings and her Fridays are for virtual one-on-one student assessments.

"I have never been this tired, and I had a colicky newborn!" says Megan, whose named has been changed to protect her privacy. "My eyes hurt, my back hurts, my, hands/wrists hurt from constantly typing, I get frequent headaches that can only be minimized by taking a nap, I have mom guilt."

Megan is one of many teachers across the United States who are facing a new set of challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. They are being asked to not only teach, but also help with technology and computer problems, chase down students who aren't logging on for class, and take care of their own children and families. Teachers are more stressed, and research shows that stress may not only impact their mental health—it could also affect their students.

Absolutely Everything Has Changed, Teachers Say

Megan says there isn't a part of her job or week that hasn't changed. She has to squeeze a lot more into a shorter amount of time during the school day. After every 30 minutes of instruction, students are required to take a 10-minute break.

She takes a break around 5 p.m. to make dinner and tend to her 7-year-old until about 8, and then she gets back on her computer to "try to catch up on the million things that will never get finished." She closes her computer between 10 and midnight and falls into bed to get a few hours of sleep before she has to wake up and do it all over again.

The changes brought on by COVID-19 have also had a huge impact on students who receive special education through Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Leeat, a 33-year-old special education teacher, meets with students virtually. Students with disabilities need her help with just using technology to complete assignments, she says. But many of them don't have a scheduled time to see her, so if they don't respond to her daily emails about setting up a session, they can go weeks without that support.

Leeat, Special Education Teacher

The most challenging thing is having students that don't show up to sessions when I know that they need it, and they know they need it.

— Leeat, Special Education Teacher

As a result, Leeat says some of her students are falling behind. "The most challenging thing is having students that don't show up to sessions when I know that they need it, and they know they need it," she says.

Before the pandemic, Leeat could provide in-person support to students during tests by reading questions out loud to them. Now, that isn't possible. "That's definitely been the hardest part is watching my kids struggle, because they're not getting as much one-on-one time as they should be getting since I only see them a couple hours a week," she says.

The schedule changes and sitting in front of her computer from from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day have made her more tired too, she says. She takes naps when she can. "I teach, and then I just collapse," she says.

Teacher Stress and Impacts in the Classroom

Teachers across the U.S. are facing more stress than usual. There are those teachers like Megan, who are teaching virtually and feel like they're working nonstop. And then there are those who have returned to in-person instruction, where they face a much higher risk of contracting COVID-19, which creates another kind of stress.

In two parishes in New Orleans, 85% of teachers reported being somewhat or very worried that children would come to a child care site or school sick, and 59% reported being worried that they would have to work while sick, according to a July report by EdPolicyWorks at the University of Virginia and the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

Stress can impact teachers and their students in a variety of ways. One study published in 2015 found that the quality of classroom organization and teaching quality declined as teachers reported more depressive symptoms. Another 2016 study found that "teachers' occupational stress is linked to students' physiological stress regulation." Specifically, it found that the students of teachers who reported higher levels of burnout had higher morning levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Stress felt by both teachers and students also appears to create a "feedback loop," according to anecdotal evidence from one study published in September. "When students explained that they were struggling or appeared to be stressed, withdrawn, or physically unwell, teachers reported having negative emotional experiences," researchers wrote. But then when either teachers or students felt well, the other group also felt positively, creating a positive feedback loop.

The Support Teachers Wish They Had

Megan says she wishes the government had taken an entirely different
approach to the pandemic. "The country should have shut down completely
at the beginning," she says. "Our government didn't take this seriously
enough in the beginning and now it's out of control."

Leeat would like to see school districts create classes that teach students how to use the technology the district has equipped many of them with. "There's so many tech issues," she says. "We have wifi that comes in and out, multiple people that have to use devices at the same time."

What This Means For You

If you're the parent or guardian of a student, keep in mind that their teacher might be struggling just as much as you are. If they seem stressed, know that, like you, they're doing their best. If you're a teacher, cut yourself some slack, get as much sleep as you can, and reach out to a mental health professional if you need to.

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Article Sources
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