Exhausted. That is the only single word appropriate to describe the status of personnel in our nation’s schools. It applies to teachers, administrators, para-educators, and support staff equally. It’s tragic. And the bottom line is that kids are also paying a price.
It was two years ago that the Covid-19 virus hit our shores, part of a fast-paced pandemic that was engulfing the globe. I remember it well. My wife and I returned home from one of our coveted jaunts to sunshine and palm trees late February 2020. A couple of weeks later, we both came down with mysterious maladies. The nation wasn’t testing widely then, but our physician was reasonably certain that it was Covid, for my wife at least, as her symptoms matched those of the doctor who had been confirmed to have contracted the virus. We speculate that we were exposed on the plane ride home.
A short time later it was determined that the risk of exposure to the virus was too great for children and school personnel. (Those of us who worked for any time in schools know them to be germ factories anyway.) Students were sent home with their laptops or tablets and schools began a large-scale experiment called remote learning. Everyone knows about remote or distance teaching and learning so I won’t retell the woes. But the experience led to isolation, and a decline in student engagement and academic loss for way too many students. About one year in, many systems implemented a hybrid approach where students were physically present for instruction some days and continued learning remotely other days. And boy that was fun! Teachers now were faced with managing these two systems simultaneously; an expectation that didn’t go over well in many jurisdictions and yielded mixed academic results.
Thankfully, in person instruction resumed in most places in August or September, amid the challenge of identifying learners from the bridge of their noses up. As I’ve written before, the assumption that everything would magically return to normal was erroneous. Everyone arrived out of practice. Being in groups, following rules, and remembering how to appropriately interact were vacated skills for kids and adults. Everyone was exhausted before the school year began.
I have the privilege of being in schools frequently in my role as a mentor for new administrators. What I see and what I hear are worrisome and unsustainable. The pandemic hasn’t gone away, causing large numbers of school personnel to be out to recover or to isolate from an exposure. Sadly, there aren’t a sufficient number of substitutes in many parts of the country, leaving these temporary vacancies unfilled. Consequently, teachers are asked to cover classes during what would be their planning time. At the expense of falling behind in their own work, I have heard of a reluctant willingness in most settings. Even the relaxation of the requirements to qualify as a substitute hasn’t solved the dilemma. People are hesitant to voluntarily expose themselves to the virus. Why wouldn’t they be?
The day in the life of a building administrator these days has them wearing many hats due to episodic staff shortages. They may assume custodial tasks, serve lunches, counsel kids and staff, or take on teaching assignments. All of this in addition to their assigned roles: little things like being an instructional leader and the complexity of assuring a safe learning environment. Support staff, as well, are scrambling to pick up the pieces, doing anything necessary to keep the boat afloat. Everyone is exhausted.
Exhausted adults cannot be expected to be at the top of their game in serving kids. And, to add insult to injury, community members find sport in harassing local school boards with complaints and demands about anything and everything. How can any of this assure that all children receive the education kids deserve?
There are a few additional words that describe the morale of school personnel. Words like sadness and frustration easily come to mind and understandably so. The present circumstance doesn’t begin to resemble what they envisioned when they entered the profession: leading me to the most dangerous word of all – disillusioned. What systems cannot afford is for a disillusioned work force to look for other occupations, running the risk of losing some of the best and most effective talent.
All of this is complicated, I know. There are no easy fixes, especially in the short term. And I do not profess to possess a silver bullet that might alleviate this stress. That said, I believe that if one presents a problem they should be prepared with solutions. So, in that spirit, I offer three words of remedy.
Awareness. At some level, everyone involved with schools knows that things are stressful. (If one is unaware of the mess schools are trying to operate in, they need to get informed.) Unfortunately, we frequently fail to express our awareness of the tough circumstances people find themselves in and the heavy lifting they are expected to do. A common complaint I hear from school-based administrators is that district leaders seem to be “out of touch” or “tone deaf” to what the true day to day realities look like. True or not, that is the perception. In the absence of action, perceptions become reality.
Intervention. To prevent perception from becoming reality requires intervention. There are numerous small, simple and affordable interventions that might go a long way in easing frustration and reversing perceptions. Meant to be idea joggers:
· Show up. District leaders need to put sacred time on their calendars to visit schools. I don’t mean a “drive by” visit, but one where he/she is visible enough to demonstrate a sincere interest in the challenges, and victories, people face. The same is true for site administrators. I know, all too well, the unknown distractions that can claim a day. But nothing is more important that getting up and getting out, interacting with all members of the school community.
· Ask. A simple “how is your day?” or “how can I help you?’ will travel miles in the race to correct perceptions.
· “Just because” gestures. A principal travelling the halls with a coffee cart early in the day, stopping into classrooms and offering a beverage, will go a long way. Everyone will enjoy, and grin a little in the knowing, that the building leader cares enough to leave a heaping platter of cookies in the staff lounge. Six-foot-long submarine sandwiches on a grading day are sure to relax some shoulders and bring a smile. A simple note in staff mailboxes expressing appreciation for their commitment to the task at hand. Wow!
A small resource allocation to hire retired administrators to fill in, even for just a few hours, freeing the site administration from distractions and allowing them time to visit classrooms, observe instruction, and offer feedback and support would reap huge dividends.
Schools were shuttered and teaching turned digital due to concerns regarding the physical health and well-being of students and staff. We now are learning of the toll that loss and isolation have taken on mental and emotional health. Appropriate interventions to address these issues must be a priority, both on the short-term and in long range planning.
Empathy. We would all do well to remember the proverb: Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes. The education profession has always been one of challenge and hard work, requiring persistence, and dedication. But, never have the challenges been like this. Instead of criticism, instead arguing about whether a mask is symbol of deprived liberty or a health tool, instead of sowing seeds of mistrust regarding what is, or isn’t/should or shouldn’t be taught we need to heed the advice of Stephen Covey: “Seek first to understand.” If we take the time and exert the energy to understand the complexity of the challenges today’s educators face, we can add acknowledgement and appreciation to our arsenal of discourse.
We count on educators as partners in the appropriate and effective development of our nation’s children. Perhaps, just maybe, they can execute their tasks a little less exhausted if they are supported with authentic awareness, thoughtful interventions, and a dose of must needed empathy.