Opinion: The unspoken costs of pandemic education
Teaching is a crap job. Let me reword that. Working for an educational institution is a crap job. I don’t know any K-12 teachers, community college instructors, or university professors who love grading, teaching to the test, policing our students, and complying with administrative bureaucracies.
We love sharing knowledge and ideas. We love that moment when we see a student finally “get it.” We love when self-confidence begins to shine on students’ faces. We love when they come back all grown up and tell us that some lesson plan or lecture changed their lives.
What we love is still part of the job, but what we loathe threatens to undermine the profession completely.
Ironically, education administrators routinely make decisions without consulting educators—the experts are rarely consulted on how they can best educate their students. Despite earning the highest education levels among the citizenry, teachers are consistently just told what to do.
During the pandemic, educators were told to be excellent educators, surrogate parents, social workers, therapists, and tech support to sometimes hundreds of students simultaneously. It was assumed that we would do all of this unpaid additional labor that we are not qualified to do. And we did.
Educator burnout is real, but as Doris A. Santoro writes in her excellent article, self care, mental health support, and personal days are not enough. The real culprit is not exhaustion. It’s demoralization.
Santoro explains, “Demoralization occurs when teachers cannot reap the moral rewards that they previously were able to access in their work. It happens when teachers are consistently thwarted in their ability to enact the values that brought them to the profession.”
Prior to the pandemic, K-12 teachers were leaving the profession in droves. In one nationwide 2019 survey, half of public school teachers considered quitting. In California in 2019, enrollment in teacher preparation programs declined by 10,000 students at the same time that enrollment in bachelor’s programs was increasing.
As enrollment in K-12 teacher prep programs declines across all races, the already racially imbalanced teacher pool will continue to overrepresent white women. Fewer and fewer Latinx and Black students will see their ethnicities embodied by their teachers. Ironically, BIPOC students know that being underpaid, overworked and undervalued at an educational institution is a crap job. That’s why they’re choosing any other profession.
But for those educators in the trenches, we will continue to sacrifice. We will get vaccinated, show up for our students, juggle our family responsibilities with 2.5 hours a week in the K-5 classroom, learn to teach in hybrid and hyflex models at the colleges and universities and comply with the increasing admin demands while the teaching part gets even harder.
The pandemic education year that students lost will translate into a loss of basic skills that unfortunately will not be recovered easily. A vast majority of students were not at grade-level pre-pandemic. They will socially promote through their education unable to calculate accurately, write succinctly, or speak confidently among other skills. This could potentially lead to declines in job prospects, lifetime income and generational wealth.
The pandemic generation could easily become a wildly unprepared social class that inevitably will be blamed on teachers who are already demanded to do too much. By then, we will be completely burned out and demoralized. We will retire early or quit. And there will be no one to take our place.
If the community wants to save this profession, teaching must be re-envisioned as a valued experience where teachers are respected, properly compensated and not told to do more than they are qualified to do.
Educators need more autonomy to do what we know is best for our students. We need to perform one job and that is to teach in our subject areas. Educational institutions always have money to hire administrators. Let’s also hire appropriately qualified professionals to provide our students with mental health support, life-skills training, and the remedial education compromised before, during and after the pandemic.
It’s not too late to help educators get back to the parts we love and show future educators that the profession is indeed still a noble one.
Ebony A. Utley, Ph.D. is a professor of communication studies at California State University Long Beach where she researches, publishes, and teaches interpersonal communication. She is a member of the Post’s Community Editorial Board.
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