Everything Feels Impossible, but We Educators Keep Going for Our Students
The nation’s teachers are not OK.
“I just can't,” I texted to my education crew group chat (my friends). We were discussing how every moment we’ve spent working, especially time without our students, has felt impossible.
In the best and worst of times, students motivate educators like me to face what seems impossible. Still, getting dressed to go to work feels like a marathon, and picking up around the house feels like a triathlon. These normal activities have felt herculean because I’ve been unable to do much of anything except think about COVID-19.
Across pre-K-12 and higher education, I’m seeing collective exasperation and a seeming loss of hope in educators. And as we struggle, there’s a question many of us are thinking, yet few are willing to say aloud: Is being an educator worth all of this? I still firmly believe in the power of teaching, but without greater government and public support, I don’t know how many other educators will echo my sentiments. And there are many reasons why.
“I’m not sure how much longer I, nor anyone else in education, can go on the way we’ve been going.”
My social media timelines, which are full of educators, have looked like something out of a dystopian Octavia Butler sci-fi novel. The school year was barely underway when I saw educators, including myself, expressing feelings of burnout with added exasperation due to inconsistent mask mandates. At the same time, external stakeholders were complaining that “we need students in the classroom without masks so they feel normal.” In fact, one woman responded online to a worried teacher that “only 531 kids have died of COVID.” The context of the statistic was unclear, but I found myself consumed by sadness. There is no number of sick and dying children I would ever consider acceptable.
With each post, my heart and spirit cracked a bit more as I realized the pandemic’s toll on me and my educator colleagues. And while I’ve always prided myself on being someone who bends but doesn’t necessarily break, I’m not sure how much longer I, nor anyone else in education, can go on the way we’ve been going. It is clear that while we’re all doing the very best we can given the current circumstances, educators—like our friends in healthcare—are increasingly publicly derided, harassed, and abused for simply trying to perform the functions of our jobs as best we can.
In Florida, teachers are leading oversized classrooms due to an alarming 5,000 open vacancies at the state’s public schools—a situation that suggests many in the educator pipeline have opted not to serve in those classrooms. That situation could get worse: Recent survey data indicate teachers feel less certain that they will continue working in the classroom for their full careers. Even when we try to do something else—to create some semblance of a new normal through interactive group learning projects or school sports and clubs—all roads eventually lead us back to COVID-19. To put it plainly, it feels impossible to be an educator right now. And that feeling of impossibility is not just in our heads.
More than 1,200 educators have died of COVID-19—more than 400 of them “were active teachers,” according to Education Week. The reality that educators and students remain at risk of death due to misinformation around vaccines makes educators even more anxious and angry. Moreover, it seems as if the broader public frustration around the pandemic—not the pandemic itself—has been directed at educators. The National Association of Secondary School Principals and AASA, the School Superintendents Association, have requested federal intervention to help protect and defend educators facing dissent due to mask mandates and quarantine protocols.
The obliteration of boundaries and lack of respect, manifesting as a backlash against educators and other school leaders that sometimes turns violent, have not been limited to our external stakeholders. Protests have also come from directly inside the house—well, schools—from those in leadership. Some school board leaders, many of whom seem more focused on leveraging their positions into a political future rather than school safety, have taken educators to task. With all of this animosity and pressure facing educators from within and outside of our school systems, I am left with one major question: Who out there is working for us?
Before the pandemic, educators dealt with longstanding problems such as low pay, long hours, and growing disrespect evidenced by shrinking budgets and limited support. These feelings are only intensifying under the weight of the pandemic, leading some educators to throw in the towel. With educators (teachers, school support staff, counselors, etc.) choosing to opt out of their careers, and as opportunities for wellness fade with growing resource and staff shortages, perhaps it’s time to re-center a conversation on educators’ mental health and stability.
I didn’t plan to write about the pandemic for this essay—my last in a series as One Day’s first columnist-in-residence. But I felt I owed it to myself and the education profession to acknowledge the collective exasperation and seeming loss of hope I’m seeing in educators across pre-K-12 and higher education. This essay is not simply another thinkpiece about COVID-19. This essay is about feelings of incapability and unbearability that educators are expressing despite feeling called to our profession. This essay is about educators’ commitment to schools, learning, and student growth despite the compounding constraints of the pandemic on top of everything we’ve already endured.
This essay asks that we remember a key truth about educators: We’re human too, and we need support.
Our Inaugural Columnist
Brittany M. Williams is One Day's first columnist, writing columns throughout 2021 that covered topics such as the pushout of Black girls from K–12 classrooms and pandemic-related challenges that schools face. If you are interested in serving as a future columnist or would like to suggest someone, email us.
Brittany M. Williams, Ph.D. is a writer, speaker, and assistant professor of higher education who has the distinct privilege of having been born and raised in Southwest Atlanta. She is a proud product of Atlanta Public Schools. Williams researches social class, inequities, and the career development and workplace experiences of Black women in higher education contexts. Learn more about her at DrBritWilliams.com.
We want to hear your opinions! To submit an idea for an Opinion piece or offer feedback on this story, visit our Suggestion Box.
The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.