‘It’s draining’: Teachers wrestle with burnout, health risks and no-show students

By: - December 21, 2020 5:47 am

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“Bueller …? Bueller …? Bueller …?” Todd Bloch, a science teacher at Warren Woods Middle School, jokes with his students who sit silently in his virtual classroom with their cameras off, making a reference to the ‘80s teen classic, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” — which most didn’t appear to have even heard of. 

“That’s what it’s like. That’s why it’s draining,” said Bloch, who teaches both virtually and in-person at the Southeast Michigan school. “You have the COVID pandemic; you have the kids that don’t show up; you have mask issues.”

Susan J. Demas graphic

This school year has been challenging for students, teachers, parents and administrators for a long list of reasons, ranging from technology issues to struggles with mental health, some of which are universal across the board this year and some are unique to the individual classroom dynamics and communities. 

One thing is clear: Educators across Michigan are feeling burned out. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Symptoms include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental “distance” from or negativity toward one’s job and reduced professional efficacy.

“Given the workload and the stress of balancing virtual and in-person learning, it’s not surprising that educators are experiencing burnout during this pandemic,“ said Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association (MEA). “For starters, those working in-person are jeopardizing their health and safety every day to meet the needs of their students. Many are juggling both in-person and virtual learning, which comes with its own challenges. All this comes after years of being asked to do more with less and an educator shortage that was already a crisis pre-pandemic.”

The push to prepare for this school year started early

As students and educators approach the halfway point of the 2020-21 school year, it’s important to understand how education was hit in the early days of the pandemic.

When the first cases of COVID-19 hit the state in early March, educators and students were among the first to experience the blow of the pandemic. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shut down school buildings across the state on March 16. With such an unprecedented and abrupt transition, many educators, students and school administrators felt unprepared to finish out the school year online.  

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That fear of what this school year might look like carried out into the summer, while teachers sat and watched education bills about standardized testing, attendance mandates and funding run through the GOP-led Legislature with very little input from educators.

Many districts were staring down the first week of school, unsure if they had enough personal protective equipment or technology for their students, unclear about how students would be able to social distance in classrooms already crammed during a normal school year and concerned about crumbling school infrastructures with outdated air filtration systems not fit for an airborne disease.

“In the summer, we were clear about two things,” said Robert McCann, director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan. “Schools are going to need some significant funding to get through this and schools are going to need some flexibility in how they can deliver services as best as possible to students. We knew that this wasn’t going to be a one size fits all approach just because of the nature of the health pandemic. Some areas may be able to deliver some services in one capacity that may not be possible in another area.”

The state and federal governments mostly failed in providing for schools in this way, causing chaos at the local school district level, McCann said. 

Some educators pushed for in-person learning, which has always proven to be the most effective learning environment and where students will be able to benefit from some normalcy. Other educators and teachers’ unions feared for the safety of students, staff and their families during a pandemic and advocated to continue online learning. 

Library of Michigan: Whitmer’s school closures for coronavirus are historic, unprecedented

Largely, the decision was left up to local school districts about how they wanted to tackle the new year. Many schools reopened and put COVID-19 safety protocols in place, some school districts went completely virtual and most offered a hybrid option. 

Despite all efforts to keep students and staff safe, outbreaks in K-12 schools and colleges happened and several schools closed again. And on Nov. 18 during a sharp spike in cases statewide, Whitmer shut down in-person learning again, this time limiting the shutdown to high schools and colleges. The order is set to be lifted Monday, although most schools are closed until Jan. 4 for the holiday break.

With such a tumultuous school year, even the state’s best educators have struggled to find the answers. And with all the pressure that the changes and unknowns have caused, teachers are being stretched thin.

It’s more work than it used to be

The simple tasks of a teacher’s day take more time during a pandemic. 

What used to be as simple as printing out a worksheet for in-class assignments, now means figuring out how to make that assignment work in a virtual format for all students’ devices. 

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“It’s really all the things that you take for granted that teachers do that is now a two- to three-step process,” said Lincoln Stocks, a high school teacher at Eastpointe Community Schools. 

A teacher could run through roll call in under five minutes before, but now attendance is much more difficult for virtual teachers. It’s difficult to know if a student is actually in the virtual classroom. It’s much harder to track down students outside of class when you’re not bumping into them in the hallway, Stocks said. 

For Bloch, he’s missing the opportunity to connect with his students on a personal level. He said he hates being the “bad guy” who is constantly monitoring social distancing and masks for his in-person students and calling his virtual students who are chronically absent or refuse to participate. 

“You don’t have the normal amount of time to just sort of be yourself, because it’s like you’re always on, and you stress about the disease, you’re stressed about whether or not all the technology is going to work, whether your links are going to work,” Bloch said. “You stress about it all, it’s a combination. It’s more work to be learning. I mean, the job I’ve been trained to do for 20 years now has changed completely. I thought I was at the forefront of it.”

And while educators are doing their best to connect with students, some kids are just falling between the cracks. Chalkbeat Detroit reported that Michigan’s school enrollment this fall was down by more than 53,000 students. Some of that loss can be attributed to families moving and parents pulling students out for homeschool, but Detroit Public School Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said “there are going to be some children who we discern are likely not being educated.”

Coronavirus threatened to shut down March is Reading Month. So educators got creative.

While there is more work that needs to be done to make education function during a pandemic, there is also a lot of additional pressure on teachers to keep the quality of work standard with a normal year. 

“We’re not just asking teachers to do extra paperwork; it’s double, triple duty that our teachers and administrators have been asked to do,” said Tom Tenbrink, Jenison Public Schools superintendent. “And they have families that they have to pour themselves into and it’s taken its toll. We have teachers that are fearful of their own health, in terms of the pandemic, and every day they walk into a classroom unsure of what they’re facing and how that might spread.”

Ripple effects of this school year 

Stocks, who is vice president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, said he hears from other teachers frequently who are worried that this year will be a blemish on their professional record. 

State standards still require teacher evaluations to be based on student growth data, which was one of the issues activists pushed back against before the school year.

“Many students are failing and these teachers say, ‘Well, who’s going to be held accountable for these kids not being here and not being able to communicate?’ I have a kid that still hasn’t been here. I called his parents 10 times. We gave him a computer, which they haven’t even turned it on. And I’m responsible for this kid, and you know the state hasn’t said anything about right now,” Stocks said. “They’re still expecting student growth data to evaluate teachers. How is that gonna work? So you have people talking about professional reputations are at stake, not to mention their own expectations of themselves.”

While the first COVID-19 vaccines have now been distributed across the country and the general public is expected to be in line for vaccinations in a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic may have a lasting impact on schools and the teaching profession.

“We’re also trying to make it clear right now that the crisis that our schools and our students are going through right now, it’s just not something that’s going to be solved with a vaccine,” McCann said. “This is a multi-year commitment that we need the state and the federal government to make to our students to help in their recovery.”

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With so many educators feeling burned out, there is fear that the education workforce is going to take a major hit. 

In June, an MEA survey found that one-third of teachers may not return to the classroom due to COVID-19 concerns. 

“The strain that this has put on the ranks of our teachers this year, we’ve seen a lot of them either resign from the profession early or simply walk away from it,” McCann said. “When we’re talking about remediating our students for several years, we’re also going to have to remediate our schools themselves and reinvest in them and in the professionals that we have in the classrooms. It’s going to take a pretty big effort to get us there.”

For Tenbrink, the fears he had about teacher retention this summer have since doubled, he said. 

“We have many teachers who would continue in their careers, but this isn’t why they went into education. They want their kids in front of them and working with them, and they weren’t taught how to be virtual teachers. One of the reasons I think we’re seeing so much burn out on the part of our teachers is because they pour their hearts and souls into their students. And when they have to do it virtually, or they see kids hurting, it just wears on them,” Tebrink said. 

“It’s really, really tough to be an administrator and a teacher in today’s world. And I have a fear that we’re going to lose a lot of educators at the end of the school year, and we’re not going to have as many as we need to replace them.”

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.