Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles | Nov 7, 2021
Is this our toughest school year yet?
By Angela Watson
Founder and Writer
If you’re among the educators who find 2021-2022 is shaping up to be even more challenging than last school year, this episode is for you.
I want to validate your experiences and challenges, and point you to a path forward even when it feels like you’re powerless to make things better.
There ARE positive developments happening, and it’s due in large part to educators speaking up and speaking out about what they need, and setting limits on what they will and won’t do. When enough educators resist, the momentum shifts, and we create systemic change.
I have no easy answers or magic bullet solutions. But I know that you’re not alone in what you’re facing, and that means you don’t have to work through it alone.
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Everyone’s experience is different (and good stuff IS happening!)
A quick disclaimer: We are all living very different experiences. Some folks are actually finding this to be a fairly typical year: they’re happy to be back in person with their students and are enjoying their work.
I never want to paint an entirely dystopian portrait of what schools are like, and if you’ve given up hope, please know, I regularly hear from teachers who have wonderful admins and feel pretty well supported in their work.
If you’re content right now as a teacher, I see you and acknowledge you.
What this school year has been like so far for many teachers
This blog post and podcast episode, though, is for folks whose answer to the question “‘Is this our toughest year yet?” is actually, “YES, this year is SO much harder even than last year and I’m drowning.”
If your personal answer to this question is yes, you are not alone. I wanted to talk about that a little bit in this episode and highlight just some overall patterns I’m seeing. I don’t wanna get too bogged down in problems because you’re living them every day and you don’t need details about them.
I just want you to feel validated and seen, because every time I talk about problems in education, there are multiple people who respond by saying, I had no idea this was happening everywhere. I thought it was just me, I thought it was just my school, I thought it was just my district.
When we realize these are systemic problems, and not individual problems, then we look at the solutions differently.
I think the main problem is that teaching has always been incredibly demanding and educators were exhausted and overwhelmed even before the pandemic, and then with the transition to remote learning and hybrid learning and navigating reopening safely, there’s been a lot of change and disruption and challenges.
At the end of last school year, many of us thought the worst of the pandemic was behind us in the United States, and I think a lot of districts started to prepare for the school year as if this was the year we were going to “get back to normal”.
Of course, it didn’t play out that way. We had another huge wave of cases right when schools were re-opening, and even though things are trending in a positive direction right now, I think it’s become abundantly clear that our children are not who they were in 2019.
For many educators and students, last school year at least had a message of grace and flexibility and maybe less testing in some instances or less adherence to a normal timetable. And that just doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.
We were moving toward something a little more child-centered and less of a frantic pace, and focusing more on socio-emotional learning (SEL) and building relationships. These are all the things that teachers want to be doing with students. And now not only is that being sidelined in many schools, but in some places, it’s being prohibited.
We’ve seen SEL tied into a coordinated effort to discredit progressive educators and manufacture controversy around what’s being lumped into critical race theory. Florida and Texas are just two examples of states where something as innocuous as teaching empathy could bring the entire school under fire.
(I did an episode recently by the way about what to do if you are accused of indoctrinating students or teaching critical race theory, and I have an episode coming out this winter that will help you understand a little bit more about what’s happening right now at school board meetings and what changes are being proposed in terms of curriculum.)
And of course, we have schools on the frontline of culture wars over COVID mandates, masks, and vaccinations.
Some have an already stressed out, overworked, and under-resourced population of educators who were pushed to the brink during the past two school years, and now we’re in year three impacted by COVID … and summer was just not long enough to heal and recover from the trauma and exhaustion. Many teachers started off the year already burned out.
On top of this, educators are being expected to meet the needs of children who have had their entire world turned upside down, and we’re expected to teach them at the same pace as before the pandemic. Educators are expected to “make up for learning loss” when many students are presenting with additional learning and behavioral challenges that educators aren’t supporting with.
All of this is in addition to the usual stressors with paperwork and standardized testing and all the other things teachers have been dealing with for many years.
When you add in staff shortages and teachers having to pick up the slack and extra duties from unfilled positions and absent coworkers?
It’s … a LOT.
We need courageous people leading the way forward in education
That’s my bird’s eye view of why this school year feels exceptionally challenging, and I think it’s even more difficult because we were hoping it would be better by now. I think all of us are wondering, What’s next? What is the path forward?
I did a number of episodes in the spring of 2020 about reimagining education and how this was and still is our moment to shape the future of how we teach children, just by the way we show up for them each day, just by the things that we focus on, by the policies we create in our classrooms and schools, by the way, we relate to them and communicate to them.
Your daily work is the reimagining. You showing up for your students in the best way you know how, and continuing to center what you know is right despite a system that is crushing all of us? That IS the revolution. That is the resistance. That is the reimagining.
If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that the folks with all the power and the money are not going to reimagine a system as it benefits them. Change is coming, and it’s being led at the grassroots level.
The way forward, as I see it, will be led by humans who are willing to be brave. That’s what we need right now: we need brave teachers, we need brave school leaders, we need brave assistant teachers and cafeteria workers and custodial staff and everyone else who is so important to the daily functioning in our schools.
And we’ve hit a breaking point where so many educators at all levels of the system have left are leaving or thinking about leaving.
So what do we have to lose at this point? If the alternative is walking away, why not go down swinging? Why not leave a mark in the system and push things toward the better good?
When I talk about courageous teaching, I mean asking for forgiveness rather than permission.
I mean being quietly subversive.
I mean questioning the status quo and brainstorming alternatives that simplify everyone’s workloads.
When I talk about courageous teaching, I mean doing what’s right for kids even when you are pressured to do what’s wrong.
I mean not hiding behind the excuse of, “I was just following orders.”
Courageous teaching is saying, “The buck stops with me. I know I’m expected to do these things in this way, but that’s going to break me, and it doesn’t serve my students, so I’m going to do what’s right.”
Brave, authentic teaching is the alternative to complying with a soul-crushing profession
Of course, there’s a risk to what I’m suggesting here. Some choices could cause you to get written up, or lose your job, or lose your certification.
But again, what is the alternative? To become completely demoralized by doing work that is not aligned with why you entered this field in the first place? To burn yourself out completely and leave the profession?
You can’t push back on everything, but this is why I mentioned at the beginning that we’re dealing with systemic and institutional problems rather than individual problems. Your exhaustion and overwhelm is not a you problem, it is a problem endemic to schooling. And that means you don’t have to push back alone or imagine a better way alone.
This is a time for educators, particularly brave educators, to come together in their local communities, with their unions (if those have not been decimated yet in your state), with your online networks and communities forged through social media, and brainstorm solutions together. Share success stories. Share what’s working.
There are lots of bright spots that are happening. For example, I’m hearing of a school district in Virginia that just gave teachers an entire week off for mental health. Another district in Wisconsin substituted a day off for a PD day, saying that teachers needed rest more than they needed more professional development.
In the 40 Hour Leadership program that I run, we have principals who are reducing teacher expectations, simplifying paperwork obligations, and streamlining meetings.
These positive developments are happening in large part because educators are speaking up and speaking out about what they need, and setting limits on what they will and won’t do. When enough educators resist, the momentum shifts, and we create systemic change.
Your daily work is shaping the future of education
I think it’s undeniable that many educators are at a breaking point right now, and collectively, this is a transition point for our profession.
There is no going back to the way we did school in 2019 and frankly, that’s no goal anyways, given the stress levels of both students and teachers pre-pandemic.
None of us knows for sure what the future of school looks like. But I encourage you to use your position, your voice, and your expertise to shape it. Most of that work is just how you show up with students.
It’s refusing to stress your students out with tight deadlines and unrealistic expectations no matter what the district is telling you to do.
It’s refusing to internalize the pressure of everything that’s supposed to be done, and it’s instead prioritizing so that your attention goes to the things that make the biggest difference for kids.
It’s speaking up when you know there’s a simpler or easier way to do something.
It’s being okay with leaving some things undone or partially done because the alternative is not sustainable.
Your daily work is the resistance to a system that’s crushing you and your students. We need brave teachers right now. Stand up for what is right. You can develop the courage to focus on what matters most, and do fewer things better, as I wrote in my book.
The expectations on educators right now has been pushed to the extreme, and having fewer people in those roles has placed a larger burden on the folks who remain. But you don’t have to sacrifice yourself for the system. The way you show up within the system can shift it.
Collaborating with other educators allows you to have an even bigger impact. Stick together, and have each other‘s back. Don’t allow a small minority that has no idea what it’s actually like to teach to determine the future of this profession.
You are the expert and your expertise matters. Your experience matters. The knowledge and wisdom you’ve gained working which children in the school system matter, and is so, so valuable.
This may very well be the toughest school year of your education career. Be encouraged. Be courageous.
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I love what you said about courage and being quietly subversive. And “go down swinging” will probably be my new mantra! But what do you do if you have colleagues who make work their life and get more accomplished than you are able? They will be the ones that will be held up as shining examples of unrealistic expectations.
I understand this struggle, as I just finished my 3rd year in education (first year in a new grade level). I constantly felt “behind” my grade level team and sensed that I was getting less done than my colleagues, always feeling the need to “catch up”. However, it wasn’t until after deep conversations that they, in fact, felt the same way in different areas. I think it’s important for us as educators to remember not to compare ourselves to our colleagues. Just as students grow and develop at different paces, we too, need to have grace and understanding for ourselves that we “blossom” and show our dedication in different ways.