The impact of COVID-19 on teachers
The year 2020 was filled with unprecedented challenges. Schools across the globe suffered as COVID-19 spread, with staff and students bearing the brunt of it. In the United States, a nationally representative survey in spring 2020 found that 85% of school districts expected their elementary schools to provide fewer than four hours of remote instruction per day, at least one hour less than was standard before the pandemic. Educators experienced new stress and struggled to provide quality and comprehensive education during this shift to online learning.
“Many jobs are stressful and come with a plethora of issues,” says Leslie Rhinehart, a former public-school teacher who spent 18 years in the classroom. “Teaching is unique in that educators are expected to complete work outside of their working hours with no expectation of a promotion or raise.”
The return to in-person instruction shed light on issues the pandemic had exacerbated. Poor working environments, low wages, and staff shortages had already plagued K-12 educators for years, but now these factors threaten to result in a mass exodus of teachers. According to a national poll from January 2022, more than half of educators plan to resign sooner than they had anticipated because of the effects of the pandemic.
“Like many other workers, teachers have been asked to take on more roles within their job title, again, with no expectation of a raise or promotion,” Rhinehart says.
Teachers aren’t just dealing with the stress and trauma of teaching during a pandemic; they’re burned out. With more educators leaving their profession and the remaining teachers taking on increasingly demanding work, what does this mean for students?
The importance of teacher-student relationships
Given that students spend more time attending school each week than doing anything else, except sleeping, teacher-student relationships are clearly important. Positive relationships with their teachers give children a sense of safety and confidence, making them more likely to participate and persevere as they struggle with difficult tasks. As they tackle these tasks, students begin to practice and enhance their executive functioning – the control of their own thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. This might have knock-on effects: Children with high executive functioning have better overall health, an easier time managing relationships, and more educational and career-related success in adulthood. In contrast, students with poor executive functioning may be at heightened risk for disruptive behaviors, health issues, and difficulty managing finances in the future.
“Positive relationships with their teachers give children a sense of safety and confidence, making them more likely to participate and persevere as they struggle with difficult tasks.”
Teachers also influence children’s mental and emotional well-being. Students with supportive teachers tend to experience less depression and have higher self-esteem. Not only did the reduction in instructional time during the pandemic compromise teachers’ abilities to provide quality education, but students’ mental health appears to have declined as a result. Almost 30% of American parents polled in May 2020 reported that their child’s mental and emotional health was suffering because of school/business shutdowns. Of those parents, 45% described their child’s separation from their teachers and peers as a major challenge. Clearly, teachers can make the difference for students’ outcomes and overall health.
What are the consequences of teacher resignations? The teachers who remain after a colleague’s resignation must take on additional responsibilities, potentially leading to burnout. Learning and well-being both take a hit as students miss out on the benefits of positive teacher-student relationships. With a high rate of teacher turnover, and the teachers who remain facing burnout, it is difficult to build and maintain those relationships.
“Not only did the reduction in instructional time during the pandemic compromise teachers’ abilities to provide quality education, but students’ mental health appears to have declined as a result.”
How to move forward
A mass exodus of teachers would affect not only teachers, students, and the families of both, but society as a whole. Indeed, societal productivity, health costs, and social capital depend in part on the health and well-being of our youth – which, in turn, are strongly affected by teacher-student relationships. Disruptions to students’ learning may have long-term effects on young people’s ability to become thriving, contributing members of society. If there is to be any hope of improving the quality of students’ educational experiences, school administrators and policymakers must start by listening to the voices of teachers. Many teachers say they need higher wages, additional staff, and less paperwork if they are to avoid burnout.
Despite the challenges, Rhinehart remains positive about the teaching profession. “When a person expresses interest in teaching, I still try to encourage them,” she says. “I encourage them to seek opportunities in states with teacher unions. They deserve to be able to support themselves [and] their families with their one professional job.”
It is critical to address these needs immediately to ensure teachers have a positive impact on students’ development, and to improve the state of public education in America. How can members of the general public help achieve this goal? They can reach out to school administrators and policymakers to insist that teachers be given what they need, and most importantly, support and lift up teachers’ own voices.