Pandemic fatigue and COVID burnout are very real experiences we have likely all felt. We are quicker to snap at loved ones. We frequently feel overwhelmed. We seldom feel recognized when we do put in the effort. Those feelings can be documented across the board in all professions; however, if you have been following national and local news stories then you know that one profession hit very hard with burnout has been educators. Whether it’s due to concern over students’ physical and emotional well-being, worry about students’ academic growth, added stress from a teacher’s growing workload, or concern for their own (or their family’s) social and emotional well-being, educators are drowning.
A national poll conducted by the digital classroom app, Kami, found that 80% of the teachers surveyed felt they did not receive enough support to help them avoid stress or burnout. Three out of every five teachers is unhappy and feels anxiety and/or depression. Fifty percent have no time to engage with family or friends outside of work. And, most telling, 75% of teachers have thought about leaving the profession. Those staggering numbers have also reared their ugly head in the state of Kentucky. Jason Glass, Kentucky Commissioner of Education, in an email distributed by the Kentucky Department of Education, noted similar areas of concern in our home state based upon the results of the Impact Kentucky Working Conditions Survey. Seventy-five percent of teachers in Kentucky who responded to the survey stated that they were concerned about the emotional well-being of their colleagues and sixty-four percent that they were concerned about their own emotional well-being as a result of their jobs. If we all see and know the value of education and have the common goal of seeing our education system strengthened, then those percentages are ones that need to shift in the opposite direction, and quickly.
In our Anderson County community as well, the same feelings are evident. While access to technology and resources has increased since the last Impact Kentucky survey (which was taken pre-COVID), the areas that have taken the worst drops have been school climate (41%, down 23% from the 2020 survey), perception of school leadership (40%, down 20% from the 2020 survey), and emotional well-being (only 35%)-- the same national trends.
But, just because the trend is national does not mean that there aren’t lessons to be learned and does not imply that immediate and actionable steps don’t need to be taken. Of course they do. Some might point out potential reasons why those categories have dropped since the previous survey or why they are lower than expected: (1) Anderson County schools were in session when other districts were not -- a fact that some people were happy about and some were not. (2) Teachers have dealt with constant change in the form of CDC and State Health Department mandates given and then taken away, creating a feeling of uncertainty in leadership’s decisions. (3) In the district, our teachers have been working on two large-scale practices to identify the needs of our students through a data system and to refocus on learning targets and academic standards through a process that checks the rigor of our assessments. Those new practices require additional focus and, sometimes, hours more work. Combined with covering other teachers’ classes because of substitute teacher shortages, it becomes clear that teachers are being asked to do more than ever before, causing greater stress personally and professionally.
Through it all, though, educators are aware that Bryant McGill’s maxim holds true: “Whatever makes you feel uncomfortable is your biggest opportunity for growth.” Educators both in the classroom and in administrative positions, at heart, welcome growth at the same time that they are fully aware that becoming better means facing challenges head-on. Growth can feel awkward and stressful because it is a process. Our district is and should always be unapologetic in its research-based, rigorous expectation that our schools are adopting practices that lead to the highest level of student growth; simultaneously, Superintendent Sheila Mitchell also understands that the district needs to be proactive in addressing and remediating those issues that accompany growth. Evaluations are the key to showing where those areas of growth need to be and feedback allows us to know how to become more unified, if we are willing to take shortcomings as lessons and if we are willing to be temporarily uncomfortable. We are, all of us, growing. We easily identify the pain, but we also need to identify the potential.
As a district, we have made great strides in terms of technology in response to the pandemic. We have effectively implemented 1:1 Student Chromebook access, added outdoor wireless access in parking lots at all schools as well as outdoor common areas at ACHS (e.g. each athletic field house and football stands), added Lightspeed Classroom Control (Internet control panel and monitoring at the teacher level), upgraded district-wide internet bandwidth from 1GBPS to 2GBPS, supplied hotspots for students in need of home wireless internet access, added to and extended technology subscriptions for teachers, updated aging projectors at all schools and begun adding interactive flat panels at primary levels, and added new hosted voip phone systems at all schools. Academically, our schools each hosted summer learning academies to both combat learning loss and to help support students’ social and emotional well-being. Throughout each obstacle thrown at Anderson County Schools by the pandemic, one thing has remained a constant: students have come first.
Now, the survey says, it’s time to also focus on the teachers, a task the Anderson County School district is ready to take on as well. Superintendent Sheila Mitchell noted, “Those who work in our schools in all capacities have worked extremely hard during this pandemic. These results show that our teachers need to feel more supported both professionally and personally. I want us to be proactive and direct in making that happen.” Superintendent Mitchell is determined to get feedback from both certified and classified personnel in order to monitor the pulse of our district and to make effective change for all employees. Mitchell was already considering creating a Superintendent Advisory Council; for her, the results of the survey solidified the necessity of that plan. “I know that my expectations of the level of service we want to provide our students have been high, and our staff have gone above and beyond to not only meet but exceed those expectations. I am extremely grateful for the hard work and sacrifices they have made as we continue to respond to the pandemic,” Mitchell explained, “I also realize that more intentional focus now must be placed on their social and emotional needs as well. That’s exactly what we intend to do.”
Bobby Murphy, Director of Curriculum, pointed out, “The state of things didn't happen overnight and repairing it will indeed also be a process. I just want a better and brighter tomorrow for my kids, yours, and everyone else's.” The repairing of those shortcomings now must take the form of helping teachers feel valued and to establish a reality in which burnout is replaced by excitement for the profession, not just in Anderson County but across our nation. Where does that reality begin? As Commissioner Glass wrote, “The first step in getting out of any hole is to stop digging. Toward that end, we need everyone across the Commonwealth to commit now to stop efforts aimed at blaming, harming and de-professionalizing teachers. And once we’ve stopped making things worse, we should work together to craft a path forward (including supportive legislation) aimed at seeing our teachers thrive.” Seeing teachers thrive should be the common goal of us all; it’s the only life raft that will save them from drowning.