In the year before the COVID-19 pandemic, two of my grandparents died, both of whom were pillars in different branches of my family. On the fourth yahrzeit of my grandfather’s death a couple of months ago, my stepmom shared Maya Angelou’s poem, When Great Trees Fall, in his memory. I had never heard of the poem before but have returned to it many times in the weeks since as I reflect on the losses, silences, and birth in myself, in our educational systems, and in our society over the past few years.
Teaching is more stressful and challenging than ever. It is arguably one of the most stressful jobs in the country. With the ever-increasing workload, accountability policies, restrictions on how teachers are allowed to educate students, not to mention the overwhelm of navigating school during a pandemic, it's no wonder that currently, teacher stress is reported to be just as high as doctors and nurses. High-stress levels can lead to many negative consequences for health and well-being. Quality of life and teaching performance suffer as chronic stress leads to teacher burnout, job dissatisfaction, poor performance, and high turnover rates. At the end of the 2020–2021 school year, nearly 25% of teachers reported that they were likely to quit their jobs, increasing by almost 10% of teachers who said they were likely to leave before the pandemic. African American teachers were especially likely to quit teaching.
My first recollection of Hispanic Heritage Month was when I was around 14 years old and had recently arrived in Nashville, TN when we moved from Puerto Rico, because my mother took a position as an editor of a Spanish language magazine whose offices were based there. My previous experience in the U.S had been in extremely diverse places—New York, Chicago, Texas, Florida— but here, in 1988, I was the only “Hispanic” student in my high school, and it was the first time the full month would be officially celebrated in the U.S.
To the new teachers out there, are you: Excited about what this year will bring and courageously making an entrance into the education arena for the purpose of serving today’s youth? Vowing personally to provide the utmost professionalism possible whether your initial, or second profession from a previous career?
The more time we invest in ourselves, as educators, the more we can give to students. The richer our interactions and relationships can become when we get better acquainted with ourselves. At the risk of sounding cliché about self-improvement, it is powerful to spend our time taking care of ourselves. The world of education can be chaotic on a good day and now the chaos has turned up a few thousand notches as we navigate COVID, student mental health, missing assignments, student absences, and ever- changing rules/guidelines.
Forgiveness, acceptance and flexibility. Three little BIG words I have spent countless hours instilling in six-year-olds over the past 15 years. I never would have imagined simple lessons taught in my first-grade classroom would become so meaningful during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I get to see my mom today! She’s picking me up!” Evan would shout as he entered the classroom. Evan would talk all day about mom and the fun things they have planned to do, only to realize at dismissal as time passes and each friend gets picked up; Evan’s mom is not coming.
Now more than ever, Superintendents, School Directors, and Principals recognize and understand the need for social-emotional learning for both students and teachers. The uncertainty of COVID - 19 has affected everyone in many ways, and its effects may have long-lasting impressions in education.
These days, I am constantly reminded by the elementary-aged kiddos whom I counsel (now via Zoom), each week that they want to show me their world (including their real and imaginary pets), they want me to meet them with curiosity, to connect, and they want my full presence. In the words of one of my 3rd graders, “Ms. Pam, I feel like you’re the only one who really listens to me, like, you get me”.
Teaching is a tireless act of love. Good teachers often pour their hearts into their work. It’s exhausting, and rewarding, but also, at times, painful. The 2018-2019 school year was particularly painful for me. I was teaching 7th grade science—a class where directions like “do NOT drink the hydrochloric acid” need to be frequently, and urgently repeated—and I was mourning the passing of my last grandparent.
Often the focus of the concept “Social-Emotional Learning” is geared towards our students. Most educators have acknowledged the fact that students have a challenging time learning to the best of their capacity when their social-emotional needs are not being met. What about the educators themselves? When do the educators get to process the secondary trauma that is often occurring throughout the day?