America’s Teachers Offer Answers to the Education Crisis
May 29, 2022
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By Rachel L. Harris , Alisha Sawhney and Lisa Tarchak
Teaching is a demanding job at the best of times, but these past two years educators faced countless roadblocks trying to do their jobs. Hopelessness, burnout and the call of other careers are just some of the issues teachers grappled with. “Most teachers know that our system had fault lines way before the pandemic,” said Kristin Fink, a middle school language arts teacher from St. Paul, Minn. “The last two years just emphasized how much our cultural fabric needs us but is unwilling to listen to us.”
The pandemic years have also brought a long list of difficult news events — the murder of George Floyd, the Jan. 6 riot, the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, to name a few — that teachers have had to process for themselves and figure out how to discuss with their students.
To get a clearer sense of what it’s like in America’s classrooms, we asked pre-K through high school teachers to describe the past two years for us — the challenges, wins, misunderstandings and advice they’d give themselves in 2020, before the Covid pandemic upended American education.
Over 1,000 submissions later, it’s clear that teachers feel forgotten, disillusioned and tired.
Here they are in their own words. With the school year winding down, we hope these notes will inspire thoughtful conversations about how to support teachers and their students and make American education better for everyone.
These comments have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
— Alisha Sawhney
Setting the Record Straight
A lot of people thought we were on vacation
I’m sure there were some teachers who took advantage of the time away, but most I know were working longer days, creating and rewriting every assignment for online learning, grading and sending emails to students with missing work. On top of that, I was teaching in my guest room with my own children (2 and 6 years old) at home, making noise. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, and I received zero training on how to be successful. The self-care memes and yoga videos sent by district leadership had the opposite effect: They made me so angry! I have never felt so disconnected from my district leadership in my 20-year teaching career.
— Molly Peters, 20 years teaching music, currently at a public high school in northern Los Angeles
I am not loyal to either political party
I’m just trying to teach your child how to read. I barely have time to use the restroom, let alone push an agenda for anyone.
— Brooke Lundgren, 21 years teaching in public primary schools, currently second grade in Littleton, Colo.
We are so much more than disseminators of information
The general public doesn’t realize how much students depend on their teachers, classrooms and school programs for a sense of community and stability. I provide services to students with disabilities across two very rural districts, and a lack of stable, reliable internet for families has been a big challenge. I had to collaborate with service providers and paraprofessionals to get students what they needed. We provided one family with several hot spots so online speech and occupational therapies could continue. We drove weekly out to a remote ranch so a student with multiple disabilities could get services.
— Ann Gortarez, 27 years teaching, currently director of special education for public schools in Patagonia, Ariz.
Our institutions and culture value money over children
We were already triaging because of large classes, funding and staffing shortages, more demands and fewer resources for students with food and home insecurity, and a lack of mental health care and early childhood interventions. The pandemic just made the divides greater and the need higher. It’s no surprise, given our willingness to do nothing when kids are victims of school shootings. A society willing to put guns and money ahead of meeting our children’s needs should take a hard look in the mirror.
— Carrie Whitney, 15 years teaching visual arts, Washington State public schools
Many students and parents don’t take the public health crisis seriously
The misinformation I encountered was a huge emotional drain and a slap in the face of educators who teach the importance of validity and credibility. The pandemic will never end if the general public won’t treat it as the health crisis it is instead of some conspiratorial agenda.
— Elliott Barnett, eight years teaching English language arts, currently at a public secondary school in Los Angeles
I am being stretched to my limit, with no support
I teach special education classes. The past two years have been a nightmare. At my previous job I was placed in a general education position in a grade I’d never taught right in time for in-school instruction. At my current job, my caseload continues to rise; I have 16 students in each of my classes, with no paraprofessional support. I also have to co-teach in three different grade levels. I’ve had to go back to therapy and anti-anxiety medications just to be able to go in every day.
— Kissena Fibleuil, four years teaching special education, currently kindergarten through second grade, Atlanta
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Administrators expected that everything would snap back into place
Kids are emotionally damaged, they’ve lost skills, and when you put 36 students in a classroom with a single teacher, there’s going to be a lot of struggle, a lot of triage. I think many educators felt pressure from their administrations.
We needed to ease our kids back into routines. Instead, the system chose to send them back, time-travel style, to February 2020 and then demanded answers for why things weren’t working out so well.
— Andrew Smith, 30 years teaching, currently economics and history in a Los Angeles County public high school
My class has the strongest bond of any I’ve ever taught
It’s really frustrating to hear people say that students have lost learning, as though the work we’ve done these past two years were meaningless. My remote instruction was really difficult to plan and deliver, but I still think it was effective. My students love and support one another and truly love and value learning in my classroom. They have an appreciation for being in school that some did not have before.
— Nell Becker, 12 years teaching, currently fourth and fifth grades at a public school in Harlem in New York City
I relaxed my expectations
Students were responsible for their work schedules during online learning. Some thrived; some failed; some did OK. And while the majority seem happy to be back in school, many are resisting the rigid bell-to-bell schedule. The effects of this whiplash are showing up in their behavior.
Kids need agency. I’ve prioritized shaping and strengthening my classroom community, making student empowerment central to my classroom culture. I’m finding that focusing on community first and academics second is actually creating higher academic achievement during this phase of the pandemic.
— Megan Sheppard, 21 years teaching math and science, currently sixth grade at a public school in Springfield, Ore.
I flipped my whole curriculum on demand
I made so many videos of my lessons, and the kids and parents told me they were good! I used my digital projector and my screen-casting app, and I recreated all my reading and writing workshop lessons. I was determined not to let my curriculum turn into memorization and answering meaningless questions. I still can’t believe I did it.
— Lydia Austin, 17 years teaching English language arts, currently at a public middle school in South Hamilton, Mass.
The lasting effects on students
Children question what education is for and whether it’s necessary
Much like the Great Resignation for adults, we are seeing kids pull away from school. They may or may not physically be there. Many aren’t willing to engage, even when teachers are being as innovative as they know how to be. That’s going to be very difficult to overcome.
— Rebecca Ritenour, 23 years teaching English, currently at a public high school in Champion, Pa.
Zoom school was a soul-sucking horror
My students went from engaged and excited learners to dead eyes on a screen. The screen only intensified their adolescent feelings of being constantly judged, so I usually had the choice of dead eyes or no eyes at all. I’ve been concerned about my own health but also deeply concerned about the health of my students and their families. I think anxiety will remain with all of them for a very long time.
— Tess Riesmeyer, eight years teaching middle school literature, writing and humanities at a private Montessori school in Pittsburgh
Students are in a different spot from where they should be
My biggest challenge during virtual learning was not being able to sit with students to finish important tasks like filling out financial aid applications for college. I work with high school students and had a handful drop out or have to spend another year in school because they started working full time during the pandemic. I had some leave their parents’ homes because of the stress of isolation, and some became parents themselves. Getting back to in-person learning has been good for their mental health and has allowed me to help with these transitions.
— Laurel Cutright, four years teaching high school science at a Milwaukee charter school
The advice they’d give their 2020 selves
When necessary, it’s OK to sacrifice academic content for the sake of getting to know one another
It’s more important than ever for students to feel connected — to one another, to their teachers and to their school community. Look for opportunities to foster that connection.
— Kora Wilson, 16 years teaching math, currently at a public middle school in Brooklyn
Trust your gut
You know remote learning is going to leave the most vulnerable behind. Advocate louder for something different. And just because kids are back in person doesn’t mean everything is good. That was not the case this year or last. It has been truly challenging and not at all normal.
— Jo-Anne Smith, 27 years teaching first and second grades at public schools, currently in Waterbury Center, Vt.
Teaching was a second career for me, but I burned out and left in October 2021. I think it is very hard for the general public to understand how much stress the pandemic added to an already insanely stressful job. I am grateful for my years teaching and sad that they have ended.
— Lisa Schroer, 12 years teaching math and computer science at public high schools, most recently in Kalamazoo, Mich.
How to move forward
Calling teachers heroes is not enough
Many teachers my age will never own a home, will never retire and are likely to face continued challenges to our livelihoods in the form of politically driven efforts to punish us for teaching in an inclusive and honest manner. Teachers need better salaries and more support in the classroom not only for their own financial and mental stability but also to attract more qualified candidates.
— Robert Dean, five years teaching history, currently at an independent secondary school in Seattle
Get rid of high-stakes tests
One thing that many schools did at the start of the pandemic was eliminate standardized testing. There will always be a major need to assess students’ abilities in various subject areas, but standardized testing isn’t it. Standardized tests are stressful and require students to behave in a very specific way. We know that students have fallen behind. Give us the chance to figure out where they are and assess growth from there.
— Jessie Garcia, seven years teaching high school German, currently at a private school in Atlanta
Restore the student body’s sense of what is possible
A lot of my students have lost their sense of optimism. The pandemic has stretched through a significant, formative part of their lives and constricted their sense of what’s possible. I’d love to see some kind of grant program to foster stronger connections between schools and their communities. Done well, it could help them return to the longer-term thinking that the pandemic has made so difficult.
— Josh Plocher, eight years teaching English, currently at a public high school in Hutto, Texas
Ms. Harris, Ms. Sawhney and Ms. Tarchak are staff editors in Opinion.
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