'A Big Juggling Act': Teachers Reflect on How COVID-19 Changed Them and Schools
When the news started to spread that the Coronavirus was in the United States and we would have to go into lockdown, it seemed like it might just last a week or two. Everyone expected everything would go back to “normal” in no time. But reality quickly set in for Nina Lokar, a high school teacher in the Bronx, that her school might never be the same again.
New York City was one of the hardest-hit areas when the pandemic first started, and Lokar saw it happening in real-time as she finished out the 2019-2020 school year over Zoom. And she wasn’t the only one. Teachers all across the country had to adjust their curriculums and rearrange their personal lives as classrooms went fully remote.
Nearly 93% of households in the United States reported that their school-age children participated in some form of distance learning during COVID-19. And for nearly every household that participated in virtual learning, there was an educator on the other side of that screen who was virtually teaching for the first time in their career.
While Lokar was lucky her use of technology in the classroom before the pandemic made the transition easier, some educators like Melissa Cox faced a serious learning curve when remote learning started. “It was very hard because I felt like I was a first-year teacher all over again,” said Cox, who works at Dowell Elementary School in Calvert County, Maryland. “I always thought I was a flexible teacher, but having to relearn my job was really hard.”
On top of that, some teachers were left with little guidance when it came to what they should do. “If I could give you a picture of what the education system has looked like the past two years,” Lokar said, “it’s the phrase: ‘Here you go. Goodluck. But don’t fail.’”
Cox had a similar experience. “It’s been a big juggling act, and sometimes all those balls just fall,” she admitted when talking about what it’s been like to teach during the pandemic.
Her colleague, Veronica Muzzey, echoed that. Muzzey also explained that the difficulties when the pandemic started didn’t stop with adjusting teaching methods and practices. On top of changing their work style, Muzzey said teachers who were instructing virtually now had to compete with everything at home to keep their students’ attention.
For Lokar, this look into her students’ lives at home felt like an invasion of privacy that drew attention to and worsened the equity issues that already exist in our school system. Some students were lacking access to Wi-Fi and desks, while others simply couldn’t find a quiet place to work due to their siblings and parents learning and working from home.
“It’s been a big juggling act, and sometimes all those balls just fall.”
However, in a weird way, these challenges forced teachers to better their practices by finding new ways to impart the curriculum. Muzzey and her coworkers at Calvert County Public Schools were forced to reinvent the wheel to keep students engaged, especially when it came to finding creative ways to virtually teach students with disabilities. And Lokar admitted that although the past two years have been some of the worst years for her personal mental health, they have been the best years for her professional career as an educator because she continues to find new ways to create flexible, inclusive spaces to help her students learn and grow.
And flexibility has truly been the name of the game for the past two years. The “maybe this will only last a week or two” thought that people had at the beginning of the pandemic became a distant memory when teachers and students began a hybrid model—a mix of virtual and in-person classes—for much of the 2020-2021 school year. And even now as mask mandates finally disappear and we enter the last few months of the 2021-2022 school year (for most of which schools have been in-person), the changes and effects of the past two years are ongoing.
Jessica Gentile, an English teacher at Calvert High, has faced many of the same challenges as these other educators. She also has noticed the toll it has taken on her students. While she believes the learning loss isn’t as horrible as it’s made out to be, she has noticed her students have struggled with the transition to and from high school. Her current freshmen haven’t had a normal school year since the 6th-grade and her seniors face the difficulties of being unprepared for college life and their future career path. Additionally, Gentile has noticed her students' motivation is at an all-time low.
While the students continue to struggle, so do the teachers, whose best efforts are met with criticism as teacher retention rates continue to plummet.
For many, it’s difficult to comprehend why teachers are fleeing their jobs in droves. But it’s pretty easy to understand once you sit down for a conversation with any educator. Muzzey and Cox both said that they’re just tired. So much more goes into being a teacher than people realize. And while the work is extremely fulfilling, they said it can be difficult for teachers to come back to their “why.”
When asked what she would most like others to know about what it’s like for teachers right now, Lokar said: “Teachers aren’t treated like humans, they’re treated like robots. There’s no work-life balance. There’re no boundaries… But if I make those boundaries, who gets affected the most? The kids. And all good teachers are going through that. Do I burn myself out every single week, or do I let my kids suffer?”
And the last thing any teacher wants is for their students to suffer. Because at the end of the day, the students are the reason these four teachers (Lokar, Cox, Muzzey, and Gentile) along with thousands of others continue to show up. “Seeing the kids grow… that’s why I do this,” said Cox. “Because I am making a difference.”
While some of them have doubted they can keep going, their love for the work they do has kept their motivation alive for the past two years and continues to spark their hope that things will get better moving forward. But before things can get better, Lokar admonishes that real change needs to occur in our education system. Our teachers aren’t robots. They’re real people with lives and problems outside of work who we need to be properly supported. And when we support our teachers, we give them the ability to create better learning environments for our students.
But, until then—while we continue to fight for that change—as Cox said, “Tomorrow is a new day, so we trek on.”
Ready to help change our education system? Here are three ways you can help:
Kayla Kingston is the Communications Specialist for MCIE. A recent graduate of the University of Dayton, she loves reading, writing, and supporting all things inclusion.