You don’t have a specific time to be online for classes, but you set your alarm for 5:30 so you can get everything done.
You can’t reach some of your students virtually. So, you call and text them, their parents, and the siblings or cousins you taught three years ago. All to make sure they’re okay.
You keep planning ahead for your virtual lessons, but then completely change the plan when you realize that a different format might reach your students better.
You’re constantly being pulled in five different directions by students, administrators, your own children, a spouse, a parent, or another obligation.
The pandemic has been hard on everyone, and we all know how lucky we are to have jobs that we’re still getting paid for and that we can (sort of) do virtually. But the emotional weight of quarantine is taking a toll on teachers, and the consequences are real.
Caregiver burnout occurs when the burden of taking care of others results in physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. And teachers are especially susceptible.
First of all, teaching is different from other jobs; we’ve always known that. It’s not possible to really “leave work at work.” There will always be that kid you worry about, the one who shows up to class hungry, or the one who’s suddenly started wearing long sleeves every day and spending way too much time in the bathroom.
Good teaching is based on loving and connecting with children. And, it’s incredibly anxiety-inducing when you can’t check in with your kids and make sure they’re okay. Not being able to reach our students can cause us to feel helpless and ineffective. And a lot of us are willing to expend a ridiculous amount of energy to avoid those feelings. Hence the 1,000 phone calls and texts to track down that eighth grader who’s just ghosting you to spend all day playing Fortnite.
There’s also the fact that most teachers are women and women shoulder the bulk of childcare and household responsibilities in most families.
You would think that, now that we’re home with our kids all the time, the crushing mom guilt would go away. Instead, for many of us, it’s intensified with the impossibility of meeting all the demands at the same time. Do I schedule an extra Zoom session to go over a project, even though only two kids showed up for the last one? If I do, I have to park my kids in front of the TV—again—instead of spending time with them. They feel anxious and confused by all the changes in their lives, and they need more attention and love than usual. Yet, I feel like I have less time and energy than ever left over for them. Parent and teacher burnout.
I juggle the conflicting demands of teaching and parenting, but other teachers have even greater challenges. What about teachers who have members of their families who are sick? Or elderly parents? Or any of a million other caretaking obligations that make virtual teaching even more difficult? After the first week or so of quarantine, plenty of parents went on social media to proclaim that teachers deserve a million dollars an hour.
What we need is not a raise (although that would be great). We need a break.
We run around frantically trying to meet everyone’s needs when what we need is a moment. A moment to step back, take a deep breath, and do some triage. Take a step back from the teacher burnout. We need the freedom to say, “Right now I have to prioritize my family’s needs, and I’ll respond to your email or phone call within the next 48 hours.” We need a reduction in absurd demands from county offices or administrators. (Did anybody else have to post their grades three separate times according to county policy? Because I did!). And rather than being hailed as heroes who refuse to let any child fall behind, we need to be recognized as humans who have limited emotional reserves.
I don’t know when we’ll be back in school, or what it will look like when we are. With the economy looking like it is, I’m afraid it will end up an equation of more responsibility, fewer teachers, less resources, and more restrictions. For our sake and for the sake of our students, teachers need a break from the constant caretaking, and we need the emotional and logistical support to be able to do our jobs.
Are you feeling teacher burnout? Are you in danger of caretaker collapse? Share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE.