Let me start with this: I absolutely cannot imagine being a leader or decision-maker in schools right now. I wouldn’t willingly trade places with any of them on a good day, far less right now in the midst of the craziness that is COVID-19.

However, if you’ve been anywhere near a teacher—in person or online—you’ve likely seen, heard, or read about their building anxiety. To say we might have a few questions is an understatement. To say we are worried doesn’t quite cover it. To say we can’t imagine what it’s going to be like … well, we have a few guesses.

After centuries of poor treatment and disrespect (I highly recommend that you read The Teacher Wars), teachers are reaching their breaking points amidst the uncertainty of returning to school during a pandemic. Teachers have definite needs as districts plan a return to school.

Whether you’re reading that students are vectors for the virus, or that teachers should refuse to return to school, or you simply have had a conversation with a teacher, a few key ideas keep resurfacing. Teachers need more communication from leadership, teachers want to be heard, and teachers want to feel safe.

Teachers must have communication from their leadership

Let me reiterate: being in the position to make the decisions for going back to school would be the worst. Like, seriously, the worst. BUT that doesn’t excuse the lack of communication that so many teachers across the country are talking about.

For many of us, a few simple points of communication would suffice (for now):

  • Tell teachers what is being done: not the plan, yet, just how it’s being made.
  • Give teachers a basic timeline: here is our tentative plan for getting you information.
  • Check-in with teachers regularly: not just building admins, but the upper echelon leaders as well.
  • Just tell teachers SOMETHING. (I’m literally singing “Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies” right now because even that would be better than anxiety-ridden silence).

Teachers must feel heard

As a colleague said, “All I want is to feel like the people who control my employment care that we all have our own situations that make returning to school terrifying and we have to set up practices that alleviate that anxiety or we can’t do our jobs. I can’t think about teaching a novel if I’m scared in my room.”

We just want to feel heard. Teachers are problem solvers, logistical thinkers, and master coordinators. There is a great chance they have some insight into how things could be done. But admins won’t know if they don’t ask.

  • Ask teachers for input: send a survey (preferably not a couple of weeks before school starts when they all know it will make zero difference).
  • Let teachers know of their involvement in the decision-making process. Maybe even make it known which teachers, so their colleagues can reach out to them in trust.

Teachers must feel safe at their job

Teachers want to feel safe. That’s it. We are all living in a pandemic. It’s frightening. Everyone is suffering mentally and emotionally. The burden placed on K-12 educators this fall is too much, and the fear of it is crushing us. But, because of the pernicious and persistent image of teachers as martyrs, “the assumption of selfless devotion to students at the expense of one’s own needs still persists.”

Thus, teachers feel pressured into feeling that they have to return to school because their students need them. (Please note, I am not discounting the fact that our kids do need to socialize and to be around loving adults, but that is quite a burden to put on teachers’ shoulders when they have their own families to consider.)

Teacher safety is one of the needs that have to be considered for a return to school. Angela Watson, author of Fewer Things, Better: The Courage to Focus on What Matters Most says, “you are entitled to create a boundary if it helps you do your job more effectively, protects your time, or allows you to take better care of yourself.” Unfortunately, the boundaries available to teachers in this situation are limited. Essentially we have two choices: go to school and risk getting sick or bringing a dangerous illness home to our loved ones OR quit. Oh, and hurry up and decide so we can replace you!

Unfortunately, teachers don’t feel they can say the things that need to be said

They’re getting asked not to post their fears on social media and many don’t feel they can go to their leaders. Unfortunately, especially for women, “The expectation […] is that our communication style should be sweet and polite, rather than direct. The feelings of the listener should be prioritized over our own.” So, teachers sit anxiously and wait while decisions are made without them.

We sit here wondering if we are even part of the equation that is being solved.

Now is the time for great change, a revolution if you will, in education. So little has changed in the past 200 years, despite how the world outside the schoolhouse walls constantly evolves.

Now is the time to ask, how can we fix education? Can we make teaching a respected profession? How can we make learning relevant for kids? And, how can we erase the decades of outdated ideas about grades, and standardized tests, and whatever other nonsense is out there?

Unfortunately (you can call me Negative Nancy if you like) I don’t think we will take advantage of this opportunity. I think we will sit anxiously waiting for someone else to do something. And then, when schools do reopen, it will be back to “normal.”

What do you feel are the top teacher needs for a return to school? Are districts addressing them? Share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE Facebook group.

Plus, 11 Accurate Teacher Memes About School Reopening This Fall.

3 Things Teachers Must Have as Districts Plan a Return to School