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Teachers thought 2021 would be better. Instead, some say it's their toughest year yet

Many teachers thought 2021 was going to be a better school year than 2020, but a lot have found it to be harder as students are struggling to catch up after a year of remote and hybrid learning.
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Many teachers thought 2021 was going to be a better school year than 2020, but a lot have found it to be harder as students are struggling to catch up after a year of remote and hybrid learning.

Between COVID cases climbing because of the omicron variant and behavioral issues in the classroom, some teachers are ready to quit while others are breaking down in school bathrooms amid overwhelming pressure.

Educators are facing layers upon layers of stress as the pandemic continues. In Davenport, Iowa, Michael Reinholdt is a teacher coach, and after running a classroom last year knows the challenges of in-person learning all too well. Between students acting out, staffing shortages and a coming wave of omicron-driven infections, he says "teachers are drowning" and reaching their breaking point.

"They feel like they can't keep their heads above water," Reinholdt said. "They're responsible for not only the standards that they have in the classroom for this year, but they're also responsible for all of the lost learning for the last 18 months. They feel like they simply can't keep up."

Nearly two years into the pandemic, many teachers thought this year would be different. Sure, 2020 was tough between the transition to remote classes and then back to hybrid learning, but for teachers like pre-K educator Suzen Polk-Hoffses, it was hoped this year would be better.

But that isn't the case for Polk-Hoffses and her fellow teachers in Milbridge, Maine.

"I will tell you that the teachers I've spoken to in my district and throughout the state have just shared that this has been the worst teaching year of their life," she said. "Really, we just want to teach. We thought this was going to be over with. We thought that once everybody got vaccinated and we started wearing masks, that this would end, and this has become a nightmare."

Polk-Hoffses said the experience of teaching in a pandemic had some teachers in her state ready to leave the profession altogether.

As for the omicron variant, she said it was compounding problems that had been in the country's education system for years.

"We're trying to do the best we can, but we are imploding within," Polk-Hoffses said. "These are wonderful, dedicated, passionate teachers and we're all imploding. Never in a million years – I've been doing this for 21 years now ... I never thought I'd be imploding."

The problems teachers are facing are across all grade levels. Amber Wilson teachers English to 10th and 12th graders in Denver, Colo. She says she's doing OK, and that teaching in-person does make a difference because the students can see her face and she can see theirs, but it is still difficult as students have come back "with a whole host of other kinds of issues."

"A lot of what we're seeing is that trauma that has started to come out in ways that high school kids act out, right?" Wilson said. "So some discipline-type issues, just their attentiveness in class, trying to divorce them from their cell phone that they had unfettered access to all last year. So it's the normal high school things. It just feels like it's exponentially more."

These issues include what Wilson and others have deemed as "middle-school behaviors." It makes sense, Wilson said, because a lot of the kids entering high school missed out on formative middle school years that usually include maturing and learning how to act appropriately while at school.

Keeping kids in their seats and dealing with bathroom vandalism are just two of the issues Wilson mentioned as having happened at her high school.

Peter Faustino is a school psychologist in New York who has been in the field for more than 25 years. He serves on the board of directors for the National Association of School Psychologists and said in the first three months of the school year, school psychologists saw the same number of mental health and emotional issues that they would in an entire year before the pandemic.

"We're seeing, I think the effect of the pandemic and all of those issues really now in the forefront of our work," Faustino said, "where students and families are really saying, 'I can't keep going like this. I need help.'"

Those behavioral problems extend down to the elementary level as well, Reinholdt said. And it contributed to teachers feeling overwhelmed and at times breaking down and crying in bathrooms, Reinholdt said, because there was simply not enough time to deal with everything at hand.

"I work with the most passionate, dedicated professionals ... and they are feeling overwhelmed by this," he said. "The amount of responsibilities and the stresses that are put on them, both in the professional hemisphere and also in their personal lives here, and they're breaking down underneath it."

Reinholdt, Polk-Hoffses and Wilson all agree that they have no plans of leaving the classroom, but that teachers are struggling and need help so they don't lose what's driving them to be a teacher.

"I truly believe that education is a game changer for students, and it helped me and ... I'm not going to let this virus get me," Polk-Hoffses said. "I'm going to stay here. Virus, you're not going kick me out of my classroom."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Karen Zamora
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.