Remote learning adds extra level of stress for Delaware teachers

Wendy Turner — a past recipient of Delaware Teacher of the Year honors — hasn’t felt this overwhelmed since she became a new mother 15 years ago.

“It is absolutely difficult and challenging,” she said. “Unequivocally, teachers are not OK.”

Life wasn’t just uprooted for the students when education was first forced to shift last year; it radically changed how educators do their jobs. And while teachers remain dedicated, it doesn’t mean the situation they’re in is easy.

There’s extra planning, stressors about their health, stressors about their students’ health — and the fact that there is an ongoing public health crisis that has impacted families, the economy and more.

Educators need to learn a new way to teach via remote learning, Ms. Turner said.

“For instance, my husband is working from home, but he’s essentially doing his job the same way. And teachers working from home, we’ve got to figure out how to do our job totally differently. So that involves a really significant investment of time and brainpower and everything — it’s just a really hard thing to do,” she said.

While it’s exciting to learn new technologies to move forward, it takes a lot of time.

“I’ve heard so many teachers saying they’re working 10, 12, 15 hours a day. They’re having trouble sleeping at night. They’re working all the time to try and get things done right because they want to do right by their kids. But it just takes so much longer,” she said.

Ms. Turner is a second-grade teacher at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School in the Brandywine School District. Each morning, she used to have a meeting on the carpet with her students where she’d call the children around and they would start their day. She’s had to create a visual representation of that now, with a picture of a carpet, digital sticky notes with kids’ names, which they select to show they have logged on.

“You have to do that every day for all the little things that you never used to have to do that for. So it just takes a lot of time and a lot of energy to figure that out,” she said.

Kim Carlson, a counselor at Smyrna Middle School and Delaware State Education Association’s National Education Association director, was a classroom teacher for 30 years before she moved into school counseling three years ago.

Wendy Turner, 2017 Teacher of the Year, sits in her remote classroom. Ms. Turner explains that while teachers are giving their ‘A-Game’ during an usual year, their mental health is taking a toll statewide. (Submitted photo)

“One of the shifts that I noticed is I feel like we’re starting from square one, from day one because everything’s changed,” she said. “So whereas before we could plan from our curriculum, we now have to take the curriculum, translate it into a virtual platform, and then we can present it. That’s added a big extra step.”

In Ms. Turner’s district, to help them learn skills necessary in a remote environment, there are professional development days or conferences when teachers are working.

In a regular year, students would be off. In 2020, however, that’s not the case. If teachers are doing professional development, they’re also creating work and lessons for students to access.

“It was like I was preparing to teach five days and do two days of conferences versus last year it was just three days of teaching and two days of conferences,” she said.

For many teachers now, their routine is shifting: they’re beginning to teach both in-person and remote under the hybrid model as the year goes on.

“That’s a huge stress,” Ms. Carlson said.

‘On the backs of our teachers’

The stress is no secret. At Capital School Board’s meeting Tuesday, the board and district officials talked for hours about the pros and cons of moving to a hybrid model in November. Ultimately, the board decided in a 3-2 vote they would begin bringing students back to in-person learning.

“It’s not going to be easy on anyone to set up a hybrid approach,” Paul Dunford, director of instruction, told the board. “If I stood here tonight and told you that was going to be a simple thing to flip a switch, it is simply not, just as it was not easy to begin the year remotely. We started remote on the backs of our teachers. And we will go to hybrid on the backs of our teachers as well. What I hope is that they see the satisfaction and feel the support as they’re moving forward. But I will tell you it’s a challenge.”

Board member Joan Engel expressed her concern at that.

“The teachers that I’ve heard from are — well, everybody knows — they’re absolutely overwhelmed,” she said. “And they’re still struggling with what this is going to look like.”

A teacher Ms. Engel had worked with during her time in the classroom — “a spectacular teacher,” she noted — wrote in an email concerns that were out of character from his normally laid-back self, she said.

“I don’t know how we’re taking care of these teachers that are just really overworked. All they do is work. I talked to a teacher at 10:30 at night and she was still working. I’m really worried about the whole situation; not just the kids, but the teachers’ well-being,” she said, noting that there has always been stress. “But now, it’s stress times 100,000.”

Hours later in the meeting, the point circled back.

Board member Sean Christiansen said he reached out to the president of A Center for Mental Wellness in Dover, which collaborates with Capital School District.

“She advised me, and I have sent this summary to my colleagues, that there’s been an uptick … of mental health outreaches from teachers, educators, families, educators that have families with children in school that they are playing both roles and they’re stressing out, just as you heard here tonight: ‘Am I doing the best job that I could be doing? When is this going to end?’” Mr. Christiansen said.

Dr. Joseph Zingaro, a psychologist at People’s Place in Milford, said he has heard from educators about the stressors they’re facing, particularly how much time this change has required. But they also have concerns about their health, he said, and bringing home illness to their families.

“The teachers were feeling more confident that they could reach out and connect with students and help them. But when you’re doing things virtually, if you see a student nodding off or turning their camera so you can’t even see the student, they’re playing with equipment. That adds a level of frustration that really just wasn’t there before,” he said.

Compassion fatigue

For a lot of educators, it’s more than planning that’s on their plates as well. In an article Ms. Turner penned for NEA, she wrote about “compassion fatigue,” where those can suffer from “secondary traumatic stress.”

“When we were in school, you knew that if kids were there, they were safe with you and they were with you and you didn’t have to wonder: are they engaging in the work if their camera is off? And what if they don’t show up, and what does that mean and are they OK?” she said.

“I think we are more at risk for compassion fatigue now than we would be in the regular school year, although we do experience that during a regular school year as well.”

As a counselor, Ms. Carlson is making a lot of phone calls to families of students who are not participating in school.

“Everybody’s emotions are running high,” she said. “And when we call a parent and you don’t know, are they working or not, how have they been affected economically, are they sick?”

She remembers, in the spring, a student had to live with their father because their mother and brother were sick.

“Sometimes the conversations don’t go well and there’s just so much frustration,” she said. “Sometimes [they] just kind of get dumped on me, which is great. I’m glad that I can give the parents an outlet. Or they’re frustrated, and it might come out another way.”

Ultimately — as has been proven when coronavirus first started cropping up in the U.S. — schools aren’t just for by-the-book learning. Schools feed students, provide physical and mental health services and are a form of child care. Educators help children understand the world around them — be that COVID-19, systemic racism and/or a contentious election season.

“Schools, as an institution, have become a much more significant part of our day-to-day lives, and that has increased the role that teachers are playing in our lives on a regular basis,” Dr. Zingaro said.

Schools are also one of the top reporting sources when it comes to referrals to the Division of Family Services — something educators know.

“It’s that same pressure and I think we just worry more,” Ms. Turner said. “As you’re engaging with the students in a virtual environment, you have to keep an eye on what you’re seeing and think about your students constantly. It’s almost like the stakes are bigger now.”

Ms. Carlson agreed, noting that teachers put a lot of pressure on themselves.

“In Smyrna, we’re a really close community,” she said. “That’s a lot of pressure to make sure we’re hearing from everybody and that everybody’s OK. Especially the ones where we know more of their background.”

‘They want to do right by everyone’

Before Ms. Turner spoke for this story, she put an inquiry into a virtual group of teachers to gauge how they were feeling. She received nearly 30 responses.

“I was almost brought to tears reading them,” she said.

Teachers wrote that they were terrified, that they felt their lives don’t matter. One teacher expressed suicidal idealization, others talked about their thoughts of leaving the profession. They wrote about their concerns for their families, how they feel undervalued.

“You can just hear the heartbreak in these notes,” she said. “It’s just very hard and the thing about teachers is that they want to do right by everyone. They don’t like being in this position. But they’re struggling. And it just is really, really, really hard.”

Even with some schools back in session for in-person learning, it isn’t the same. Class sizes are cut down and desks are distanced.

“It’s been so hard to come into the building, because the students fill it with life and energy and I feed off their energy and I don’t have that,” Ms. Carlson said. “You’re in your classroom, you have a sign on the door that says you’re in Zoom or recording lessons — Do Not Disturb. We don’t eat lunch together. Our faculty meetings are virtual. Definitely a sense of isolation in that respect.”

Despite that, she recalled the words from one of her colleagues that said, “We’re all in the same ocean. We’re just in a different boat.”

“We just want what’s best for the students,” she said. “We want to ensure that their mental well-being is taken care of. Because then we know that they will learn and that we don’t want the learning to stop either. So we’re doing everything we can.”

Dr. Zingaro said that, when this is all over, he’s certain there will be a greater appreciation for teachers.

“I think we have all come to appreciate to a greater extent how challenging their role is and, quite frankly, how dedicated this group of individuals are for the most part to do their very best to have their students not fall behind peers and subject matter,” he said.

That said, they need to take care of themselves.

“No one is immune to compassion fatigue,” he said, acknowledging therapists suffer from it, too. “If you’re not proactive about creating balance in your life, and managing your stress, you can become an at-risk individual.”

He urged educators to find balance.

“That’s the challenge because we don’t really know how long this is going to last,” he said. “And, quite frankly, it looks like at least, for this school year, we’re going to be doing things the way we’ve never done before.”

Ms. Turner added that, as districts and their educators navigate this together, teachers just want open communication and the ability to give input.

“Teachers are still the same — the most incredible, most hard-working, most caring people in the world who want to do well by their students. There’s no difference with that, but they’re just taking on a lot, as the pandemic continues,” she said.

“They have worries and fears about their families. And they’ve had to completely change how they do their job. Even the most superhuman of teachers is saying, ‘This is really, really hard, and I need you to listen to me and hear me, and value me, because I can contribute to the conversation around what’s going on right now.’”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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