The pandemic poses challenges for teachers this school year, but there are ways to make the return easier.

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Not many people could have imagined that a public health crisis would lead to schools shutting down for weeks, let alone months or an entire school year in some areas.

Now that many schools are returning to in-person learning, a majority of teachers are embracing opening school doors.

According to a survey by the National Education Association (NEA), 76% of teachers in the association say they’re ready for full-time, in-person instruction with an additional 22% saying they’ll return if required.

As teachers head back, they’re aware of the challenges they’ll face. But there are ways to help make this school year a success.

Educators face several barriers as they try to get back to in-school learning.

Teacher shortages

In the NEA survey, 32% of its members reported plans to stop teaching sooner than they anticipated due to the pandemic. This is a 4% jump from the previous year.

The numbers are higher for People of Color and those with more than 20 years of experience.

Pay scale and the pressure and anxiety of teaching may contribute to these shortages.

However, Gina Harris, culture and climate coach in the Oak Park, Illinois school district, and adjunct professor at Roosevelt University, says while the pandemic may have some influence on the increase, not having enough qualified professionals is always a concern.

“In the district I’ve worked in, the shortage is already a factor,” Harris says. “For instance, we have trouble getting substitute teachers. Plus, nationwide enrollment is down for teaching.”

Keeping children safe and ready to learn

With uncertainty around the coronavirus and an uptick in cases due to the Delta variant, Harris says educators are focused on their students’ safety and ensuring they feel comfortable enough so they can focus on learning.

“What we know is that if their brains are occupied in fight, flight, or freeze mode, then they’re not going to be able to focus on learning,” she says. “Everything about the pandemic creates a certain amount of uncertainty trauma that makes it so that… not knowing what is going to happen doesn’t feel like a safe space.”

“For students and educators, we want to create the safest space we can to maximize the learning processes,” she adds.

Adapting to new ways of teaching quickly

Uncertainty of whether schools will remain open, go hybrid, or fully remote adds tension. Learning to adapt to remote learning is an additional source of stress, says Harris.

“We are one of the few industries that completely transitioned all of what we do to a virtual environment in a number of days,” she notes. “We left school on Thursday, and by Monday, we were remote and trying to figure out how to teach in that environment and what to do and learning all over again.”

“I heard many veteran teachers say they felt like it was their first year teaching all over again,” she says.

Getting support from schools can make the work of educators a lot easier. Here are some ways schools can show their support:

Consider keeping teachers informed

While the course of the virus and the pandemic is unpredictable and forces schools and districts to change policies and plans quickly, keeping teachers in the loop as much as possible can help them prepare for how best to educate their students.

Try to listen to what teachers need

Hearing teachers’ input and thoughts on how best to serve their students and themselves is one way schools can provide support.

“We’ve just come through a really trying time,” says Harris. “Listening to our concerns and needs can help make the environment the best it can be for our students.”

This might include providing training around technology and virtual avenues of connecting with students, as well as giving teachers access to tech support.

However, flooding teachers with too many websites, learning platforms, and other resources can add to teacher burnout since they’re viewed as demands rather than resources, according to a Canadian survey conducted by The Conversation.

The survey found that offering teachers resources that focus only on a few familiar teaching mechanisms before gradually providing more complex options was most helpful.

Try to avoid implementing new programs and processes

Since some teachers went back to part-time or full-time in-person learning last school year, they have some understanding of what it means to teach in school during the pandemic.

However, Harris says teachers still need time and space to figure out what students need, and adding in a new curriculum or processes that don’t relate to pandemic learning can cause extra stress.

“It’s not much different than what our students need,” Harris says. “Their learning environment is our working environment, so it’s important educators feel supported and know they have time and space to recalculate.”

Consider building in time for mental wellness

According to a survey of K–13 school employees, due to the pandemic, when at work:

  • 63% report feeling stressed
  • 54% report burnout and fatigue
  • 47% report feeling anxious

Harris says embedding stress-relieving activities into the school day can help.

“When you come in the morning, one of the routines our building has set up is to encourage people to take a few deep breaths and check in to see what their emotional state is,” she mentions. “Normalizing how we check in on our mental well-being is important. We need to do more.”

Communities can support educators who are returning to school in the following ways:

Try to remember that you’re a community

Harris says communities need to keep in mind that schools are not isolated buildings where children are sent. They’re part of the community.

In an interview with the NEA, she states: “A school is an integrated part of our community. So we can start to figure out how to partner with what’s already in our area. What universities are in our neighborhood? How do we pull in college students through internships? How do we pull in organizations who are doing mental wellness work? We have to have these larger ways of being connected.”

Consider volunteering to help

According to Savings.com, the average amount teachers spend on supplies for their room without getting reimbursed is $511.

With more hand sanitizer and wipes needed during the pandemic, you may be able to help alleviate the costs.

Whether it’s providing specific support to local schools — like donating cleaning supplies — or donating gift cards to teachers to help them engage in self-care, offering your help shows you support schools and the community at large.

Try to get to know your educators

Educators put a lot of effort into learning about their students — what they need, where they come from, and who they are.

“There is some benefit with us being in a relationship with the communities we serve in ways that allow them to know who we are as well,” Harris says. “At the heart of how we can do better is what kind of relationships we have with one another.”

Putting in effort to get to know who your educators are can go a long way.

“Recognize we are all coming back from this,” Harris advises. “The fear the communities have are the fears educators have, too. Educators have families too and kids going back into school buildings. Nothing is happening in a vacuum. We are all in this together.”

In addition to practicing the tips suggested to communities, parents can also show support to educators in the following ways:

Try to let educators know you support them

Simply telling your teachers that you support them means a lot.

Harris suggests saying something like, “I’m going through this, and I know you are too. We’re here to support you and we know this is going to be a tough school year to transition to.”

Consider staying connected

Reaching out to your educator to stay on top of your child’s progress helps keep a line of communication open.

“As an educator, I don’t get overwhelmed by my parents being engaged, reaching out, communicating regularly,” Harris shares. “That’s good. We are partners in the development of your child.”

Try to support your child

Ensuring your child is prepared for class and getting support at home to complete assignments can help free up time for teachers to focus on extra work created by the pandemic.

Try to avoid placing blame

Blaming teachers and administration for policies and plans set in place during the pandemic does not benefit students.

“There tends to be blaming and chatter,” Harris says. “But that’s not productive. We’re all here on the same team trying to ensure that kids get what they need, so they can learn in a thriving space.”

Finding time for self-care can go a long way when stress is high.

“It’s important to build in self-care for yourself, not just your students,” Harris says. “Downtime is [a] big piece for educators.”

“Our work doesn’t end when we leave — there are papers to grade, lessons to plan, and we’re always tweaking and making things better,” she says. “So, it’s important to make sure that at least for an hour in the evening we are breathing, running, or whatever it is that calms us down.”

Mental Health America suggests teachers incorporate these self-care tips into their life:

Try to turn off work

Set limits for when you grade papers and answer parent emails. You can even give parents a window of time in a given day for when you’re available to answer emails.

Consider taking a break from news and social media

If you notice yourself becoming affected by the news or what people post on social media — especially if it’s about how your district, school, or the teachers you work with are running things — it might be time to take a break.

Try to incorporate exercise into your day

Although you’re on your feet a lot as a teacher, moving around in a way you enjoy, like walking, biking, running, or yoga, can help keep you feeling good mentally and physically.

Try to connect with others

If seeing friends and family in-person makes sense and is safe, doing so can help you keep your mind off work. If you feel more comfortable doing so virtually, organizing a weekly video chat with family or friends can keep you connected, too.

And if you’d like to connect with your fellow teachers outside of work and your community, Harris says there are fun ways to do so.

“We have four culture and climate coaches in my building,” Harris says. “We coordinated some community-based self-care activities — such as virtual cooking classes and virtual yoga for students, parents, teachers, and support staff. It was a great way for everyone to feel whole and good.”

As teachers head back to school, there are ways that schools, the community, and parents can help support them and nourish a successful school year.

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