Stephanie Stoebe: A parent called me, and they had a problem with a login of one of our resources. And so, they asked the question: “So, by the way, how are you doing, Stephanie?” I just lost it. I started crying because no one seems to be asking me that. Everyone thinks, “Okay. It must be going okay.”
Victoria Wang: That was Stephanie Stoebe, a fourth-grade teacher in Round Rock ISD. She is one of the thousands of Texas teachers who have been working from home since schools closed in March. Stephanie used to be an interrogator in the army, so she’s no stranger to tough situations. But the past few months have been especially hard for her.
Stephanie: I was waiting and waiting for someone to announce we’re not going back. When the governor announced, you know, schools are going to remain closed for the rest of the year, I was like: “Well, that’s it. When we left for spring break. That was my goodbye to the kids.” That was really one of the, I think, defining moments in my career that I’m never going to forget.
Dala Henry: I hate this, “It’s the new normal. It’s the new normal.”
Victoria: That voice is from Dala Henry, a special education instructional coach at Bryan ISD. On a normal school day, Dala would be making her way around the five different schools that she supports. But now, she’s at home with her husband and daughter, supporting her teachers and students from behind a computer screen.
Dala: This is not vacation time for us. I think some people are thinking, “They’ve got all this time.” No, I would have to say we are working just as hard, if not harder, because we’re having to figure out the best ways to meet the kids in this type of setting.
Victoria: From Raise Your Hand Texas, I’m Victoria Wang, and this is Intersect Ed, where the stories of Texas public education policy and practice meet.
Victoria: In the first episodes of Intersect Ed, we’re telling the stories of our teachers. We’ll be focusing on Texas educators rising to the challenge of COVID-19 — how it has affected them mentally in their daily work and in their relationships with students and each other.
Victoria: As Dala said, this time has been no vacation for educators. They’ve been working late nights learning new technology, making remote learning as equitable as possible for all students, calling families to make sure they have needed resources, even trying to reach missing students — all while managing their own households and fears during this pandemic. So many teachers have been striving to meet the academic and emotional needs of their students during this time. But it’s time to ask the question: How has this impacted their mental health?
Victoria: To get more insight into how COVID-19 might be impacting our teachers, we talked to Travis Bauer, a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He has worked as a clinician for teachers in the past, and he is currently conducting research on the mechanisms that exacerbate teacher stress.
Travis Bauer: Teachers, in my opinion, are chronically underpaid, under-resourced. There are a lot of demands just from the jump to a teacher’s experience in the classroom.
Travis: When we talk about teacher stress in the academic literature, often the big way to conceptualize it is through this theory of stress called the transactional theory. That basically says that people are at higher risk for stress when the demands that they have are outweighed or outweighing the resources that they have to meet them. In the example of teachers, a lot of the data that we’ve seen on a big level has shown that teachers just lack specific resources to get support. If they don’t have any resources to meet them, then it makes sense that they would be at high risk for stress
Susan Hansen: My 15 years in teaching, you don’t turn it off.
Victoria: That voice was from Susan Hansen, a fourth-grade dual-language teacher. She shared about the unique challenges she encountered when she moved into the teaching career.
Susan: You’re constantly trying to think: “How can I do better? How can I reach all of my students? How can I balance all these expectations of curriculum and testing and all that?”
So I don’t think people realize that even though we might not be in school every day, your brain is constantly engaged in this work.
Travis: And now we’re in a zone where, overlaid on top of all of that stuff, is the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic.
Victoria: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about many changes for our educators. From working from home, to planning online lessons, to holding office hours now. The average workday for teachers has changed drastically over the past few months.
As Travis said earlier, teachers are at higher risk for extreme stress when their demands outweigh their available resources. And because school closures have kept teachers from going into their classrooms, they’re now finding themselves grieving the loss of an essential resource that they usually have every day to keep them going: their students.
Travis: Teachers draw a lot of energy from their students. Right? It’s the reason they’re there. A lot of teachers love interacting with students, or just like the weird day-to-day interactions of just pinging off kids in class. There’s so many bits of that that are a resource to teachers that really give energy and keep them coming back.
Susan: You have, you know, 18 kids sitting in front of you on the screen, and your brain and your heart is trying to connect with each of them, but they’re not there. You see them, but the distance, this virtual distance, causes some sort of a dissonance in your brain and in your heart.
Dala: I think I’m grieving.I’ve been in education for 30 years. I’m an educator, and I also am a real believer that humans, we are made to be together.
Stephanie: I feel really disconnected from my students. I see kids checking out. I see the kids who are usually prolific writers and great speakers and deep thinkers give me one-word answers, or, you know, fragments of a thought on some of their online assignments.
Stephanie: I’ve tried to reach out to my students; I wrote every single student a letter. And in the letter, I put an envelope addressed to me with a stamp on it saying, “Please, write me.” That closeness, that community that we’ve worked so hard, all of us, to build throughout the entire school year, it seems as if it’s just gone.
Stephanie: I’m with the two people that I love the most in the world, but there are 23 other people that I love, too, and I’m not with them.
Victoria: It’s clear that the work of our educators is driven by relationships with their students, and as Susan and Stephanie stated so passionately, the loss of student connection these past few months has weighed heavily on their hearts. The fleeting conversations they’ve had online could never, truly replace the community they’ve worked so hard to build within the walls of their classroom.
And on top of their loss of connection, the quick transition into emergency remote learning has exponentially increased the emotional demands that our teachers have been facing. For Susan and Stephanie, school closures have made it almost impossible to find balance between their work and home lives, and they’ve found themselves incessantly worrying about their students and families —where they are, how they’re doing, why they’re not responding, and more.
Stephanie: I have two students who – They’re absent from their online lessons. The parents, who I’ve had continuous contact with throughout the year, are not returning my text messages, emails, and phone calls, and that has me worried.
Susan: Parents are writing me and saying, “We’re really having a hard time getting our child to do anything, and I’m working, so I can’t sit next to her or to him.”
Stephanie: I have a child who gets food every day from the school, and there are two charities that bring her food. Is she getting enough food?
Susan: I kept worrying about the scenes in every home like, “Are we causing more stress? Are we causing more conflict?”
Stephanie: I know that one of my students is involved in some trauma right now. I know that one is going through a divorce. I know one that has his father getting ready to deploy, and it’s tearing me apart.
Susan Hansen: “How do I set this up so that everyone can have access? How do I set it up so that I’m not rewarding privilege, and I’m not rewarding resources and affluence?”
Stephanie: I’m wondering, are they home alone? Are their parents experiencing a job loss? Are their parents working overtime? Are they depressed? How is their mental health?
Stephanie: It’s just this constant battle between caring for them so deeply that leads me to very anxious and high-level amounts of stress.
Victoria: As the school year has come to a close, and as there are still so many questions regarding what schools will look like in the fall, it’s hard to know what we can do to help. I asked our guests what they think can best support our teachers during this time of transition and uncertainty.
Travis: I think just acknowledging, like, the reality is really powerful and necessary.
Travis: What I’m thinking about teachers in this time is just really how much they need to take care of themselves and really extend compassion to themselves for what’s going on. And to really give themselves room to feel the kind of collective grief that we’re experiencing, because we probably will not return to the same world, you know, that we left. The best thing we can do is just support each other and really try to build a basic connection and just check in with each other because a lot of people are just feeling scared or confused. And that it’s okay to prioritize those things.
Victoria: And district leaders have been prioritizing connection: Bruce Gearing is the superintendent of Leander ISD, and he’s been working to ensure that everyone in his district, first and foremost, is physically and mentally healthy.
Bruce: The message that I’ve been pushing hardest throughout the whole thing is the wellness and safety of our community and our families and our faculty matters more to me right now than anything else.
Victoria: Bruce has supported teachers throughout the school closures by being very deliberate and intentional in his language. By making it clear that this was an emergency, crisis situation, he decreased the pressures and demands that have been weighing so heavily on our teachers’ minds.
Bruce: One of the big things we tried to do upfront is say, “We’re going to implement emergency remote learning.” That’s what we’re calling it. The reason that I think that’s important is because. We were not prepared to pivot in a week’s time from full in-class physical interaction with kids to full remote learning for all students.
Bruce: We really try to make people understand that this is not the same as physical school and you can’t treat it that way.
Victoria: And back in Bryan ISD, Dala Henry, our special education coach, has noticed that certain school administrators have been putting in increased effort to strengthen school culture and boost teacher morale.
Dala: I have to say I commend some of our schools, the administrators, they’re having trivia nights, where the different contents are getting together, and they’re competing against each other. They’re having, I don’t know if it’s teacher of the month or what, but they’re winning Amazon gift cards. They really have tried to continue to build that comradery in their group.
Dala: Some of them, they were on it, and I would say those were from those schools where there is that culture of “we’re going to care, we care for you, you care for the kids, everyone’s in this together.”
Victoria: And looking forward to the future, what could we do that would support teachers in the long run?
Bruce: Something we want to leverage as we go forward, even if we come back to regular school, is how do we take the things that we’re doing better now in this environment and put them back into place as we get back to a more regular environment?
Dala: This is a time that we can focus on some training for them that is going to only help them become better educators — whether they’re teaching remotely or if they’re teaching in a building.
Travis: Give teachers more resources, whether it’s paying them more, giving them access to mental health services. Also, giving teachers autonomy and trust.
We all need to be supported, and teachers face so many demands, and I think the more that stakeholders who can influence policy understand that and can support teachers so that they can meet those demands. It’s critical.
Center decisions on what is best for the teacher. Not so that it can help the student, but just because the teacher is a human being.
Victoria: This pandemic has brought to light the cracks that exist within our educational system, the indispensable role that our schools hold within our communities, and the difficulties that teachers face on a daily basis.
But most importantly, it has taught us so much about what truly drives our educational system — the heart, the strength, and the connection that our educators bring to our students inside their classrooms.
Bruce: Change is an opportunity to do something amazing. I see this as an opportunity for us to do some of the things that we’ve been wanting to do for a while, and this provides a catalyst for us to do that.
Victoria: So let’s listen to our teachers’ stories. Let’s invest in them. Let’s advocate for the resources they need — not only so they can continue educating future generations — but also because, simply put, they are people, too.
Victoria: From Raise Your Hand Texas, I’m Victoria Wang, and this is Intersect Ed. Coming up in our next episode, you’ll hear from some more educators on what happens behind the scenes during a day-in-the-life of emergency remote learning.
Thank you for listening to Intersect Ed. if you want to learn more about how to support Texas public education or how to get involved, head over to RaiseYourHandTexas.org.