(updated after print deadline)
REGIONAL- The coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on the mental health of classroom teachers. So much so, that a recent statewide survey found that three out of …
(updated after print deadline)
REGIONAL- The coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on the mental health of classroom teachers. So much so, that a recent statewide survey found that three out of ten teachers were thinking about quitting or retiring from the profession.
The findings in a survey of Education Minnesota union members paints a bleak picture of how teachers are coping with the challenges of varied models of in-person, hybrid, and distance learning that are intended to keep students and staff safe from COVID-19, but create the need for long hours and different techniques to meet the needs of learners.
Half of those responding said they were worried about their own mental health. Three in four report feeling “overwhelmed” and four in five say they’re “stressed.” Conversely, only 13 percent said they felt “focused,” and only 12 percent reported feeling “happy.”
Teachers in ISD 2142 were well out in front of the survey, voicing nearly identical concerns at an early September meeting with district officials. In response, Superintendent Reggie Engebritson convened a team to look at changes to relieve one of the greatest stressors reported in the survey, the task of teaching in-person students and distance learners all at once in the same class. The added responsibilities of working with distance learners was keeping some teachers up until midnight working on lesson plans and learning activities and uploading recorded lessons to platforms like Google Classroom, it was reported at the meeting.
Last week, ISD 2142 realigned instruction across the district so that teachers from Kindergarten to sixth grade would either teach all in-class learners or all distance learners, but not both. Junior high and high school students were excused from in-person attendance on Wednesdays to give their teachers more time to address the needs of distance learners.
While the new system had only been in operation for a week, Engebritson said on Monday that the initial response from teachers has been good.
“I've heard only positive - high school teachers are thankful for Wednesdays and the elementary teachers are enjoying only having one type of learner - whether it is in-person or distance learners,” Engebritson said.
Principal John Vukmanich had a similar positive assessment for North Woods.
“I think that teachers are feeling better about what we are doing,” he said. “I sense a positive vibe in the building. I am trying my best to support the teachers and they seem relieved that there has been an effort made to help make a difficult situation better. I'm really proud of the North Woods staff for their positive outlook and willingness to work hard to support each other and our students.”
Education Minnesota Local 1406 President Tim Herring also weighed in with his perspective as a teacher and union leader.
“I took part in that survey, as well as many other educators, and I'm not surprised by the results,” Herring said. “We are ALL in unprecedented times. All of us including teachers, parents, students, custodians, paraprofessionals, cooks, aides, secretaries, principals and superintendents are adapting to this changing world. I'm thankful the administration listened and heard our concerns and made changes to the schedule to help with those concerns. I have had a few teachers voice concerns [about the changes] but the administration is willing to work with us to find solutions. We’re only a week into it, but I think it’s a step in the right direction.”
Given the feedback she had already received, Engebritson also wasn’t surprised by the survey’s findings.
“It's definitely a stressful time for everyone,” she said.
Engebritson said that the district hasn’t received any inquiries about retirement that she would consider out of the ordinary. Administrative staff remain vigilant in looking for signs of undue stress, and the district has some resources to assist teachers when they need it.
“We do have an employee assistance program and that information has been shared with staff,” Engebritson said. “I think the staff in each school are a close-knit group, so they can reach out to each other and they look out for each other. Principals, our director of teaching and learning and myself are also available to talk and we are continually telling staff we are here for them.”
Ely Education Association President Tim Omerza said that teachers in his district were working to remain upbeat for their students in the face of increased demands and stresses.
“Overall, I believe the teachers at Ely Public Schools are happy to be back (after last spring) with as many students as we do have in classes,” Omerza said. “There is a general feeling of being safe or fairly safe amongst the members of our group. We teach because we love education and we love being around young people who want to learn. There are stresses though that many of our members are not used to. The teaching of both students sitting in front of you in our classrooms AND the teaching of students at home distance-learning has become an issue in terms of preparation, oversight, time spent, and energy. The demands of both types of teaching going on at the same time vary from young elementary to older elementary to junior high school to high school. We look forward to working with the students throughout the year and will do everything we can to overcome the difficulties imposed on us by the pandemic.”