From G.O.A.T. to Goat: Will 2022 bring a tipping point for teachers?

In the first half-year of Covid, teachers were among the Greatest – the G.O.A.T.’s who would keep us sane, learning and growing because, “that’s what they do.” It was common to hear about our “heroes of the classroom”, keeping the world safe and robust for education no matter where they had to practice. (Healthcare workers experienced even more reverence, and their related descent into enmity from so many is another post.)

Now teachers are more often the “goat”, short for “scapegoat” – blamed for our educational trouble by not caring enough; labeled greedy for demanding more pay and benefits, cowards for resisting the move to the “front-lines” where their health may be at-risk, and traitors for teaching established, hard and relevant truths that many now seek to deny and obscure.

Is there a tipping point ahead for the 3.5 million American teachers under such stress? Let me back up for a moment.

High stress factors in personal life include fundamentals like food insecurity, unsafe environments, natural disasters, death of a loved one, divorce, moving, job loss, major illness or injury – any one of which may lead to negative outcomes if unaddressed. A combination of two or more such factors can quickly erode one’s capacity to thrive. And when they occur altogether without a massive response, the possibility for healthy living tips over into the nearly impossible.

Systems respond to cascading stress in a similar manner. Living with a public-school teacher for 25 years, contributing a daughter to the arena, and enjoying a multitude of educator friends; I have heard many of the flaws and joys inherent in the system over the years. Lately the tone has changed and I wonder if we are about to tip our teachers into the impossible. No mass teacher exodus has yet occurred, but the trends in high poverty districts may be leading indicators. Sadly because it will not surprise anyone as 2022 begins, an enormous disparity in the system-wide negative impact on students of color in this season is clearly visible. This reality alone ought to prod all of us into acting now on behalf of teachers and students. But humans tend to sit still until we experience the negative impact personally. Waiting to see if the toxic tidal wave will consume Whiter, wealthier districts is not only a moral failure, but dangerously short-sighted. Here’s why…

Five unwieldy stress factors for teachers seem to be peaking at the same time – some new, some chronic – but all acute and cascading in 2022, raising the capacity for moral injury in the field and subsequent shifts in communal behavior.

Connecting the dots:

As a rule, anxiety in a system should be moved up the organizational ladder for knowledgeable and timely resolution. However the reverse will hit teachers in 2022 as the overwhelming weight of unresolved anxiety in the educational system is pushed down from the top and moved over from partners through…

tectonic shifts in school boards, superintendent surrender, and parent animosity.

Tension between parents, teachers, students and administrators is always an ingredient in education, and that’s not a bad thing. Partnership that supersedes and complements the tension among these four dimensions is the mark of a healthy system. In recent years however, the culture wars sharpening in America have chosen public education as a penultimate battlefield. Bullying and bending school systems to the will of parents and groups of parents has become a common spectacle around the educational sphere. And it doesn’t take much to lay waste to collaboration. Whether addressing the wearing of masks or the teaching of U.S. history or almost any hard truth, “parental rights” have taken on the countenance of threat to get their way. Superintendents are resigning in unprecedented numbers as Covid takes its inevitable psychological toll on leadership. School boards, often caught in the middle, are the target of MAGA trolls who see their takeover as the solution to political influence. What will teaching look like when subjected to such overbearing pressures in the long term?

Such top-down anxiety which does not belong to teachers who have no place to put it, multiplies the already rising anxiety of teachers on behalf of their students in 2022 through the lens of…

falling behind and falling enrollment.

The fear of children falling behind in virtual school has been largely realized, with the result that a teacher’s “raison d’etre” has come under fire in uncertainty and frustration. And if the anxiety of students falling behind isn’t enough, 3 million students disappeared from public schools in the season of Covid – more than 3x the total number of all students in Maryland alone. Wearied and worried, teacher days now require extensive extra work to catch up, and for some, even knocking on doors to find the kids under their care. Though some students have returned, there is reason to believe we will never get the majority of the missing back in school. Perhaps 3-5% of our 48M student population are gone forever.

Of course anxiety created by the missing and falling behind is compounded within the chronically maddening reality of…

modest and frozen compensation.

As anxiety rises in any difficult arena, a question arises synchronously, “Why should I stay here?” Teacher pay, long the nemesis to growing a sustainable pipeline of great candidates, now threatens to diminish even those who see this career as a calling. It’s just too hard given the average teacher workday of nearly 11 hours. It’s just too hard to continue while trying to supplement one’s income to a level where one can thrive. In 2020, teachers made about 20% less than other professionals with similar education and experience. Funding meaningful growth in teacher pay will be even more difficult in 2022. In America funding is set per-pupil, so each missing child means less money. Instead of conversations about funding the “value” of a highly trained and dedicated teacher, hiring freezes and scaling back resources dominate the educational dialogue.

And the anxiety connected to living well without an appropriate wage magnifies in teachers…

deadly daily environment.

The navigational shifts of in-class, hybrid, and virtual space remains a remarkably efficient stress-inducing ingredient on the mental health and well-being of a teacher. It’s a killer. Solutions designed to ease constant transitions have instead produced an unremitting learning curve in every domain as teachers are made to switch platforms, initiate new curriculum, and oversee constant, trouble-induced change. Buildings long overdue for rehab now constitute additional threats to well-being through poor ventilation and crumbling infrastructure.

On top of that, daily environmental stress is heightened when there is no relief due to…

the disappearance of substitutes and staff shortages.

The current circumstances that feature canceled classes, rotating units of unqualified staff members into classrooms, and partial cohorts of students sent to other teachers already full classroom, increases the daily anxiety load. How does one go about finding a qualified sub these days? How does a teacher make the decision to take a day off without placing unbearable pressure on colleagues? So far these questions go unanswered as school systems lower hiring standards and explore the possibility of higher pay scales for substitutes to lure them back to a fraught classroom.

Where there is no respite and no easily accessible relief – anxiety in the system increases exponentially.

Is there a tipping point ahead for a system under such stress?