The Top 5 Challenges Educators are Facing this Fall

The last eighteen months have been among the most difficult that educators have ever encountered — until, that is, the current school year, which may prove to be even more demanding and difficult to negotiate.

The good news is that this fall, most of the country’s teachers and students have returned to the classroom. But it’s clear that while in-person instruction has resumed, the normalcy that we’ve all longed for hasn’t returned with it. That means that this fall everyone — teachers, students, administrators, and parents — find themselves navigating uncertain terrain.

It’s inevitable that teachers will run up against a host of new and intensified challenges in the months ahead. Here are five that teachers are facing right now.

Increased Mental Health Issues Among Students

Perhaps the most significant and pervasive challenge educators will encounter this year is the ongoing toll the pandemic has taken on students’ mental health. The COVID-19 emergency arrived at a time when teachers and administrators across the country were already reckoning with a mental health crisis among our nation’s young people. For kids who were already struggling with emotional and mental health issues, the shift to remote learning and the isolation of social distancing — not to mention the stress of an unprecedented public health crisis — all added fuel to the fire.

As early as June 2020, a poll of parents found that among those asked, nearly 3 in 10 said that their child was “already experiencing harm” to their emotional or mental health because of social distancing and school closures.[1] And that was just a few months into the crisis.

At around the same time, The Lancet reported on the particular threat that school closures posed to students who were already emotionally vulnerable. “School routines are important coping mechanisms for young people with mental health issues. When schools are closed, they lose an anchor in life and their symptoms could relapse.”[2] What’s more, when schools closed their doors, many students lost access to vital support services, further exacerbating the situation.

In addition to the ramifications of school closures, countless young people across the country endured additional hardships in their home lives, seeing family members lose jobs, fall ill, and in some cases die as a result of COVID-19. As has been widely observed, Black and Hispanic Americans experienced disproportionately high rates of unemployment and illness from COVID-19, and many young people in these communities were exposed to inordinate levels of stress.

All of this makes it clear that as students return to school this fall, they do so while carrying high levels of trauma, grief, anxiety, depression, and emotional distress.

In addition to the destabilization and trauma born of the last eighteen months, new anxieties are also emerging as students return to in-person interactions after months spent in isolation. Some feel new or exacerbated social anxiety. Others are experiencing separation anxiety after being at home with their families for months on end. Worries about the virus, hygiene, and safety are also an issue for some teens and tweens.

For teachers, the reality is that this year more of the students in their classrooms are likely to be dealing with greater levels of stress and social and emotional challenges. For many, increased behavioral issues — defiance, acting out, school hesitancy or refusal, and a host of others — will be an inevitable part of the year ahead.

Reestablishing Routines

Young people thrive on predictability and routine, both of which vanished during the pandemic. One of the primary casualties of remote learning was the familiar and predictable school day that normally serves as an anchor for students. While the loss of a predictable routine was most distressing for more vulnerable students, even resilient kids missed spending time with their friends, engaging in extracurricular activities, and the satisfactions of in-class discussion and participation.

Despite the strong desire by almost everyone to get back to more familiar routines, the pandemic still isn’t over. Masks, increased hygiene practices, and room arrangements that account for social distancing all remain disruptive realities.

For schools experiencing staffing shortages, providing a smooth and stable school day for students is a tall order. One California teacher describes the first weeks at her school as “stable chaos.” She says, “Things consistently change before students are even able to acclimate and adjust. It is just a constant state of change and chaos.”

Intermittent quarantining also threatens the reestablishment of reliable routines. As confirmed cases of COVID-19 come to light in districts around the country, brief quarantines may take place. In mid-October, the Washington Post reported that since school started in September, “hundreds of thousands of students and school employees nationwide have been forced to enter one- or two-week periods of quarantine after coming into contact with children or staffers who tested positive for the virus.”[3]

We may never entirely return to a pre-COVID reality, but the return to in-person learning this fall is a huge step toward reestablishing familiar school routines. Still, teachers and students face a host of uncertainties in the months ahead.

Students’ Learning Losses

It goes without saying that there’s no substitute for the rich experience of in-person learning. While countless teachers across the country went above and beyond during the school closures to give their students the best possible learning experience they could, for many young people, remote schooling was rife with difficulties and inadequacies. Unsurprisingly, the difficulties were experienced unevenly. Students from low-income families and those attending high-poverty schools were more adversely affected. Young people in these communities often lacked the same access to personal computers, a steady internet connection, and consistent adult support.

Most observers agree that the impact of the pandemic on student learning was significant. One analysis found that students ended the 2020–21 school year an average five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. The outcomes look even worse for historically disadvantaged students in low-income schools.[4]

As pressing as students’ academic needs may be this fall, many schools are choosing to place a strong emphasis on social and emotional learning, to ensure that young people feel safe, connected, and ready to learn, laying the foundation for academic growth.

Jose Rivas, a California high-school teacher and a member of the Teacher Advisory Committee for EdSource, a California education platform, said that rather than pushing too hard on curriculum as the school year begins, he’s making lots of space for his students to talk, to feel comfortable and build community.[5]

“The return to structured, in-person learning after almost 18 months of self-directed, virtual learning has proven difficult for most students,” says Lisa Zaneto, a clinical counselor. “Teachers would benefit from temporary lessened expectations from their supervisors regarding curriculum deadlines. Instead they should be encouraged to meet students where they are while working toward reacclimating them to a structured school environment at their own pace.”

Prioritizing students’ mental health and social and emotional learning isn’t a replacement for academic instruction and growth; it’s a prerequisite. As one expert put it, “Everything is connected. We can’t expect kids to get to school and learn if their mental health needs are not being met. If a child is depressed and withdrawn, they are not going to be able to connect and learn.”[6]

Getting Support from School Administration

Classroom teachers are in the thick of it, each and every day. In the current school year, receiving support from administrators and district leaders will be key to determining whether teachers and students have a successful and productive year, or one characterized by bumps and potholes.

Because teachers are often closest to the pressing issues that arise in the classroom, their input is invaluable for school leaders. For administrators that means that listening to teachers — and ensuring they feel listened to — will be vitally important this year.

While teachers are skilled professionals who often have strong relationships with students, they are not mental health experts. Even before the pandemic, as the mental health needs of students were escalating, the great majority of schools simply weren’t prepared to handle the mounting mental-health crisis. That’s even more true today.

Teachers can often identify troubling behaviors, but they lack the training and the time to intervene in a substantive way. This year, the prospect of being overwhelmed by more students experiencing emotional and behavioral challenges threatens to consume an outsize portion of teachers’ time and attention. This means that recognizing teacher need and providing the adequate supports is more critical than ever.

Self-Care

Teaching is a demanding profession and self-care is a wise part of any school year. But this year, it’s essential. Educators are not only dealing with unprecedented levels of trauma, anxiety, and depression in their students, but they themselves have also weathered a difficult and distressing eighteen months. As a result, their own mental well-being is apt to be in need of extra attention and care. Teachers may be heroes, but they’re human beings, too.

Yet for people who are used to placing the focus on others, self-care might seem frivolous or self-indulgent, and some educators might even confuse it with being selfish. But a helpful analogy is the safety instruction that’s given on an airplane at the beginning of a flight. Passengers are told to put on their own oxygen masks before assisting others. In the same way, teachers can be most effective with their students when they safeguard their own well-being, ensuring that they have the inner resources to meaningfully and reliably support the kids in their classroom. Educating young people is a big job, and everyone involved in the endeavor needs to make their own care a priority — especially this year.

If teachers are going to make it through this chaotic year, prioritizing their well-being is crucial. Doing so should entail establishing schoolwide practices — consistently and throughout the school year.

Here are a few examples of the types of practices school leaders might consider in order to support teachers this year.

  • Implement mental health days for teachers.
  • Institute daily breaks to allow staff to reset.
  • Ensure teachers have adequate prep time.
  • Create a resiliency committee to assess staff burnout and plan ongoing opportunities for staff health (based on staff interest and need).
  • Provide safe spaces and opportunities for staff to talk with administrators about their challenges and frustrations.
  • Provide opportunities for problem solving, including teachers in the decision-making process.

It’s all but inevitable that teachers will be overburdened in the months ahead. Making efforts to protect their well-being is essential, both for them and for the students in their classrooms.

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Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care. Effective School Solution partners with school districts to help develop K-12 whole-school mental health programs.

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Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care. Effective School Solution partners with school districts to help develop K-12 whole-school mental health programs.

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