Earlier this year, I made the difficult, necessary decision to resign from my decade-plus career teaching high school English in Baltimore City Public Schools. As a self-care measure, I’ve been cautious about the education-related content I consume. But the outcry against a recent Education Week article made me too curious to avoid it.
Last week, the education news outlet published an article with the headline,”Teachers’ Skills Took a Hit During the Pandemic, Too, Report Says.” The story highlights a 13-page report that found teacher performance has declined following the pandemic. The report makes only a handful of references to the pandemic’s harmful effects on teachers’ mental health, instead framing the diminished job performance as a matter of professional ineffectiveness.
With the exception of quoting one teacher on the topic of rebuilding students’ skills, the report relies on interviews with “superintendents, chief academic officers, human resource directors, and other central office personnel” from five districts — none of whom actually work in schools, let alone classrooms. Meanwhile, the Education Week article emphasizes the lack of coaching and feedback provided by districts, as well as teachers’ unwillingness to attend optional professional development programs, as causes of this decline.
Dozens of teachers took to social media to condemn the article. Several teachers also pointed out that to adapt to virtual instruction, we developed an entirely new skill set almost overnight.
“‘District leaders expect teachers to perform miracles after failure to offer quality professional development and a continued failure to retain experienced educators,’” Chanea Bond, an English teacher in Texas, tweeted. New Jersey high school teacher Nicholas Ferroni tweeted, “An accurate headline would have been: ‘Teachers Somehow Made Pandemic Teaching Work, Even Though They Weren’t Trained For This Unprecedented Event.’”
My biggest criticism of the report, and one shared by Teacher Twitter, is that it excludes teachers’ voices. This reinforces the low regard in which teachers are held (which, hint, hint, adversely affects job performance), and also invalidates the report’s so-called findings. Because the “leaders and high-level administrators” point to the lack of professional development — and not the unsustainable, chronic levels of stress — as cause for declining job performance, they’re looking for solutions in the wrong places.
Rather than focus on strategies that will actually assist overwhelmed and overworked teachers, the report recommends better instructional training and support.
The report also notes that leaders observed “teachers falling back on outdated and ineffective instructional practices.” I don’t doubt that this is true; I know it happened on occasion in my classroom — but not because I needed additional training on best practices.
It’s because of how frequently class was interrupted by last-minute changes to the COVID-testing schedule, or yet another fight in the hallway. It’s because my students’ attention spans plummeted during quarantine, and there’s only so much I could do to simultaneously engage 30 teenagers in the best of times, let alone after the world was upended and we were all expected to just pick up where we left off.
It’s because I was expending energy I never had to before — asking students dozens of times a day to put their masks back on, helping them re-form good work habits, deescalating more and more minor conflicts— and, ultimately, something had to give.
I know how to be a good teacher. I worked exceptionally hard to be one. But there’s only so much that can be accomplished in impossible working conditions, especially when conclusions and decisions about teachers’ job performance are made without consulting teachers.
Throughout my career, whenever I conferenced with my students about specific academic or behavioral concerns, I described my observations and my worries, I gave them an opportunity to provide insight and context: Were they getting enough sleep? Were they burnt out from working after school? Were they grieving a recent loss? Based on their answers, together we would strategize how to address the challenge at hand.
And, every single time, I asked how I could help.
Sometimes they wanted additional reminders of due dates, or to move their seat, or to hold their phone for them during class. It didn’t matter if I thought they should figure it out on their own or if I believed I understood what they were experiencing.
My students were struggling. And as someone invested in their success and well-being, the very least I could do was ask what was wrong. And how I could help make it better.