The Reality of Teaching in a Pandemic: How America’s Teachers Became Even More Overworked

The Reality of Teaching in a Pandemic: How America’s Teachers Became Even More Overworked

Megan Elias

This article is part of the Winter 2020 Magazine Issue series. To read the full Winter issue click: here.

“No matter what I do, I am letting people down.” 

This sentiment has been running through the thoughts of teachers all over the country as they help their students adjust to online learning while trying to understand it themselves. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States last March, online schooling quickly became the norm. Schools and universities across the country closed, and students from kindergarten to higher education were sent home to learn via webcam. It was a huge shock for everyone, and families suddenly found themselves struggling to balance child care, homeschooling and work. All at once, everyone’s eyes were on educators to continue regularly scheduled instruction while still keeping themselves and their families safe. 

Both Stacy,* a middle school teacher entering her 11th year of teaching in a suburb of Detroit, and Britney,* a middle school teacher in the Lansing/Jackson area in her second year of teaching, have experienced an exponential increase in workloads with no increase in planning time.

*(Note: names have been changed for privacy, and interviews have been edited for clarity.)

For Stacy, whose school district moved completely online, her workday has increased from a strenuous 10 hour average, to an exhausting minimum of 16 hours each day. She teaches 6th grade science and rotates her students from one Zoom meeting to another for each class period. Once the school day ends, she spends her time reworking existing assignments to fit the new online format. 

“We have to recreate the wheel and change everything. It’s a combination of taking what we’ve been doing and completely modifying it so it fits online and coming up with new things to teach the curriculum. Online classes are completely different,” said Stacy. 

Britney was expecting to teach math for multiple grade levels, but two weeks before the school year started, teachers at Britney’s school were given a curriculum shift. Students received the option of attending remote lessons or receiving face-to-face instruction, and teachers were asked to teach classes for both. Therefore, after Britney teaches a full school day in person, she must then upload separate video lessons, recorded on her own time, for students who learn remotely. The district has not yet permitted live streaming of face-to-face classes, and her in-person lessons are difficult to hear through her face mask, so recording them has been unsuccessful. 

“I am working two full-time jobs but in the same amount of time. I feel that so much is expected out of the teachers, and we are starting to hit the wall,” Britney said.

With the shift to in-person instruction came the need to decrease the amount of contact between people in the buildings. For that reason, faculty who teach face-to-face are now required to teach all four core subjects, so students do not have to switch classrooms.

“The district decided that all grades through 7th grade would be self-contained, meaning the kids stay with one teacher all day instead of switching classes like they normally would. I am technically qualified to teach self-contained classrooms through 8th grade, but this was not what I signed up for,” Britney said. “Some teachers in my building have been teaching the same subject for decades, so how are they supposed to offer the best education for the students when they now have to teach all subjects?”

With uncertainties and inevitable curriculum changes looming on the horizon, the biggest frustration for teachers and students has been not having enough time to do everything asked of them. Britney normally has the entire school year’s curriculum ready but now only has the time to plan one week ahead. Stacy has found the only time to plan ahead is late at night, after she’s finished grading assignments and answering her students’ questions over email. 

“I won’t get to bed until after midnight most nights, and I wake up at five the next morning. We work all these extra hours because we want the kids to learn, but we also have our own families to take care of,” said Stacy. 

Teachers are not the only ones feeling the strain of remote learning. The abrupt switch to online instruction did not leave students with any time to process the extreme changes. Many of them came home from school one day in March expecting to be back in a few weeks. Six months later, they still don’t know when things will return to normal. This intense change has left a lasting mark on a lot of students. Socialization is critical for kids and teens. Without school as a medium to make friends and talk to peers, students are lonely and face lasting setbacks to their emotional growth and mental health.

That lack of vital social stimulation and the inherent difficulties of adapting to a new learning environment have created a negative impact on students’ performance in school. Students lose their focus easily without the classroom environment or a teacher walking around to keep students engaged and involved. 

Furthermore, Stacy notes that “in case students are embarrassed of their situation, we don’t like to insist they keep their cameras on. But then we can’t help the kids stay on track or see who’s actually attentive.” 

Britney notes similar situations in her classes, “There are some students who only get work done when in school. Those students, who this year chose online, are turning in maybe an assignment or two a week, causing failing grades in every class.” Many of Britney’s students who typically earned A’s last year are now consistently scoring C’s and below, which ultimately affects their confidence levels and subsequently worsens their report cards.

Concurrently, the shift to online learning has also put many students’ and teachers’ health at risk. Stacy’s school district has the resources to provide internet hotspots and laptop computers to any households that don’t normally have internet access, but Britney’s district does not have the same amount of funding. 

“The district did offer Chromebooks on a first come, first served basis to online students, but there were not enough for every student,” Stacy said. Even if her district did have one laptop per student, they could not provide internet hotspots, so face-to-face instruction had to be implemented.

Since Britney’s district is still awaiting a delivery date for more computers ordered in March and July, face-to-face instruction doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. The reality is that students whose families cannot afford internet access or devices that access the internet are forced to attend in-person schooling. This inherently jeopardizes their lives and those of anyone they encounter. As school districts seem to be unable to provide the necessities for students to learn virtually, Britney suggests it is the government’s responsibility to take action and ensure the safety of its constituents. 

“For example, providing personal devices like Chromebooks and internet hotspots to every household, so that those families have the option to stay 100% safe. If I had the option, I would be staying home,” Britney said. 

Perhaps districts could have had more remote learning resources ready, but, as Stacy notes, “We didn’t start much additional training because we didn’t know what was going to happen [with COVID-19]. And once we did know, we didn’t have time.” 

Ultimately, this is an emotional time for everyone with no clear end or correct answer in sight. 

“If you don’t walk in someone’s shoes you don’t realize what they go through,” Stacy said, “People don’t realize how dedicated we are and what we go through. We can’t do it as well as we would like, but we can’t not do a great job because we care about our kids. We become teachers to help kids.”

For Stacy and Britney, it’s all about making the best of this experience for their students.

Megan Elias is a senior double majoring in professional writing and linguistics with a minor in graphic design. In addition to working at The Current, she is also the content editor at and the junior history editor at The Tempest magazine. When she’s not working, she can be found riding around campus on her longboard or playing Tetris 99.