I have been a teacher since December of 1990, and I have always loved the joy students bring to the classroom. I still love my students, but this year the joy is smudged by pervasive behaviors caused by the pandemic. I am a teacher, not a therapist, so I do not have the tools to deal with the trauma my students bring to the classroom. I teach in a large school where behavior has always been a challenge, but this year is on a whole new level. I find myself scared while walking in the hallways. As a community, we must solve the following issues.
Pandemic Trauma: Many students learned from home from April 2019 to May 2021. During this time there were three disturbing trends. First, some students were the head of the family during this time at home. They were in charge of their own learning as well as the learning of younger siblings. While preparing themselves for school, they also had to ensure siblings were up, fed and ready to learn by 7:30 a.m. They dealt with internet connectivity issues and iPad malfunctions. Some students watched babies and toddlers; they were seen bouncing a child on their knees while answering questions during class. These students became less accustomed to taking directions from adults. Another set of students were home alone, isolated for the duration of quarantine. Many of these students fell into depressions and slept for much of their days. They didn’t attend online classes and earned failing grades. This caused friction with parents; the fights over grades led to anxiety and anger. Attendance and skipping are now prevalent issues with this subset. A third group of students ran wild for eighteen months. They didn’t attend online classes and they hung with friends, often sometimes causing trouble in their neighborhoods. They fell behind and have little hope of graduating on time. These students now run wild in the hallways. They cause fights and disrupt learning when they do attend class. They run from authority and/or threaten any adult who challenges their behavior. These students seem unable to learn in a traditional school setting.
National Expectations: District administrators must follow guidelines set by state and national education departments. Since this is a new situation, most do not fully understand the new reality in our schools. Mandates are emailed to school administrators and teachers that are nearly impossible to follow in this new environment. School accreditation standards that were in place before the pandemic cause concern with educators. These standards focus on failure rates more than student learning, testing data versus solid curriculum, and increased suspension and expulsion rates over safe and appropriate behaviors. District leaders assume they know what we are going through, but they cannot possibly understand. Our school attendance rate is at an all-time low: if students are not in class, they cannot learn. Since our district leaders need data for state and national standards, they insist we test a high percentage of each of our classes on district assessments: if students are not in class, they also cannot be tested. Students who skip classes and frequent the hallways cannot be suspended according to Nebraska’s education department. Other students are threatened in hallways and restrooms, and when they are afraid, they cannot learn. Many teachers are tired of the mandates. They are tired of the lack of control in schools. If students are not held accountable for their absences and disruptive behaviors, they will continue to behave dangerously. All the mandated trauma education training for teachers cannot help our students; only time and special intervention programs can solve this.
Societal Expectations: Adults are tired and stressed after eighteen months of illness, unemployment, political upheaval, skyrocketing alcoholism, and increased domestic violence. Some parents send their kids to school and believe we will miraculously cure their children’s anxiety, depression, and anger issues. My school has experienced a few parents and guardians who get angry if we call home too often, not often enough, or for “unreasonable expectations”. Teachers often feel blamed when students fall behind and earn failing grades. I have had parents demand I excuse missing homework for their child’s anxiety issues or learning disabilities. I have had conversations with coworkers who have had conversations with friends and neighbors who are worried about the loss of learning during the pandemic and want to know how we are going to accelerate learning. I am a parent and a teacher; I can tell you there is no way to adequately address these issues in over-full classrooms.
Staff Shortages: Every OPS building is short of staff: teachers, security guards, secretaries, custodians, and cafeteria workers. When teachers are ill, we often believe we must go to school anyway due to a shortage of substitute teachers. We are asked to cover for other teachers when they are absent. We are asked to supervise the hallways. We are asked to serve on committees, attend PLC meetings to coordinate with fellow teachers, present advisement lessons, sponsor student clubs, attend student activities and more. This leads to burnout. Custodians cannot keep up with the extra cleaning requirements handed down by the CDC. They struggle to clean the main areas of the school every day, so less used parts of the building are left unclean. It is not rare to see other staff helping with classroom and restroom cleanliness. Students can run freely in the hallway because there aren’t enough security guards to apprehend them. The secretaries are asked to work in various positions to help the school run smoothly. Our kitchen staff are run ragged trying to cook and serve 3000 students with a skeleton crew. Last year we lost several staff due to the stress, and I fear we will lose even more this year. I have even thought about retiring early, and this fills me with sadness. Morale is the lowest I’ve experienced in thirty years in education.
A principal I worked with for several years would not listen to complaints unless possible solutions were offered. Here is my suggestion. We need a true alternative school. At this school we need counselors and social workers as well as teachers and administrators trained in the Boys Town model. Before students continue to work on their graduation credits, they need to receive counseling and pass a behavior and social interaction class to learn this model. Once they begin working to earn credits, the program needs to be self-paced. They can finish their work with a teacher in a classroom or independently at home. While they earn credits, attendance won’t be a priority. If they come to school and are having emotional difficulty, there will be counselors on hand to speak to them. When social issues such as homelessness or legal issues occur, there will be a social worker available. The program could be offered on a twelve-month schedule to accommodate the self-paced work. In the evening, classes and programs can also be offered for families. This type of nontraditional school will educate the whole child—mentally, emotionally, and socially as well as academically. It can offer programs that a traditional high school with 3000 students cannot possibly accommodate.
I do not want to leave a profession I have loved for thirty years. We need to work as a community to solve this new and troublesome dilemma.