When the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools in the spring of 2020, teachers had to navigate virtual learning, troubleshooting technology while trying to keep students engaged via a computer screen. As students returned to classrooms, battles over mask mandates, what can be taught in classrooms and what books can be on school library shelves put even more strain on teachers trying to address learning loss while reacclimating students to the classroom setting.

The mounting stress coupled with low pay is driving more teachers than ever to leave the profession. In just the last six months, Texas reported a record number of teachers who quit before their contracts were up.

San Antonio Report co-founder and columnist Robert Rivard recently wrote about the “crisis in the teaching profession” and asked local teachers to share their experiences. Andrea Lopez, an eighth grade teacher at Sul Ross Middle School, responded to an emailed questionnaire about some of the challenges facing teachers. Here’s what she had to say:

Why did you choose to go into teaching?

I was inspired after working with K-5 students as a case manager for Communities in Schools. I understood the importance of supporting young people socially, emotionally and behaviorally and wanted the academic perspective of a teacher. 

How has the profession changed since you started?

The changes I’ve experienced have been in the space of post-pandemic measures. For example, greater demand on teachers around closing student achievement gaps related to State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) testing and passing rates in core subjects, as well as more talk around social-emotional learning (SEL), which has always been necessary and valuable. COVID-19 illuminated the importance of paying attention to and taking care of the mental and emotional wellness of young people — and of educators.

How can we expect a child to sit and work on a math problem if they didn’t have dinner the night before? Or breakfast that morning? How can we expect a student to play respectfully on the playground or join in on a game in P.E. if they’re being harmed at home? So it’s the social-emotional piece that really, in my experience, has been elevated. We cannot expect any gains academically unless we’re taking care of that realm first.

In order to be able to balance the social-emotional with the academic demands on teachers, there has got to be a holistic, comprehensive, school-wide, unified effort. The two coexist and certainly must go hand in hand, but the starting point is really prioritizing SEL. That’s a shift that we need to start talking about more and putting resources toward.

What are some of the recent challenges you’ve experienced in your job? What kind of support have you received to address these challenges?

Managing difficult student behavior has been a huge challenge this year. Students are navigating a post-pandemic world where social connection was stripped, and skills like relationship-building, conflict resolution and interpersonal communication haven’t been flexed in a long time. Students are more resistant to completing work in the classroom and more reliant on cell phones and devices than tuning in to a person talking (teacher or otherwise).

I’m fortunate to be at a really amazing campus with some fantastic leadership. My school’s administrators have been more intentional about issuing consequences. They’ve also been proactive in terms of schoolwide universal messaging around behavior expectations and positive reinforcement, like issuing “cash” for good behavior that students can redeem for snacks and toys. Administrators have not only put interventions in place, but they’ve been really proactive about prevention strategies for our students.

How does concern over safety at school factor into your outlook on the teaching profession?

It’s an unfortunate reality that schools can be sites (targets) of violence. As for me, I am only further driven, in spite and because of that reality, to be the adult in that space doing my part to serve our young people. 

My primary obligation as a teacher is to take care of my students, and am I not deterred in that obligation by this or any other factor.

That said, I hope people, policy, structures and systems will continuously improve and evolve to best protect the well-being of our students, campuses and communities.

For those considering leaving the profession, what are some of the factors that might influence that decision? What would have to change for them to stay?

Teaching environments can be abusive, and we don’t talk about that toxicity enough. At the secondary level, teachers are exposed to violence — directed at them and other students. It’s part of the job. Since the pandemic, it feels like this has been heightened. I know I was not prepared for the level of intensity around those behaviors and how they presented when we returned to in-person learning. And it’s not the fault of the students. They’re emerging from their homes and they all come from varied cultural backgrounds and contexts. This is where we see the need for prioritizing social-emotional learning.

Additionally, work-life balance can be incredibly difficult to achieve for teachers, and compromised mental/emotional wellness precludes the ability to show up wholly — something our students deserve. The needs of young people are increasingly complex and dynamic, and so long as the education system remains static, we will never be able to meet those needs. The demands on educators will only increase, and the resources and supports will never be on par with those growing demands. Further, educator, student and family voices must be elevated and centered in the decision-making and policy-setting around all things education. A little empowerment and inclusion go a long way.

What advice do you have for new teachers?

Take care of yourself first and always. You can only give outwardly what you’re replenishing inwardly. 

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San Antonio Report Staff

This article was assembled by various members of the San Antonio Report staff.