To say Leah Juelke is an award-winning teacher is a bit of an understatement. She was a top 10 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize in 2020; she was North Dakota's Teacher of the Year in 2018; and she was awarded an NEA Foundation award for teaching excellence in 2019.
But Juelke, who teaches high school English learners in Fargo, N.D., says nothing prepared her for teaching during the coronavirus pandemic.
"The level of stress is exponentially higher. It's like nothing I've experienced before."
It's a sentiment that NPR heard from teachers across the United States. After a year of uncertainty, long hours and juggling personal and work responsibilities, many told NPR they had reached a breaking point.
Heidi Crumrine, a high school English teacher in Concord, N.H., says this has been the most challenging year she has ever encountered in her two decades of teaching.
"And I say [that] as someone who started her first day of teaching on 9/11 in the Bronx in New York City."
Teaching is one of the most stressful occupations in the U.S., tied only with nurses, a 2013 Gallup poll found. Jennifer Greif Green, an education professor at Boston University, says the additional stress that teachers are reporting during the pandemic is worrying because it doesn't affect only educators — it also affects students.
"The mental health and well-being of teachers can have a really important impact on the mental health and well-being of the children who they're spending most of their days with," Green explains. "Having teachers feel safe and supported in their school environments is essential to students learning and being successful."
Lisa Sanetti, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut, says, "Chronically stressed teachers are just less effective in the classroom."
All that stress can also lead to burnout, which leads to teachers leaving the profession, Sanetti says. "And we have a huge teacher turnover problem in our country."
Districts are trying to help — with yoga classes, counseling sessions and webinars on mental health. Some teachers have organized trivia nights or online happy hours where colleagues can just vent. Teachers told NPR they force themselves to take breaks, go for a bike ride or call a friend. Some have started therapy.
But most of the educators NPR spoke with say they're so exhausted that even self-care feels like one additional thing to do.
"The reality is, when you're living it, you're just trying to get to the end of the day successfully and try again tomorrow," Crumrine says.
"It feels like we're building the plane while we're flying it"
In March 2020, when schools moved online, teachers across the U.S. had to completely reimagine their approach to education, often with no training or time to prepare. For many, it was a rough transition.
Teachers told NPR they've spent the past year experimenting with different methods of online and hybrid teaching, while also providing tech support for their students and families. Many say they routinely work 12-hour days and on weekends, yet struggle to form relationships with children virtually. Answering emails can take two hours a day.
Rashon Briggs, who teaches high school special education in Los Angeles, spent a lot of time worrying about his students during remote learning (his district only recently started offering in-person options). "One of the biggest challenges is knowing that the kids were not getting the same level of service that they were getting in person," he says.
Teachers in districts that opened earlier for in-person learning say they have additional responsibilities now, such as sanitizing desks between classes, making sure children follow school safety protocols and keeping track of students who have had to quarantine.
"I have a calendar, and it says who's quarantined, who is cleared to return on what day, who was absent," explains Rosamund Looney, who teaches first grade in Jefferson Parish, La. "Then I follow up with those families to see 'Are you OK?' So there's just so much space taken up by that monitoring."
Looney also worries about her students' learning. Everyone in her district has to wear masks in class, which she says she completely agrees with. But those masks mean she can't see her first-graders' mouths as they learn phonics.
"You are watching your teacher sound out words and then figuring out how to do that. And it's really hard for me to gauge what they are and aren't able to say." She says she's especially concerned about students who are more at risk of falling behind academically, like English learners.
In New Hampshire, Crumrine says quarantines and positive cases among school staff have led to a constant shifting between fully online and hybrid classes. The fluctuations have been exhausting for her. "We started the year remote. Then we went back to school in October; then we were remote again in November, December. We went back to hybrid [in early February]," she says. New Hampshire's governor has now ordered all schools to reopen for full-time, in-person classes by this week.
"It feels like we're building the plane while we're flying it and the destination keeps changing on us," Crumrine says.
Balancing work and home life
In addition to worrying about their students, many teachers are also concerned about their own children. Crumrine, whose husband is also a teacher, has three children and says she feels pulled by competing demands.
"I feel this sense of guilt that I'm not a good enough teacher for my students and I'm not a good mother for my own kids. It just feels like a constant wave of never feeling like I can do what I know I'm good at."
Juelke, in North Dakota, is a single mom with a 9- and 3-year-old. "I'm juggling the children and making sure my daughter is in her class and my 3-year-old is entertained. And that is definitely taking a toll."
Many teachers say they are eating and drinking more — and exercising and sleeping less.
Briggs, in LA, says his sleeping patterns are completely off. "Being awake all hours of the night, going to bed at 2, 3 a.m., drinking coffee late at night and try to finish work so I can be more prepared the next day."
He's stressed, in part, because there are no clear work-life boundaries anymore. "When you're waking up in the same space that you're on Zoom, that you're grading papers, that you're watching Netflix, those lines are blurred very easily."
Others say they're not as active at home and they're eating more junk food and putting on weight. The tight schedules mean they don't always move between classes or even remember to drink water.
"There are a lot of dehydrated teachers out there," says Looney.
Many, like Juelke, say they miss having personal time. "That time where I could sit in the car and drive to work and just kind of relax a little, or my prep time at school alone. That's gone now. And so I feel like my mental health has struggled in that way."
She says even though it breaks her heart, she has started looking for another profession.
Leonda Archer, a middle school math teacher in Arlington, Va., says she's usually a very upbeat person, but the pandemic — coupled with the racial turmoil in the country — has taken a toll. She's African American and says reports of Black men and women being killed by police make her fear for her husband's safety.
"There were some points of lowness that I hadn't experienced before. There are some days where I feel like it's hard to keep going."
Archer says she has had difficulty sleeping and doesn't have an appetite. "And right when I get into a groove, another traumatic experience happens."
Briggs says it was hard not being able to process events like George Floyd's death and the Black Lives Matter protests with his colleagues. In the past, those conversations informed what he would say in the classroom to help his own students make sense of the news.
"The teachers were not able to talk to each other about 'How do you talk about this? How do you present that?' " he says. "There was a lack of ability for us to communicate a message about social justice and rights and the wrongs."
Crumrine says she misses the social aspect of being with her students, as well as other teachers. "We're not eating lunch together. We're not popping into each other's classrooms. We're all in our little silos."
The school reopening divide
Teachers told NPR they feel a growing chasm in their communities: Parents want schools to open, but teachers first want to make sure it's safe. Many feel that they are not being included in these conversations and that their concerns aren't being taken seriously.
Crumrine says it has been devastating hearing elected officials and parents criticize teachers, insisting that schools need to open, even though teachers are concerned about their own health. She says some community members acted like online classes meant teachers weren't working at all. In fact, she says, they were working harder than ever. "It just makes it feel so much worse when you read these horrible things that people say about us or these assumptions that they make about what we are or are not doing."
She says many states, including her own, didn't prioritize vaccines for teachers, which to her revealed just "how deep that lack of value of educators is."
Sarahi Monterrey, who teaches English learners in Waukesha, Wis., says she has felt a "huge divide" in the community. "It almost seems like us against them." She was in a Zoom school board meeting where parents and students were present, and a teacher testified that her husband had COVID-19. "And a parent in the room said, 'Who cares?' And I was blown away. Just blown away."
In Virginia, Archer says that at the beginning of the pandemic, "We were seen as angels. Like, 'Oh, my God, I've been home with my child for two months. How do teachers do it?' And now the narrative has totally flip-flopped."
She says she also misses "the vibe of school, the energy, all of that. But I don't want people to be sick."
Archer works 12-hour days and says people need to remember that teachers are people too. "Our profession is a nurturing one, but we also are humans that need to be poured into. We need to be nurtured, too."