Pandemic Stress Has Pushed Teachers To A Breaking Point Educators tell NPR that the stress of teaching through the pandemic has affected their health and their personal lives. "It's like nothing I've experienced before," one teachers says.

'We Need To Be Nurtured, Too': Many Teachers Say They're Reaching A Breaking Point

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The stress of teaching through the pandemic - it's affected educators in so many ways, from their health to their personal lives, and in some cases, it's even trickled down to their students. Kavitha Cardoza spoke to educators across the country, many of whom say they've reached a breaking point.

KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: To say Leah Juelke is an award-winning teacher is an understatement.

LEAH JUELKE: I was named one of the top 10 teachers in the world with the Global Teacher Prize. And I'm the 2018 North Dakota Teacher of the Year, the 2019 Sanford Teacher of the Year.

CARDOZA: She teaches high school English in Fargo, N.D.

JUELKE: The 2020 Woman of the Year for Fargo - that's probably enough (laughter).

CARDOZA: Juelke has an autoimmune disease, so she's been teaching virtually this past year. She says her stress levels have been exponentially higher since the pandemic began. She's concerned about her students. She worries about getting the coronavirus. And as a single mom, Juelke also frets about whether her 9- and 3-year-old are OK.

JUELKE: So that adds another layer of guilt and stress.

CARDOZA: Juelke says even though it breaks her heart, she's started looking for another profession.

Lisa Sanetti is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut.

LISA SANETTI: We know from years of research that teachers are one of the most-stressed occupations.

CARDOZA: And that was before the pandemic. Now teachers across the country tell NPR they've been working very long days, feeling disconnected from their students and missing social interactions with their colleagues. Many say they are eating and drinking more and exercising and sleeping less.

RASHON BRIGGS: Being awake all hours of the night, going to bed at 2, 3 a.m., drinking coffee late at night to try to finish work so I can be more prepared the next day.

SARAHI MONTERREY: I ended up getting COVID. And with just all the extra planning - wow, yeah, it definitely adds a lot more stress.

HEIDI CRUMRINE: So we started the year remote. Then we went back to school hybrid in October. Then we went remote again in November, December. We went back hybrid. And so it's just this constantly series - movement of goal posts. And it feels like we're building the plane while we're flying it, and the destination keeps changing on us.

CARDOZA: Those are teachers Rashon Briggs in Los Angeles, Sarahi Monterrey from Waukesha, Wis., and Heidi Crumrine in Concord, N.H.

Districts are trying to help - with yoga classes, counseling sessions and webinars on mental health. But like Crumrine, many educators say they're so exhausted that even self-care feels like one additional thing to do.

CRUMRINE: 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.

CARDOZA: Lisa Sanetti says teacher mental health needs to be taken seriously.

SANETTI: Chronically stressed teachers are just less effective in the classroom. They're less able and do a less good job of implementing their curriculum, managing behavior. And as a result, we see an impact on the students in their classroom.

CARDOZA: Stress also leads to burnout.

SANETTI: Which leads to teachers leaving the field - and we have a huge teacher turnover problem in our country.

CARDOZA: Teacher Leonda Archer 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 on her.

LEONDA ARCHER: There were some points of lowness that I hadn't experienced before. There are some days where, you know, I feel like it's hard to keep going. Man, sorry I'm getting a little emotional. But I consider myself, like, a strong Black woman. And so this is the first time where I'm, like, allowing myself to just deal with being vulnerable and being low and being stressed out.

CARDOZA: She and other teachers say they also feel a growing divide in their communities because parents want school to reopen, but teachers first want to make sure it's safe.

ARCHER: Initially in the quarantine, we were, like, seen as, like, 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.

CARDOZA: Archer works 12-hour days and has tried all kinds of new methods to engage her students online.

ARCHER: And all I hear is, well, y'all need to get back into school - and telling us what we need to do but not recognizing what we already are doing. You know, our profession is a nurturing one, but we also are humans that need to be poured into.

CARDOZA: Teachers, she says, need to be nurtured too.

For NPR News, I'm Kavitha Cardoza in Washington, D.C.


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