‘Teachers are struggling and they’re drowning’: Educators detail the stress of distance learning

The Tigard-Tualatin Education Association president says he’s worried teachers will leave their jobs due to the workload and stress.

TIGARD, Ore. — We keep hearing it from teachers all over. Teaching online has not been easy.

We spoke with Scott Herron, the president of the Tigard-Tualatin Education Association. He’s been a teacher for the last 16 years.

He said he wants people to know teachers in his district and elsewhere are trying hard to serve their students, but many feel they’re falling short.

“Teachers are struggling and they’re drowning, and their voices need to be heard,” said Herron.

He said all the stress of online learning is having a negative impact on teachers’ mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing.

“I’ve had countless teachers tell me they cry driving to work in the morning. They cry […] driving home. Then they see their kids for two hours, put them to bed, and then they work and then they cry themselves to sleep. And then they wake up in the morning and they repeat it,” said Herron.

Teachers in other districts have shared similar stories.

The days are long and weeks feel even longer

Some teachers, Herron said, are working 10 to 12 hours or more a day. They’re also working on the weekends to prepare for the coming week.

“They start at eight in the morning, seven in the morning. They go all day nonstop with kids in the new home environment and then they come home and many of them might have an hour or two where they get the kids fed, get the kids off to bed, then they’re working until midnight.”

There’s so much to do, Herron said. Teachers have to figure out a new way of teaching online, learn to use different educational tools and platforms, troubleshoot technology issues, all while trying their best to serve the needs of their students at a distance. That stress has Herron working to keep teachers motivated through the end of the year.

“I’m seriously concerned about losing our workforce. I could easily see a quarter to a third of the teachers at least in my district saying it’s not worth it anymore,” said Herron.

Educators teaching subjects they don’t feel qualified to teach

Teachers are trying hard to give the best education possible, Herron said, but it’s nearly impossible for some teachers at the middle school level in the Tigard-Tualatin School District who are teaching subjects they’ve never taught before.

“In terms of the middle school, there were some issues over how the schedule was working for their kids, how much learning was going on,” said Herron.

At a virtual school board meeting on Monday, teachers voiced their frustrations. One of them was Matt Hamilton, a middle school science teacher entering his 30th year of teaching. For years he’s taught science, but this year he’s teaching math.

“I’m not certified, not qualified, and not comfortable teaching any level of math,” said Hamilton.

“I can guarantee you that they [students] are not getting equitable math instruction or feedback from me. Regardless of how long and how many hours I put in, I’m not sure I’m going to feel comfortable giving them appropriate feedback that they need to progress in math.”

Hamilton said, for the most part, he also feels that the kids he teaches are historically underserved to begin with.

“So we’re providing another disservice and keeping them in these math classes with people that are not certified and not qualified,” Hamilton said.

District Superintendent Dr. Sue Rieke-Smith said those concerns stem from plans for fall that were made by the middle school team in the summer, anticipating a hybrid model where teachers would have teamed up to teach smaller groups of students.

“This may not have been perhaps a good a choice as we thought at the time they were putting that together,” said Rieke-Smith, who said the decision was made with the best intentions.

“This is a great opportunity to make some of those adjustments and address those concerns that teachers are bringing forward,” she said.

Frustration continues over new online educational platforms

At the board meeting, teachers also voiced frustration over new online educational platforms like Canvas and Florida Virtual.

“Florida Virtual does not differentiate. There are no tools within it to make it more accessible to students with disabilities,” said Emily Dehn, a teacher in the Tigard-Tualatin School District.

Dehn said the platform is also not culturally inclusive, insensitive, and said some would go as far as to label it racist.

“That $361,000 could have been better used in so many other places to support us and our students during comprehensive distance learning,” said Alexis Buschert, a Spanish teacher at Tigard High School who’s been teaching for 10 years.

Teachers also said with students being able to mute their microphone and turn off their cameras, it can be difficult to make sure a student is actually attending class. Students are allowed to turn off their cameras for privacy reasons, accounting for differing home life situations.

Rieke-Smith said many different platforms and resources were vetted before the decision was made to go with Canvas and Florida Virtual.

She said, as with all new learning platforms, there is a learning curve. She said it can take two to three years before a teacher is comfortable with a new curriculum.

Distance learning moving forward

Rieke-Smith acknowledged how hard teachers are working and said she and other district leaders are listening carefully to the concerns of everyone involved including parents, students, and teachers.

 “We meet […] on a weekly basis for this reason, so we are staying in step and listening carefully to the challenges our teachers are facing and trying to figure out what are some of the adjustments that need to be made along the way, without sacrificing the quality of instruction that our children receive,” said Rieke-Smith.

But for now, that doesn’t take away the stress many teachers are feeling. Herron said he can see the stress on his fellow teachers’ faces.

“Their face expression after having taught all day, it’d been like they’d been through hell and back just to be able to provide for those kids they care so much about and it’s, it’s soul-crushing to see them go through that.”

In addition, hanging over all their heads Herron said, is the budget shortfall.

“That’s coming in the spring that has us wondering where we will be in public education, you know. We have an election that’s coming and how that goes is going to play a big part in funding in terms of if we ever get a stimulus bill, which is earmarked money for education. The state’s definitely going to need it. And so they’re looking at a fiscal cliff that we’re getting ready to fall over,” said Herron.

He said some of the younger teachers, in particular, are worried, wondering if they will have a job next year.

A little grace to go around

Herron said it’s also been tough on teachers trying to please parents. Some want more content for their child and harder assignments, while other parents are asking teachers to slow down. He said privilege plays a big part in that. Some families have someone at home who can help their students.

In the end, he said teachers are asking for grace.

“I think the positive note would be is that teachers are hopefully starting to figure it out. Kids are starting to figure it out. But there isn’t a solution that’s gonna make this just like it was before. That’s going to be impossible,” said Herron.