Without a plan to rebuild resilience in education, we risk a severe teacher shortage.

As appeared in The Dallas Morning News on Oct 31,2021

As we address learning losses in students, we cannot ignore the self-efficacy loss among teachers.

When I made the transition from classroom teacher to administrator, I received a most paramount piece of advice. That was 25 years ago, and I remember it like it was just yesterday.

A starry-eyed 20-something teacher, I recall rushing down the high school hallway to find my mentor and department chair, Mrs. Shiftlet, to tell her that I had been promoted to assistant principal. I anticipated a huge hug and congratulations, and while I was met with a huge hug, the words she spoke carried much more weight.

She said, “Kiddo, you better take your teacher eyes with you. Wherever you go in the ranks of administration, you better always have your teacher eyes close by.”

I did not know at the time exactly what she meant, but her advice was never lost on me; in fact, throughout the years, it has become my philosophical grounding in every position I have held.

Shortly after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic,

in March 2020, all U.S. public school buildings were closed. Things would never be the same. A new era of teaching in the time of a pandemic commenced. That phrase, “teaching in the time of a pandemic,” is now commonplace, and I see and understand the frustration among teachers when they recognize how the rest of the world does not understand. They can’t. They don’t have teacher eyes.

It is sometimes hard to recall the early months of the pandemic. Businesses halted operations, restaurants closed, and many workers were in a scramble, navigating how they would keep their livelihoods amid a shutdown. Each industry faced its own dilemma of supporting employees and meeting business goals. Many industry sectors allowed employees to work remotely, which for some continues today. A recent Stanford University study reported that 20% of the workforce will work remotely after the pandemic ends, compared with just 5% before.

But not all professions lend themselves remote work, and teaching is an example. In the two months following the start of the pandemic in 2020, teachers pivoted to remote teaching in a matter of weeks. No one expected high levels of learning to occur because, let’s be real, the magnitude and speed of shifting to Zoom instruction was the start of one of the largest technological learning experiments in history.

If you had asked me in January 2020 how long it would take Richardson ISD to shift to virtual classroom instruction, I would’ve projected at least one full year of planning and another year of teacher training. Instead, we transformed everything we knew about education in two weeks. Two weeks!

As we ushered in the 2020-2021 school year, our teachers in RISD did not have an option to work from home. While the hallmark quality of a teacher is to care about kids and their learning, teachers are also individuals who have their own health and safety concerns.

To all who may be reading who were given an extended time to work at home, recognize that your employers did so to protect your safety. Much like hospital staff, city employees, police, firemen, grocers and other front-line workers, the public education sector couldn’t provide such safety options for their employees.

So, our teachers started back to on-campus, in-person instruction in the fall of 2020, albeit with only half of their students in person. The other half was still learning virtually, in what became known as “hybrid classroom environments,” a classroom mix of in-person and online instruction.

For teachers, it was basically like teaching two different classes at the same time. And it was exhausting. By early April, I began assuring and reassuring my teachers that we would never, ever ask them to do hybrid teaching again.

This assurance came as I prayed daily that the pandemic would recede into the background as we moved ahead with cautious optimism and hopes for a normal start of school in August 2021. And it seemed like it was going to happen, until it didn’t.

Delta is now the predominant SARS CoV-2 variant, and rates of infection among school-age children and teenagers have increased. Teachers are once again on the front lines, although vaccines have provided some protective cover.

But a new reality now challenges teachers in far greater ways than even hybrid teaching ever did, and it is the evidence of staggering learning losses that are predicted to persist for years. The data tell the story, and you will not find a district that is exempt. While front-line health workers may be seeing some relief in their waiting rooms, the pressure and urgency is only beginning to mount in our school classrooms, and teacher morale is low.

In a 2021 research meta-analysis, nearly 70% of all studies conducted over the last decade concluded that teachers with low morale (or the ones with the highest level of burnout) also had the lowest academic student outcomes across core subjects. In the same study, 75% of teachers said that the education environment today makes it difficult for them to be their best in the classroom. Even the most positive and optimistic teachers are experiencing unprecedented stress and frustration as they begin to address an achievement gap that may be of unprecedented proportions.

This is the beginning of a perfect storm at a time when we need teachers to be at their best to recover from and continue navigating the pandemic. While teachers are working to diagnose and accelerate measures to address learning losses, we cannot ignore the self-efficacy loss that teachers are experiencing.

A serious concern is beginning to brew nationally over educator shortages. School districts are still searching far and wide to fill too many open positions this year, including for people who quit after the school year started. This is unusual for this time in the school year, and coupled with the Great Resignation phenomenon, it is now leading to a shortfall of qualified educators to fill positions. Over 3.2 million teachers, 91,000 principals and roughly 3 million support staff work for public schools, and 40% of national district leaders and principals describe their current staff shortages as “severe” or “very severe,” according to a survey conducted Sept. 29 to Oct. 8 by the EdWeek Research Center.

A teacher’s individual belief in his or her capacity to produce specific performance results must be realistic and supported like never before. There must be an equal balance of expectations and concern for rebuilding teacher self-efficacy. Treading water for the last 18 months has been extraordinarily difficult. But it would be disingenuous of me to say that we are past the hard part, and it is time to start a new narrative. Teachers need more from us. They need more than well wishes and concern about their health.

Whether or not you were ever a teacher, it’s imperative that we all see things through teacher eyes, as best we can. Teachers see all the hopes and dreams of each beautiful child in their classrooms. They see the bright future of our next generation. More than any other time since the pandemic began, they need to see the eyes of the world looking back at them with gratitude and a plan to build back resiliency in our education system.

October 31, 2021