This year, teachers have been forced to juggle their personal and professional lives as the transition through the pandemic continues.

You aren’t alone; teachers are stressed too

January 6, 2022

A year and a half removed from the initial isolation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, our town, country and world continue to face challenges as we begin to recuperate. Teachers are no exception to the challenges of recovery as they work towards re-establishing a sense of normalcy within the school while tending to their students’ scars from the pandemic alongside their own. All of this must be juggled while adjusting to an often inconvenient schedule and fighting for a fair contract from the Brookline School Committee (BSC).

Planning for classes, organizing and running various clubs, grading and handling increased student stress leave teachers with little time to pursue many of the things they enjoy. Director of Choirs Michael Driscoll wishes he had more time to garden. For chemistry teacher Steve Lantos, it’s playing squash, for English teacher Rebecca Hayden, it’s singing in choir, for Math teacher Julie James, it’s going swimming, for Spanish teacher Alisa Conner, it’s running, for dance teacher Mayra Hernandez, it’s dancing in her room and for English teacher Evan Mousseau, it’s going to the movies.

Living in a world consumed by the demands of their job, free time is not the only thing to suffer. Conner said teachers are having difficulties helping students amidst their own personal struggles.

“As adults, we have to have our own oxygen masks on because if we’re gasping for air, we can’t help [the students]. And we are gasping for air,” Conner said.

According to Hernandez, giving students the level of education they deserve has been made far more difficult with ongoing contract negotiations that bring the morale of teachers down.

Lantos said all of the challenges teachers have been facing this year have created “very poor teacher morale.”

“There is this fight to catch students up and just making sure that all students are on the same playing field. I feel like teachers just feel a low sense of morale because we’re working without a contract,” Hernandez said. “The school committee is really pushing back on the things that teachers need in order to be better teachers for our students. For all of us, our focus is always the students and we’ll always want to give them the top caliber education that they deserve, but it’s hard to know that inflation is happening and things are getting more expensive.”

According to English teacher Sophie Gorlin, certain points this year have felt impossible. Gorlin said easing the pace would make things more reasonable for students and staff alike.

“If you had caught me a month ago, I think I’d be much more like, this is impossible. This is the hardest year of my career. I have two small children, so I have a big stressor outside of work. This is still the hardest year after they were born, my daughter will be five,” Gorlin said. “So it’s been like four years now teaching, with her in the picture. I feel like slowing the pace would make a big difference.”

Hernandez said regardless of these challenges, teachers are giving their best effort to be the best they can for their students.

“We’re all just trying to do our best and we’re trying to think about the students, but at the same time, we’re stressed, we’re tired, we need a break. We feel like we’re giving so much,” Hernandez said.

Managing student stress

Teachers carry the burden of the stresses of their students, whom they strive to care for and help succeed. Teachers are expected to accomodate all of their students, but with the additional effects of the pandemic, this task has proven to be far more strenuous than in years prior.

With remote and hybrid learning environments, the structure of classes often looked drastically different than in the past. Many teachers shifted towards more group work or project-based learning to account for the lack of major assessments.

Lantos said the transition back to a more traditional structure of teaching has evidently been difficult for many students, and as a teacher he has struggled to find a balance between easing students’ stress and pushing for a return to normalcy.

“There’s particular anxiety and stress for students about doing what we teachers would call ‘regular assessments,’ like tests and quizzes. Since last year was mostly on Zoom and mostly group work, there were very few, if any, what we would call, full-on tests. So now that we’re back to school, I feel the stress that the students feel because we’re trying to get back into school as we know it,” Lantos said.

Sophomores have never experienced what many consider to be a ‘normal’ year of high school, so these challenges have been amplified for them. Lantos also said the gaps in students’ learning have been difficult to make up for, especially as a 10th grade teacher.

“Last year was a bust. We teachers who teach mostly 10th graders are finding it a challenge because not only did they lose the continuity of doing school and the expectations of doing school, I find since chemistry has parts of it as math it is like I really have to go over things that in normal years, I wouldn’t have to go over,” Lantos said. “That’s been a stressor since the beginning of the pandemic.”

Gorlin said a crucial part of helping students adjust is understanding how and why they are struggling.

“How do we spot how our peers are feeling or who wants to talk? A lot of students have been really isolated and just feeling out of the social landscape,” Gorlin said.

Hayden said this year, it has been particularly difficult to pinpoint where students are and what they can handle.

“I never get to the end of my to-do list. I’m trying to sort of diagnose why this is happening. I’ve taught long enough that often I can say, ‘I am assigning too much’, or ‘These students are struggling with this’ but it’s actually been a little bit hard to diagnose this year,” Hayden said.

Hernandez said she feels very supported by her students, even though many students are still struggling with readjusting to full time in-person instruction.

“My students are very in tune with my needs. As much as I’m checking in on them, they’re checking in on me. I feel like I have all of my students always being like, ‘Hernandez, how are you today?’ Just that simple question lets me know that they care about me as much as I care about them,” Hernandez said.

Planning around an impossible schedule

The high school has seen many different schedules over the past two school years, and the return to a two-week schedule has proven to be difficult for teachers. With varying class lengths, varying numbers of class meetings per week and ninth grade cohort schedules, the current schedule has been an additional source of stress for teachers.

Gorlin said because each block does not meet the same number of times per week, teachers often struggle to plan ahead.

“The confusing nature of the schedule is challenging. I know a lot of my colleagues are struggling with keeping their blocks aligned, and so it’s a lot of extra work to think about – what to do with certain classes that are ahead or [for ones] that are behind,” Gorlin said.

Conner said the difficulties with the schedule have caused unnecessary stress and exhaustion, especially when managing different ninth grade cohorts.

“I have the 115 schedule, I have a red cohort schedule and I have the blue cohort schedule and none of those lined up at the beginning of the year. I spent many, many hours trying to figure that out,” Conner said. “There’s a residual kind of knock-on effect of just how exhausted I think the community is from that, particularly at OLS, so that certainly didn’t help and that’s preventable. I’m hopeful that that will be very different going forward in future years.”

Balancing the introduction of new programs, like including social-emotional learning time at the start of every class is also a major stressor. Social studies teacher Noah Gronlund-Jacob said the administration implementing new programs and initiatives into the classroom complicates the process of teachers planning their classes.

“Introducing social-emotional learning, isn’t just an, ‘okay, I’m going to give my kids five minutes in the beginning of class to reflect on something fun that happened this weekend.’ If I give them five minutes for that, they don’t have five minutes to discuss a reading. And if I can’t discuss that reading for five minutes, that means we’re not going to get to the content for the quiz, which means I have to redesign the quiz, which ultimately is decreasing the rigor for students because they’re required to know less content,” Gronlund-Jacob said.

Constant battle for contract

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Brookline Educators Union (BEU) has advocated for a fair contract from the Brookline School Committee (BSC). The 2021-2022 school year is now the third year in a row where educators and staff find themselves without a contract securing their jobs.

The constant struggle of balancing a workload many teachers believe is unsustainable and fighting for a contract is an experience many educators face on a day-to-day basis.

Despite making their intentions clear and setting future goals, some community members believe the BEU advocating for a new contract is harmful to the schools.

Conner said a fair contract would help solve many pressing issues for teachers.

“There’s a narrative in Brookline that the contract is about teachers doing less, but the thing is that, we’re all at capacity and above capacity anyway,” Conner said. “So I see the contract as the structure in which we do our work with each other. And if the structure and the set of expectations and policies are unrealistic and unsustainable, then it’s a recipe for teacher burnout, which is a recipe for not supporting students.”

Hernandez said the BSC’s neglect of teachers’ mental health is especially stressful.

“It’s frustrating when we have to sit with the school committee about what we need for our mental health, our basic needs as teachers and this is for our students. For them to always say no, is very stressful,” Hernandez said.

Conner said the increasing amount of work inside and outside the classroom should be noticed and rewarded.

“I think very concretely, what the district and administration can do would be to push for professional expertise that honors the incredible and insane amount of work we put in in the past couple of years and that does not amount to a pay cut because of inflation these days,” Conner said. “That is a stress that doesn’t have to be there.”

Hayden said the town’s dedication to its quality of education has significantly decreased as a result of ongoing disputes regarding contracts that tire out teachers.

“This is my 21st year at the high school. I don’t know if there’s been one contract negotiation that’s gone well. It saddens me that in a town that’s so committed, at least in theory, to good schools that we struggled to come up with an agreement between the school committee and the union negotiating committee that is appropriate and meaningful for the teachers’ needs,” Hayden said. “This is a town that people moved to for the schools, and yet there seems to be constant tension between the union and the school committee, which is too bad.”

Lantos also said the main group that has misconceptions about the jobs and responsibilities of educators are many of the parents in the community.

“{The unfairness of the school committee} is driven, in part, by some small, vocal parent minority, that’s like, ‘the teachers have it too easy,’ ‘they’re getting paid too much’, ‘they have the summers off,” Lantos said.

In addition to returning back to in-person instruction, teachers have to make sure they are following COVID-19 safety precautions and handling increased class sizes. Driscoll said the stress of contract negotiations and advocacy takes time away from other responsibilities.

“If we can get {the contract} done, that would be a major relief of stress and frustration and irritation in general,” Driscoll said. “It’s just been so time-consuming, and so much time and energy has been spent on those things. It would be great if we could just move on beyond that stuff and not have to deal with these things for at least a couple of years.”

James said balancing the challenges of being part of the BEU means having an active voice while still considering the impacts of her actions.

“It crosses my mind, ‘Am I allowed to speak up for my rights? Or do I basically not have any?’ If I’m a part of the union, I need to be an active member of the union,” James said. “I’m not going to expect them to do things on my behalf if I’m not participating in the life of the work. But it is always in the back of my mind, like, ‘Oh, I wonder if I’ll suffer retribution because of this?’”

One of the BEU’s main proposals is to have open-bargaining sessions with the BSC over contract negotiations. Currently, only select members of the BEU and BSC negotiate over the contract and no one else in the public has access to these conversations.

Gorlin said the unclear nature of the contract alongside additional stressors is demoralizing.

“I think about the layers of administration above me, and it feels a little bit more demoralizing. I think it’s just hard to know where we are. Last year was such a dramatic upheaval that there was just a lot of stress on supporting one another,” Gorlin said.

Conner said supporting her students is the number one priority, even if she does not feel respected by the school committee.

“I have never felt so dispirited about not having a contract. Our work isn’t valued,” Conner said. “Professionally, I’m working incredibly hard to still do all of that reworking of curriculum and reaching out to individual kids and families and trying to really create a meaningful container in the classroom every day that supports kids, no matter what we’re coming in with.”

The BSC was unable to be reached for a comment.

The impact

The increased levels of stress prevalent among teachers this year have not come without impact both personally and professionally.

Mousseau said the added demands brought about this year have made it difficult to put forth adequate time into his various commitments.

“There are so many ways that teachers and the work that we do day-to-day are already stretched pretty thin,” Mousseau said. “It’s been hard, especially to be involved in other parts of school and keep my commitments to those groups, but I’ve had to dial back what I can offer.”

Driscoll said spending time focusing on the schedule or the contract takes away from time that could be spent helping students.

“All these little things that take time away from what you normally would be focused on, whether it’s contract negotiations or trying to figure out how to fix the schedule, it’s all time that could be better spent elsewhere,” Driscoll said.

Gronlund-Jacob said the administration does not correctly understand the challenges of planning and teaching classes with the amplified stressors of this school year.

“I think [the] building administration has a sense that Brookline teachers are absolutely amazing and if they say ‘do this’ without any sort of plan, without any system in place to make it happen, we will still do it. Teachers make things happen regardless of what system or structure the administration supports,” Gronlund-Jacob said. “I do think that unfortunately the farther you get away from the classroom and the closer you get to the administration, the more you see less of an understanding of what actually happens in the classroom and what it takes to prepare for the classroom.”

According to Lantos, with all the challenges teachers are facing, it is important that the community is supportive. Yet, Lantos said he feels unsupported by parents.

“I think parents are acknowledging their children’s stress and anxiety, but I don’t feel like they’ve been supportive of us,” Lantos said.

Hayden said a central part of supporting each other is acknowledging the additional challenges individuals may be facing as a result of the pandemic, though this may mean slowing things down.

“We are still actually living with the emotional and social consequences of the pandemic and how much emotional and social support do we need to give our students and give ourselves?” Hayden said. “We need to get up and running again academically, and yet we’re not quite equipped to, for a lot of reasons.”

Hernandez said teachers are constantly doing much more than just teaching.

“I wish more people realized that teachers aren’t just teachers. We are guidance counselors, therapists, your parents away from your parents, or your cool aunt or uncle you can talk to about things. And it’s hard,” Hernandez said. “We love what we do, but we’re tired and we’re human.”

Contributed reporting by Zoe Brooks.

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