‘Shock’: post-pandemic learning gives teachers a test


According to a survey of U.S. public sector workers released in October by MissionSquare Research Institute and a survey conducted by the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teacher union in the country.

By Mara Mellits, Editor-in-Chief

In March 2020, Josh Park was student teaching at a school in the southwest suburbs when the pandemic forced him to teach over Zoom. Two years later, he’s in his second year as a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Physics teacher at Lane.

Despite these years of experience, he feels as if this is really his first year teaching.  

“That’s why this really is my first-year student-teaching and teaching too — I’m getting thrown into the fire here. So I’m learning a lot as we go, about what to do and what not to do,” Park said. 

He described teaching in-person this year as shocking. 

“I didn’t know how physically taxing of a job this was,” Park said. “And there [are] so many more personalities I have to handle because nobody is on mute. And it’s kind of a shock. That just runs out your social battery after doing it for six months.”

But for veteran teachers like Math teacher Rebecca Atwood, who teaches AP Calculus AB and Pre-Calculus, the “shock” was different. 

“So when we shut down in 2020, we all lost learning — we did the bare minimum. We skipped a lot. Then last year was all virtual. We, as a math department, covered the necessities and what we had to,” Atwood said. “So there was a massive amount of learning loss and when we land back in the classroom — this year — and every student is expected to have not lost their knowledge — it was impossible.” 

“There was so much learning loss — there was just an unbelievable amount of learning loss,” she continued. 

This means that Atwood and other Math teachers have spent more time teaching the basics or material that would have been covered last year — in a normal year.

“It’s tiring and exhausting to figure out what the students know, where they’re at, and they’re at all different levels now, way more than they ever were,” Atwood said. 

Teachers can offer tutoring before and after school for students to catch up, but that takes time away from a student who likely has extracurricular activities and from a teacher who has their own life on top of grading and creating lesson plans. 

Teachers all over the country are stressing about students falling behind, according to a survey of U.S. public sector workers released in October by MissionSquare Research Institute. The survey reported that 90% of K-12 educators are concerned about students in their school falling behind because of the pandemic, while 65% are extremely or very concerned.

This added pressure placed on teachers has led to a spike in teacher resignations, according to a survey conducted by the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teacher union in the country. 55% of its members intend to leave education sooner than they planned because of the pandemic. 

Park said a reason why teachers are possibly leaving the educational workforce is because of a new push towards equitable grading practices that eat up more time. 

“Teachers are being forced to employ practices that they don’t necessarily agree [with]; such as a 50% floor, unlimited retakes on tests — all these accommodations that require us to do a lot more work,” Park said. 

“Regrading quiz corrections is a pain because you’re looking at the same test twice. And I’m okay with that. Honestly, I think it’s beneficial for students which is why I do quiz corrections,” he continued. 

Lane’s Principal Edwina Thompson said the school’s focus this year on grading for equity means that students receive fair grades regardless of their backgrounds. Grades must reflect a student’s mastery of a subject and allow for students to have another opportunity to elevate their grades. 

According to the Los Angeles Times, grading for equity has been championed by Joe Feldman, a former teacher who wrote a book on the importance of grading for equity and works with school districts across the country to implement his practices. 

“All course teams were asked to consider resubmission policies, retakes, grading floors — well all of that takes time,” Thompson said. “And those are sacrifices. And so our goal is never to be wasteful with time and make sure that we are utilizing it in the right way.”

But implementing new grading policies in an already stressful year, post-virtual learning, has proved to be challenging for teachers, especially when educators are tired and leaving because of burnout.

And like many other professions feeling the weight of labor shortages, teachers all over the country have to fill in for other staff members.

According to the NEA, 74% of its members said they’ve had to fill in for colleagues or take other duties due to staff shortages.

And that’s not an exception at Lane. 

Atwood helped fill in for a math teacher’s AP Calculus AB classes who took a leave of absence — half way through the year. 

“So we would take turns just stopping in to answer questions for them, see if we can help them with anything,” Atwood said. “I had all of her classes assigned to me on Google Classroom and on Aspen. So I was running her grade books and her posts for her Google Classroom.”

“We would go in [and] we would talk to the students. I offered for them to come and sit into any of our classes and get live instruction. We were posting instruction and solutions on the classroom. The teacher who left had done a lot of that too, she had posted a lot of work for them,” Atwood said. 

According to Atwood, the Math department also brought students from Calculus II and III classes to tutor the students during their lunches. 

Although Shaheed Solebo didn’t have this teacher for AP Calculus, he had her for Algebra II and Trigonometry. Additionally, he had another teacher who left halfway through the year. 

“I got kind of hurt, seeing them leave. It was kind of abruptly too,” Solebo said.

He described himself falling behind in his math class because students in the class were sent to the auditorium for at least a week, due to the sub shortage. However, in his other class with an absentee teacher, that wasn’t the case.

“We had someone coming into our class every day — an actual teacher coming in and giving us work,” Solebo said.

That person was Benjamin Oshana, a Lane Cadre sub (a permanently assigned substitute teacher who shows up to the same school every day), who filled in for one of Solebo’s classes when his teacher left halfway through the year.

According to Oshana, there were other teachers in that department assigning work for the students on Google Classroom, like Atwood was for AP Calculus, but students found it challenging to complete it.

“[The students] just all found it difficult to do because they didn’t have another teacher actually teaching them the lessons,” Oshana said. “So they’d have to watch videos to try to learn it on their own.”

Oshana said he tried to help the students but found it hard because of a lack of access to the material and the subject.

“I tried helping them as much as I could,” he said. 

Ultimately, shortages from buses to substitute teachers and pushes from administrations for equitable grading and educator resignations are leading to educator burnout, according to the NEA.  

Second-year Physics teacher Josh Park describes burnout as getting stuck in a repetitive perspective that hinders students’ and teachers’ ability to function normally in a classroom. 

“It means that we’ve been doing the same thing for too long with the same mindset. It’s the same thing that saps the joy out of education or learning from students,” Park said.  

Thompson said she’s noticed burnout hit Lane teachers quicker than usual in the school year. 

“You know, there’s a certain pep that teachers have in their step at times,” Thompson said. “And you typically see that wane off back in late spring. I kind of saw it wane off a little bit back before November because by November, it’s the end of the first quarter [and] for some people it felt like a semester.”

Even though Thompson isn’t feeling burnout herself, she said Lane’s administration is doing everything they can to help out teachers by giving them back the most valuable asset: time. 

The administration has cut down on meetings or tried to shorten them as much as possible. And because the administration does recognize teachers are getting burnout at a much higher rate than normal, they’ve tried to change their mindset. 

“[Teachers] also have their own personal families and their own personal dealings and their own challenges and or triumphs that they have in their personal lives,” Thompson said. “And a lot of times people don’t see that side of them.” 

“They only see the fact that they are teachers and what they are expected to do, as opposed to understanding the sacrifice that comes with the profession,” Thompson continued. 

According to Atwood, that narrative of teachers during the pandemic hasn’t helped with teacher burnout. Having to shift an in-person curriculum online while hearing generalizations on the news proved to be difficult. 

“The burnout is coming from the talk that’s outside,” Atwood said. “We’re lazy, we care about our health, shame on us, and we should be back in the classroom.” 

“It’s really tiring to hear that you’re lazy and not doing enough. When you are so exhausted yourself that you’re like, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m not doing enough?’” Atwood continued.