The role of the teacher in this crisis environment has been impossibly expansive: All at once, a teacher may have to serve as a student’s content expert, surrogate parent, social worker, mentor and tech support professional. Before vaccines were available, teachers were at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19. Yet teachers continued to assume their expansive role to support our children, and despite a recent surge in cases, they continue to do just that.

By most definitions, teachers have been heroes.

Yet research we have conducted into the portrayal of teachers in the media during the pandemic reveals a narrative where teachers have not often been lauded as heroes. Instead, as was true before the pandemic, the tension between the needs of teachers, children, parents and the economy is central to the story. For our communities to answer the question of how to balance these needs, we need to begin rethinking our expectations of teachers during this pandemic and beyond.

Teachers generally love what they do, but they are still being paid far less than similarly educated professionals. This salary problem provides context for the low teacher morale and burnout that have only been amplified by the pandemic.

The RAND Corp.’s 2021 State of the U.S. Teacher Survey found that pandemic-era teaching conditions were linked to the severe stress, depression and burnout now experienced by teachers. One in six teachers considered leaving the profession before the pandemic. That number is now one in four. Under current conditions, many cannot see themselves as career educators.

These trends have been echoed by teachers in the media, even in Maine. Meeting the needs of students in class as well those who are in quarantine, in addition to helping students manage their feelings and behaviors, is clearly taking a toll. A striking example of the dilemma teachers are facing was published in the Kennebec Journal, where Skowhegan Area Middle School teacher Angel Bellavance said to Staff Writer Emily Duggan, “Can I really keep doing this? It’s not what a teacher wants to feel. But we do this because it’s our mission on Earth; it’s what we are meant to do.”

The omicron variant has also reignited a familiar narrative around the needs of our economy versus the needs of our teachers. On the surface, schools cultivate our children’s minds and their talents. Yet with child care largely unaffordable for most working families, the pandemic has unearthed another truth: Schools are the affordable child care many parents need to keep their jobs and our economy humming.

Media accounts of parents’ frustrations with school closures and remote learning have been numerous. An alarming increase in parental harassment targeting educators, as well as school administrators, nationwide has led to an ongoing Department of Justice investigation. But pressuring teachers to work in schools without well-enforced safety measures, and in communities without widespread masking or vaccination, for parents’ and the economy’s sake has proven untenable. Our teachers are getting sick from COVID-19 or buckling under the tremendous stress associated with feeling unsafe in many of our now-understaffed schools. Add political polarization into the mix, and those in helping professions like teaching are at their breaking point.

In a world where crises like the COVID-19 pandemic may become more common, we need to seriously reconsider what we ask of teachers: Can we continue to ask them to wear so many hats, for pay that will not allow them to pursue teaching as a long-term career, with minimal support as they endure intense pressure to improve students’ academic achievement? The future of our communities depends on our children having the necessary skills to adapt and thrive in this complex world. Without the heroic work of talented teachers, that future could be bleak.

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