COVID-19 takes its toll on teachers

Hadley Carr

Restless nights and overwhelming anxiety have afflicted teachers since the start of the pandemic. 

The uncertainty of COVID-19, in-person learning, and teaching behind a screen make Rebecca Bradshaw-Smith apprehensive, particularly when it comes to returning to school; Bradshaw-Smith simply doesn’t feel safe. There is a plan, but she isn’t comfortable with the lack of data demonstrating student interest coupled with the abundance of unknown variables.

As a health teacher, Bradshaw-Smith must not only deal with her mental health, but teach students to cope with their mental health. When Bradshaw-Smith’s students became a collage of squares and letters on the screen, her classes lost a sense of humanity. Bradshaw-Smith faces letters on a blank screen as she waits for answers that never arrive in the chat. But the hardest part she says is that you “have to figure out how to deal with [distance learning], but you don’t know how.”

But Bradshaw-Smith is finding ways to cope. She still starts her class with music; though with music booming out of Teams rather than her classroom speakers. She picked up Zumba and enlisted her son as her personal trainer in addition to her daily four to five mile walks. For Bradshaw-Smith, exercise allows her to “be alone with her thoughts and music,” and to begin to relieve the pressure she had experienced during the day.

Bradshaw-Smith also finds peace in her relationships. Whether it be talking to her husband, talking to her friends as physicians, or simply talking to her friends as friends, Bradshaw-Smith built a support system based on her opportunities.

As a teacher, Bradshaw-Smith has access to psychologists at Wilson, but many teachers choose not to make appointments as not to “infringe on [the opportunity] because [the support] is for [students].” However, that leaves teachers with very slim options.

“[Teachers are always viewed as] resilient, [told that] we can do this and we can do that. We are, but we’re also human.” 

History Teacher Patrick Cassidy adds that “it’s just understood, wrongly or rightly, that teachers are adults, and they should be able to figure it out for themselves.”

Cassidy’s peak in stress during the pandemic was not a day or a week, but months. “Between [the] end of August and Thanksgiving, [there were many nights when] I was like, I [can’t] really do this anymore today.” The Thanksgiving break was the first time that he had taken a serious break since August.

In a day, Cassidy estimates that he gives himself five to seven hours to relieve stress, including his meals. Particularly in the months of August through November, the time he spent working added up. His stomach would knot itself in the day, and, when the sun set, the knot would manifest itself in restlessness.

Cassidy would rise at three or four in the morning plagued by anxious thoughts about school. He ultimately had to go to his primary care physician to alleviate his inability to sleep.

Cassidy explains the root of his mental health concerns to be his perfectionist tendencies. He struggled with learning and perfecting how “to figure out distance learning, to learn different platforms, to develop a meaningful lesson.” He adds that the unrealistic expectations he sets lead him to continue to push himself to the extent of anxiety. 

However, Cassidy tries to fit in time for himself when he can. He tries to walk every day, even if it’s only for 20 minutes, to escape the computer screen; to spend time after lesson planning to sit in front of the TV or relax with his partner; to set aside one day of the weekend for himself. But sometimes, school hinders this ability to relax.

With the 4×4 schedule, teachers have to create a new lesson plan every day, leading to more planning, more grading, more work, and ultimately more stress. Sometimes, Bradshaw-Smith adds, teachers began so absorbed in their work, they “forget about [themselves].”

As history is being written, teachers are left with the jobs of allowing their students to flourish, meaning not only to educate but to nurture. 

But when the present is bursting with such uncertainty, Bradshaw-Smith concludes that “we are teachers, we are adults, and we are just as scared as you are.”