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Teachers battling stress, depression during the pandemic

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Veteran school teacher Stephanie Woolley-Larrera has gained years of experience since her inaugural year at the front of a classroom 26 years ago, yet the past school year marked many firsts for her.

For one, Woolley-Larrera, who teaches at Coral Reef Senior High School in Miami, had never taught from a stationary position in the corner of her classroom, where she was tethered to her computer in order to address students seated both in front of her and tuned into class remotely.

"I learned more this year since I have since my first year teaching. It was transformative," she said of teaching high school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She learned new technologies and modes of teaching, but hopes not to have to replicate last year's experience this coming school year. Given that the pandemic is subsiding as more Americans receive the vaccine, she likely won't have to. 

"I think what teachers did this year was amazing. We reinvented everything we have to do and really just for one year. This was a short term commitment and everybody did it and it blows me away that we were able to reinvent ourselves for just a short period of time," she said. "I think only people in education understand how much we had to do."

Teaching during the pandemic was indeed stressful for Woolley-Larrera and many other educators who were tasked with educating dispersed groups of students. 

Factors behind teacher stress

A much higher percentage of teachers reported frequent job-related stress and symptoms of depression compared to the general adult population, in part because they were navigating unfamiliar technology and struggling to engage students, while also having concerns about returning to in-person instruction amid a pandemic. 

In January 2021, 78% of teachers said they experienced frequent job-related stress, compared to 40% of employed adults, according to a survey of public school teachers from the Rand Corp. funded by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers 

The pressures of teaching during the pandemic weighed so heavily on educators that one in four teachers said they were likely to leave their jobs by the end of the 2020-21 school year, according to the same study.

Hybrid teaching challenges — including balancing remote instruction with in-person learning — led to the most stress among teachers. 

"The kids that did not want to participate — I couldn't do anything about that," said Woolley-Larrera. 

She also was limited in her ability to support students coping with "psychological difficulties" stemming from COVID-related family tragedies. 

"A lot of them were going through so much in their own homes and we had no vocabulary for a lot of this and training for doing this. [Administrators] would tell us to prioritize mental health, but how?" she said.

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Health concerns weighed heavily

Teachers' concerns about their own health and that of their loved ones was also a top source of stress, according to the report. One teacher told Rand researchers of "constantly having to tell teenagers to pull their masks up, and [there are] no real consequences available for those who refuse to comply." 

Emmely Canela, a public school teacher in Los Angeles, said her workload nearly doubled when she was tasked with teaching both in-person and remote students. Coursework she prepared for in-person students didn't translate on-screen, she said. Effectively, she had to design separate curriculums. 

"I was part time in-person and part-time on the computer but we weren't given extra time to plan, which was definitely stressful. So I was using a lot of my free time to plan effective lessons for students online and in the classroom," Canela said. 

And while Canela herself was vaccinated at the time, she was concerned about interacting with students in person and also seeing more vulnerable family members. 

"I was torn between this moral dilemma of going in and making sure students got the education they deserved while also being conscious of the fact that a lot of my community members were vulnerable," Canela said. 

Both educators remain in the classroom, despite the challenges they faced this year. It's a testament to their resilience and dedication to the profession, according to Canela. 

It's not like they are in it for the money: The median annual wage for high school teachers was $62,870 in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

"Teachers are expected to give teaching their all — there is this stigma where you have to be 1,000% devoted, and most people are, but I don't think people realize that teaching is a job. I feel like the humanity is taken out of teaching and the expectations for teachers are crazy. While I'm happy to meet those expectations, I do feel that there comes a huge emotional and mental health impact on my own self worth and feelings about, 'Well I can't think about myself, I have to think of the children.'" 

Other teachers decided to cut their careers short, given the risks posed by COVID-19. Miami-based high school teacher Amy Scott is among the teachers who are no longer active in the profession since the pandemic. "Teaching is who I am," said the 69-year-old Scott. "It gives me energy, ideas and creativity. But I am not willing to die for it."

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