The story of supporting elementary teachers through Emergency Remote Teaching and virtual school teaching assignments (ERT) in the spring of 2021 is a cautionary tale for educational leaders. What emerges from teachers’ own words is a description ERT’s impact on them and the type of support they need to keep them in the profession. These requirements should come as no surprise to educational leaders. They align with four decades of research on supporting teachers through each of the three main stages of the typical teaching life cycle: early-, mid-, and late-career. In this study, early career teachers are defined as having 0 to 9 years of experience, mid-career teachers 10 to 19 years, and late-career teachers 20 or more years (Huberman, 1989). Each of these groups have different needs that may have been overlooked during the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures, and ERT. However, failure to deliver this support remains a key factor in teacher attrition (White, 2008). This article reports on an analysis of 105 elementary teacher comments about support during ERT and virtual school teaching assignments.
One hundred and five (105) elementary school teachers in one eastern Ontario school district participated in an online survey posted in the private Facebook group of a local chapter of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) in May 2021. They answered two questions in writing on Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT). The questions posed were: 1) If you are feeling burned out, pressured, exhausted, tired, fatigued, stressed, discouraged, and/or depressed, please try to identify the cause of these feelings. 2) If there is anything else that you would like to tell us about the experience of teaching remotely, please do so here. The responses were coded and analyzed.
It is not surprising that almost three quarters of the 29 early-career teacher survey participants (72.41%) reported that they were not trained or equipped to handle the workload of ERT. Approximately one third of them (34.48%) wrote that it was an enormous effort to get children to attend online, keep them engaged, and to collect and assess their work. One third (34.48%) stated that finding or creating good quality, age-appropriate, digital resources for online instruction was extremely time-consuming. One third (31.03%) wrote that the amount of time online was exceedingly challenging for students and poor-quality instruction. “I just feel like there is so much to do and not enough time. Virtual teaching, in my opinion, takes double the time to teach any concept and triple the time to mark, give feedback, etc., not to mention planning and trying to deliver help for IEP (special needs) students. I worry about those who haven’t logged in,” wrote one Combined Grade 4-5 teacher with 5 to 9 years experience. Not to trivialize the challenge of the ERT experiences of early-career teachers, but their concerns and comments reflect typical experiences of this experience group during non-pandemic times. Research suggests that initially many tend to be overwhelmed and uncertain, then focus on useful resources, and finally devote their attention to ensuring every student succeeds (White, 2008).
Almost three quarters (71.43%) of the 42 mid-career teacher respondents reported that the workload during Emergency Remote Teaching was significantly greater than during in-person learning. Teachers in this category seemed to struggle the most, possibly because almost half of them, 20 out of 42 participants (47.62%), were also parenting, homeschooling their own children and running a household while teaching. Single mothers were particularly affected. This is a stark contrast to the 10% of teachers in the other two experience categories. One Combined Grade 1-2 teacher with 10 to 14 years experience put it this way: “I have young children at home with me (on my own) who I am trying to navigate online learning with. Many times this year I have been told that I need to put my job as a teacher ahead of my role as a mother. It has been shocking and beyond upsetting that I have to justify that I will always be a mother before a teacher. On top of that I feel that each day I cannot possibly do all my roles to my best ability. Something or someone always gets neglected.” Another teacher, a Grade 4 teacher with 10 to 14-years experience wrote: “I am trying to teach my students and my own two children at home. It’s too much and I wish that I could do something to help myself, but I can’t.” Their concerns and comments don’t reflect the typical experience of mid-career teachers. The research indicates that they are usually confident about their professional skills and knowledge and often begin experimenting with new instructional approaches to improve student learning. They are experienced and know how to get results (White, 2008). This may be why almost one half of this group, 18 out of 42 teachers (42.86%), stated that to do a good job they need better technological equipment and more time to create or locate better quality digital educational content. Indeed, 16.67% of this group purchased resources with their own funds.
In contrast to the less experienced survey respondents, only a little more than half (20) of the 34 late-career teachers (58.82%) who took the survey identified workload as in issue. However, exactly half of them (50.0%) were concerned about the quality of ERT, the amount of online instruction, and its effect on students and their caregivers. These seasoned professionals are generally comfortable with classroom life and their role. Their job satisfaction is often tied to their ability to improve student success (White, 2008). It is therefore not surprising that they were most concerned with the impact of Emergency Remote Teaching on student learning and mental health. A Special Education Resource Teacher wrote: “I feel that I am carrying the weight of every student and their family’s worries, anger, frustration in addition to mine and my family and friends’.” However how hard they worked, students continued to disengage, either not showing up, turning their cameras off, not participating, or not completing work. A Combined Grade 7-8 teacher with 20 to 24 years experience was very clear: “We have been left to flounder with sub-par technology and zero training. We have been left to figure out, on our own, how to problem solve through this entire year with no support. Don’t even get me started on the lack of support for struggling learners. I have completely lost faith in our education system and ‘leaders’.” She urged educational leaders to invest in teachers via professional development, quality technology for teachers and students, the purchase of digital teaching resources, flexible work hours and respect for teachers whose children are also learning from home, and consistent and clear rules around participation for students and parents.
It is clear from the findings above that whether remote teaching or not, many teachers need more support than they received during pandemic teaching and times. The research literature in the field suggests that the finding applies more broadly to pre- and post-pandemic times. Teachers in different experience categories require different support and to different degrees. Early-career teachers might need encouragement, guidance, and/or materials. Mid-career teachers could benefit from flexible schedules to accommodate work-life balance. Late-career teachers need to feel heard and have some influence over decision-making. Without these varying types of support, teachers are more likely to resign (White, 2008). In one recent U.S. study, 20% of the participants left the profession during pandemic teaching or were actively considering leaving it. Half of them had 10 or more years of teaching experience. This could have negative consequences because high teacher turnover produces lower student achievement rates (Bartlett, 2021). Given the current unemployment rate among second- and third-year teachers is approximately 3% (Wilson, 2021), educational leaders ignore the professional needs of early-, mid-, and late-career teachers at their peril.
Bartlett, L. (2021). Will the Pandemic Drive Teachers Out of the Profession? What One Study Says. Education Week, August 2.
Huberman, M. A. (1989). The professional life cycle of teachers. Teachers College Record, 91(1), 31-57.
White, R. (2008). Teachers’ Professional Life Cycles. The IH Journal of Education and Development, Spring (24), 24.
Wilson, J. (2021). Ontario Teacher Shortage Grows Dramatically. Canadian HRReporter. Key Media: Toronto. Retrieved from https://www.hrreporter.com/focus-areas/recruitment-and-staffing/ontario-teacher-shortage-grows-dramatically/336547
Edward Schroeter, B.J., B.Ed., OCT, ETFO, is a former newspaper reporter and retired elementary school teacher with 30 years experience. His education research has been published in the CAP Journal, the Ontario Mathematics Gazette, and Education Canada Magazine. He was the Grade 1 Lead Writer for the Ontario Mathematics Curriculum Resource Project (2020-21).