Teachers are people too


Art by Zoraya King

Recognizing the humanity of our educators in and out of the classroom.

Zoraya King and Haylee Huynh

A dream to teach, a passion for learning, an ambition to inspire.

These shared motives for public school teachers are what began their careers in education. However, the preconceived notions of teaching do not reflect the reality of the profession. Many educators are required to take on more than what they should be responsible for, and the culmination of all these factors in comparison to the respect and pay they receive is often disproportionate. This leaves most educators with the decision to sacrifice their own well-being, resulting in feelings of burnout and the loss of love for their jobs.

A poll taken in January of 2022 by The National Education Association (NEA) gave perspective into the hardships that educators face since the start of the pandemic. The poll finds that 90 percent of its members report feelings of burnout, 86 percent have seen educators leave the profession and 80 percent of currently employed educators are required to take on more work due to unfilled positions.

Though the impacts of the pandemic have worsened teachers’ experiences in the classroom, the dysfunctionality of the public education system has always posed these challenges.

“What needs to be discussed [about the education field] is how COVID and distance learning were not so much the straw that broke the camel’s back, but instead the bus that just ran the camel over. Then went into reverse and ran it over again,” Robert Moaveni, math and Theory of Knowledge teacher said.

The sudden change in the teaching environment demanded all educators to adapt quickly, often leaving them discouraged and fatigued from the strenuous workload.

“It was relentless. I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard, including my first year teaching. And still, we all felt like we’re not doing a good enough job. So having thrown that much energy into it, and that much thought, even if it didn’t seem like there was a lot of thought, […] it just feels weird,” Allison Hyde, Modern European History and Bilingual Resource teacher, said.

The transition from fully remote to fully in-person teaching was chaotic and unclear for most educators, leaving them with different perspectives and levels of learning they believed their students could handle.

“I wouldn’t say that there was a very clear plan for landing. I feel like we kind of just hit the ground running. For me, personally, I spent […] lots and lots of time on Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and community building, doing mindfulness and breathing [exercises] with the kids,” Hyde said.

Along with teacher burnout from the return to in-person learning, students are also experiencing a lack of motivation from this change, worrying teachers with the lack of commitment to their education.

“Just one year out of the traditional school practice has led to a noticeable drop in students’ academic stamina. I’m worried about what kind of expectations students are holding themselves to. I’m worried about what I can do as a teacher to guide students to make their own healthy expectations that help them grow into self-motivated adults,” Moaveni said.

Gauging student readiness for academic content was especially difficult for new-coming educators during online learning, though they found community in their coworkers and support from fellow staff.

“It was sort of a relief to know that everyone was experiencing something for the first time. Typically, first-year teachers tend to struggle because there’s a lot of pressure to learn how to manage everything really really quickly and catch up with all the other teachers who seem to do everything with ease. [Though], last year we were all experiencing new terrain and navigating new challenges and obstacles together, so I was able to learn to […] let a lot of things go,” Talia Cain, an English and Drama teacher said.

Educators have also had to carry students’ emotional trauma, both from their personal life before the pandemic and the added stress and after-effects. The empathy teachers feel for their students can become quite harmful and “almost like holding up a mirror,” Karina Chin, English Language Development and French teacher, said. “I understand the feeling when young people feel that they’re not valued, but it hurts to think about that, especially when it’s about students that I know very personally.”

Because of this personal connection, educators often have an unexpected responsibility for carrying students’ emotional burdens. With this, trauma shared between student and teacher often spills into the personal lives of educators.

“Do I go home and ruminate about the stuff that I know my kids are going through? Yes. Yes, I dream about it. I cry about it. I couldn’t even begin to tell you some of the stories. And they’re showing up and coming to class, they’re so resilient, for the most part. How, I don’t know,” Hyde said.

Creating boundaries between students has proven to be a developing yet difficult skill for educators to maintain, placing them in an abnormal situation when regarding the student-teacher relationship.

“There’s definitely like–and I think there should be rightfully– a wall between you and your students because there is a level of professionalism in the classroom that we present. It’s kind of a weird spot to be,” Cameron Green, a pseudonym for an anonymous Sequoia teacher, said. “I don’t know of any other careers where you’re both super close to students in some ways and super separated from them in other ways.”

A mutual understanding of these boundaries in this relationship re-establishes empathy towards both parties, generating respect for each person’s emotional availability.

“I feel really respected by my students and I feel like our relationships and connections have been well developed in that way where they know I’m a full human being that has their own needs […] they try not to overwhelm me at times and always check-in [before confiding in me],” Cain said.

In previous years at the start of the pandemic, Sequoia administration encouraged and supported teachers through daily emails and online resources for them to use. They gave guidance to staff for how to connect with students and maintain the Sequoia community, even through screens and masks.

“Our principals are very supportive–I mean, throughout COVID–we got daily emails every morning,” Hyde said. “[Our principal, Sean Priest,] would encourage us not to be so hard on ourselves. He would encourage us to have a lot of grace and patience with students and understand [what] students are going through with this in their own mental health and being in isolation. So it was always good to have that as a reminder. Nothing is normal. Take a deep breath. It’s okay to do less.”

Similarly, The Sequoia Union High School District (SUHSD) also provides online, personalized resources for teachers to better their mental health.

“Our district has prioritized the safety and well-being of our students and staff, so we continue to be committed to making our in-person learning experience safe and necessary,” Darnise Williams, SUHSD Superintendent, said. “We offer a variety of mental health services to our students and staff. Care Solace and Atlas Mental Health are two programs that Sequoia students and staff have direct access to with their Sequoia email that allow for a personalized approach to mental health care. Our website also features County resources available to all.”

Resources emailed to staff can either be helpful and an easy way to give support to them or become background noise for teachers. Oftentimes, the latter is true.

“I would not be surprised if someone pointed out the support and resources for teachers and I completely missed them because they’re buried somewhere deep in the recesses of my email inbox or I’ve simply been too busy to take a moment to look for them,” Moaveni said.

Instead of easing the stress teachers are carrying, the pressure to focus on their mental health creates irony when they are already too busy and focused on their workload.

“Another point of concern regarding support and resources for teachers is the availability and accessibility of such things,” Moaveni said. “It does teachers little good to have resources provided when we are scheduled to teach or to prepare for our next classes. As I’ve stated before, teachers are being asked to shoulder the burden of supporting students’ mental health, but nothing has been taken off our plates to ease our workload.”

Another resource that had both benefits and drawbacks took form in support teams. Created specifically for each department as well as racial minorities on campus, educators are given a space to collaborate academically and cultivate community with staff.

“I was on a team where we all shared the work of creating curriculum, adapting to the new circumstances, and creating resources for students––sharing strategies. They’ve always just been kind of an open channel [of] communication when I did have questions,” Cain said.

Unfortunately, making time for attending these team meetings has proven difficult with staff’s already overwhelming work schedules.

“This year, [there are] what they call racial affinity groups, so if you want to, you’re allowed to join a group of people of your same race to just be and to discuss, like, ‘what are the things that I’m feeling as a Chinese American–as an Asian person–here at Sequoia and how is that different?’ Then they […] cross-compare.” Chin said. “Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to make any of the meetings because they usually meet at lunch and my lunches are too busy.”

The SUHSD also offers training on SEL for educators to take, suggesting skills on how to handle student emotions and implementing open communication in the classroom. Though, like the racial affinity groups, scheduling these meetings into their calendars can be tricky and often inaccessible.

“The district provides many opportunities for training. So every once in a while [students] have the day off and teachers are doing professional development. I’ve taken a number of trainings, several training [sessions] through the district,” Hyde said. “But again, this is kind of all voluntary. So I might have done these things, but other teachers might not have. The [training] I did after school was from 4-6:30 p.m., three Wednesdays in a row. Some people can’t do that. I would say I feel supported, but it’s probably unevenly implemented depending on who can do it.”

With all of this constructive criticism, The SUHSD takes into account the perspectives of both students and staff in the district and strives to provide support for mental health while returning to a familiar state after COVID.

“On-going feedback and a discipline of performance improvement make us better and create opportunities for continued growth for the benefit of our current and future students, teachers, and families,” Williams said.

There’s an overwhelming consensus in the education community that being a teacher goes beyond the assumption of what the job entails socially, similar to the “‘tip of the iceberg’ analogy,” Moaveni said.

Educators are qualified to teach their areas of focus to students through countless degrees and trainings.

“However, [they] are not trained or compensated to be therapists, psychiatrists, counselors, caretakers, Chromebook technicians, tech consultants, 24/7 service providers, […] or any of the other things that a lack of resources, low staffing, and societal expectations have foisted upon [them],” Moaveni expressed. “I became a teacher because I do want to help kids, but the generosity and kind nature of those who pursue becoming teachers has been exploited to an excessive amount.”

These roles educators fulfill were intensified even more during the pandemic, forcing them to compartmentalize and distance themselves from their feelings in order to maintain a sense of positivity in the classroom.

“With the rise […] of students suffering from mental health issues, we are the frontline in recognizing that and seeing that. There’s so much that’s asked of teachers and, you know, not only to do all these things and fulfill all these roles, but also to do it enthusiastically and with a smile,” Green said. “You’ve got to be on every day. I described it as akin to a lot of performers, I’ve got to put on three shows today.”

The qualifications of educators for their jobs is disproportionate to the financial compensation they receive, another aspect of the profession that is often taken advantage of.

“You have several teachers here that have master’s degrees, and a postgraduate degree is worth a lot just about everywhere, except for in education. Teachers are highly educated and not well paid. It’s just maddening to see that there’s just this real disconnect in understanding of what we do here and the pressures that are put on us to perform,” Green said.

Additionally, educators’ salary is not relative to their job location; with housing in the Bay Area being exponentially higher than in other parts of California, this extreme disparity is even more prominent with educators locally.

“How many teachers can afford to live on the same street as their school is located? Probably zero. And that’s saying something, a teacher should be able to afford a house on the same street that the school is on, and that’s not realistic,” Green said.

Though it has proven its difficulties, many teachers continue to commit to the profession simply because of their fundamental love of teaching.

“It’s no secret that teaching is a difficult and demanding profession, but I have enjoyed it over the years because I truly do enjoy getting to work with this age group. It is rewarding to help students learn how to be successful and how to appreciate their learning journey. Getting to actually work with [my students] is what keeps me going,” Moaveni said.

However, some have fallen under this pressure and have decided to discontinue their work in the education field.

“I think as someone who’s always wanted to be a teacher, it’s not a simple decision, but I am not going anywhere. I do know a lot of friends who are leaving, many of whom also always wanted to be teachers. Seeing them process the decision to leave the profession has been emotional,” Cain said.

Finding solutions to the teacher mental health crisis and structural issues within the education system is a challenge near impossible to solve. In spite of this, by creating open and constructive communication with Sequoia administration, SUHSD, and our community, we can look for ways to better support our staff and ease the burdens that are imposed upon educators.

“We have had student panels where students are able to speak freely about their experiences at the school. Teachers attend these panels or watch the recordings because we are interested in the student voice and constantly seek ways to improve the schooling experience,” Moaveni said. “I would be curious to see the interest in a similar panel but for teachers so that students can hear our side of the schooling experience.”