I joined an intensive teacher prep program based in Washington, D.C. this past July. I knew it would be challenging and was warned about how much learning loss was anticipated in students who had been fully online for more than a year. What I didn’t realize was that I’d be starting my career in a building hobbled by staff exhaustion.
Evidence of burnout is everywhere, from the teacher’s lounge conversations to the growing string of staff resignations. The almost immediate effect: After only a few weeks at my school, I began subbing for absent staff members all day, every day.
This is an obvious consequence of COVID — peers in my teacher prep program report the same phenomenon. Schools across the city have dealt with staff outages by shoving the least experienced teachers, hired technically as assistants, into classrooms without so much as a lesson plan.
My first day as a substitute teacher was just two weeks into the school year. I was left with a three-slide slideshow and a five-minute video for the 75-minute classes I would teach that day. Thankfully, I already knew three of the groups of students; however, the fourth class was filled with kids I had never met, most of whom had specialized learning plans that I had no time to read before stepping into the classroom. That meant I didn’t know that one of my new students had an intellectual disability and was still working on mastering phonics — and because I didn’t know that about him, I asked him to read aloud a sentence from the slideshow in front of the whole class.
This student tried to dodge my request for a little while, then tried to read and only got a few sounds in before a girl in the back of the classroom screamed, “What are you, stupid? Just read the board!” Within seconds, the student who was struggling to read stood up and ran to the back of the classroom, saying, “I don’t hit girls,” but looking like he was definitely going to. The girl repeated, “Oh, should I be scared?” a few times as he got in her face and pushed her school supplies to the floor.
COVID protocol at my school states that I should never come within six feet of my students, but I went and stood between the kids anyway, not knowing what else to do. I held the boy back until he calmed down enough to listen to me, told him to meet me in the hall, and then gave up on the flimsy lesson plan I had been provided and put on a movie for the rest of the kids.
At the end of that class period, I felt like I had failed those students because I had failed to make them feel safe. If I had been able to anticipate those behaviors, or if I had any prior knowledge about what to do when kids start antagonizing one another, maybe there wouldn’t have been a violent outburst at all.
However, looking back, I think I, too, was being failed. I shouldn’t have been in charge of covering that class on my own so early into my career as a teacher. That’s not the fault of my school, or of any one individual; that’s the fault of a system that consistently pushes teachers so close to the edge that they either need to request frequent absences or quit.
The factors pushing first-year teachers out of this profession aren’t confined to the school day. After school ends, I head home each day to face the other first-year teacher trial: grad school.
My teacher prep program markets itself by promising to initiate lifelong teachers into the profession in a way that is ethical, pairing hands-on classroom experience during the day with one-on-one coaching and graduate coursework in the evenings. In practice, that means that Monday through Thursday of every week, from 5:30 to 8 p.m., I open Zoom and try not to multitask.
I am very grateful to have the opportunity to learn how to teach in a classroom environment — without hands-on experience, I would never learn how to manage classroom behaviors like bullying, death threats, or backflips (I wish I were kidding). But the advice from the readings about effective pedagogy is rarely reflected in the way these courses are designed or taught.
What’s worse is that these courses seem designed to crush our hope. In the summer before we entered our schools, my peers and I were repeatedly told that there was no way we would be able to authentically connect to our students whose race and socioeconomic status differed from our own. We did drills about how to respectfully disagree with our host teachers and how to talk down emotional parents. At the end of one of my courses, an assistant told us the one thing he wanted us to take away from the class was to be careful whom we trust.
I’ve felt like I was being set up for constant conflict with other teachers, parents, administrators, and even students.
No one ever talks about how to nourish your love for education, how to care for it.
At 8 p.m. on the dot, I slam my laptop shut and begin to cook dinner; at 9 I start the homework due the next day. If I’m lucky, I get to bed by 11 p.m. Then I get up to start the whole process again at 6 a.m.
I understand that first-year teaching is inherently difficult. It’s an adjustment to work at a school for the first time, especially a school for underserved students, whose needs — both academic and social-emotional — are significant. However, I think that the design of my first-year experience has rendered it harder than it needs to be, especially during COVID.
Shouldn’t my school be welcoming me in? Shouldn’t my courses be trying to sell me the idea that there’s some joy to be had in this profession, and that it’s part of the job to find ways to connect with my students and their families? Shouldn’t I have a few moments to catch my breath and feel like a human?
This complaint isn’t just personal. Too many first-year teachers quit their jobs even in normal, non-pandemic times, creating problems for fellow staff members and for students in need of good teachers and stability. It’s clear that shoving new teachers into classrooms without the resources they need to support students simply isn’t sustainable — we’re being set up to fail, and then being blamed for failing.
This is an urgent problem that demands practical solutions. Teacher prep programs that emphasize how taxing this job is while barely leaving participants enough time to shower are not the answer that we think they are.
Hannah Berman is a teacher in Washington, D.C.