Teachers protest going back to the classroom in the summer of 2020. (CTNewsJunkie file photo)
BARTH KECK

When it comes to schooling during the pandemic, much of the recent focus has been on the so-called “learning loss” suffered by children. Surely, the challenges have been daunting for kids. But what about the teachers?

According to a recent story on National Public Radio, it hasn’t been pretty: “After a year of uncertainty, long hours and juggling personal and work responsibilities, many [teachers] told NPR they had reached a breaking point.”

Connecticut can relate. Many districts want to run summer enrichment programs, thanks to Gov. Ned Lamont’s dedication of $11 million in federal funding. But they can’t do it without willing teachers.

“We are all very, very tired,” said Jason Hartling, superintendent of Ledyard Public Schools. “There are a number of people who, in a normal year, probably would have volunteered to do summer enrichment opportunities, but this year, they’re going to take the summer off to recharge.”

“As much as we’d like to service as many kids as possible this summer, I don’t know if we’re going to have the bodies to do it,” adds Bridgeport Superintendent Michael Testani. “This extremely difficult year of synchronous learning has led to a lot of burnout, and our teachers need to take some time to relax.”

It makes one wonder about the very future of teaching, particularly in light of shortages projected by the state Department of Education in special education, math, science, technical education and world languages, among others.

Five years ago, I asked three significantly younger colleagues for their outlook on teaching. Two remain in the classroom today, while one has embarked on a different career.

“COVID has definitely put a unique spin on life as an educator this year,” said Josh Hagewood, a history teacher in his 10th year at Haddam-Killingworth High School. “While it hasn’t changed my long-term outlook, it’s definitely reinforced my view that schools serve as a testing ground for many of the nation’s hopes and dreams.” 

Ann Deibert, a seventh-year English teacher at HK, underscored Hagewood’s view regarding the role of schools in society: “This school year has proven how important schools are to our students and our communities. It has been the most trying year of my professional life.” 

Given the extraordinary challenges, are there still rewards?

“Teachers are expected to be on the front lines of helping young people adapt to their changing worlds,” said Hagewood. “COVID has perhaps amplified these expectations. That can be exhausting and gratifying at the same time.”

“Even on the most difficult school days, kids always find a way to give me the good,” adds Deibert. “Honestly, the kids are more resilient than I am, and I find the good in that, too.”

Hagewood and Deibert gain additional inspiration as coaches at the school. Hagewood is the boys’ and girls’ golf coach and Deibert is the girls’ head basketball coach.

“Coaching and extracurriculars factor heavily into my job satisfaction,” said Deibert. “Coaching and teaching complement each other nicely. I find myself ‘coaching English’ and ‘teaching basketball’ frequently.”

Adds Hagewood: “Coaching has given me a chance to get outside and step away from the grind of the classroom to see the kids in another light.  The joking around and camaraderie of it has helped remind me why I do the work in the first place.”

Coaching, ironically, was the reason the third colleague I interviewed five years ago left teaching. A former UConn baseball player and Arizona Diamondbacks draft pick, Ryan Fuller developed a very successful business as a hitting instructor outside of his job as an HK English teacher. After three years in the classroom, the Baltimore Orioles came calling.

“When I first became a high school English teacher, I never thought I’d have the opportunity to be a hitting coach for a professional baseball team,” explained Fuller, who is now the full season hitting coordinator for the Orioles as well as the hitting coach for the minor-league Bowie Baysox. “When that unexpected opportunity came along, I had to take it.”

Still, Fuller admits, “I do miss the students and staff at HK immensely. The best part – in both teaching and coaching – has always been the relationships that you create and the chance to have a positive impact on someone who sees you as a role model.”

For those reasons and more, Hagewood said he will continue teaching: “I used to joke that my last words would be, ‘Take one and pass it back,’ but I suspect it’ll be something more akin to ‘Take a look at the reading that I just electronically uploaded to your brain chips, folks.’ In short, I’ll probably be around long enough to experience many more seismic changes to the educational and social landscape.”

Added Deibert, quite simply: “I intend to continue teaching through retirement.”

I see Josh Hagewood and Ann Deibert as the rule rather than the exception for teachers already in the classroom: Despite the immense challenges, particularly over the past year, most will return to school come late August … but not before they take the summer to recharge.

The question is, will enough new teachers enter an increasingly challenging career to offset the looming shortages? Connecticut’s teacher education programs, in fact, continue to see significant declines in enrollment. Will “teacher loss” replace “learning loss” as the more apt phrase? Only time will tell.

Barth Keck is in his 30th year as an English teacher and in his 15th year as assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language and Composition. Email Barth here.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Barth Keck

Barth Keck is in his 30th year as an English teacher and 15th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition.