A lot of us have been confused, angry, and frustrated by the reluctance of some teachers, and particularly their unions, to resume in-person instruction. It defies not just science, but common sense, and feels like an exercise in shifting the goalposts or flexing political muscles. No in-person class until teachers are vaccinated. Or until kids are vaccinated. No, until everyone’s vaccinated and Covid-19 is eradicated. Then and only then will it be “safe” to return to something approximating normal schooling.
Over the weekend, a New York math teacher named Michael Pershan tweeted an astute observation, later expanded into a blog post, which suggests one possible cause of many teachers’ reluctance to resume in-person instruction: It’s less that they’re scared of Covid. They’re scared of hybrid teaching. And this, Pershan argues persuasively, is “an entirely reasonable concern about working conditions.”
“I bumped into an elementary teacher friend yesterday who I admire a great deal. She has been fully vaccinated and I know she cares a lot for her students,” Pershan writes. “She understands that vaccines are effective. She works hard for kids. Still, she’s praying that they don’t return in-person. And she even said she has colleagues who are afraid of getting their shots, for fear that they will have to come back to school. This is seemingly crazy—sure, ventilation is awful in a lot of places, but are they less safe than not being vaccinated?”
What’s actually happening, Pershan posits, is that the response to the pandemic has made teaching much more difficult and a lot less satisfying, and this is manifesting itself in a reluctance to further entrench the practices that are making teachers miserable, specifically having to simultaneously teach students in class and online. His blunt but accurate observation (just ask a teacher who is doing it) is that this common form of hybrid teaching “hardcore sucks.”
For a significant percentage of teachers, in-person schooling for the foreseeable future is going to mean hybrid instruction, with some combination of “roomies and Zoomies.” It’s certainly not going away in the current school year and maybe not the next one either, owing to parental choice and CDC guidelines. Even where in-person instruction is currently an option, a significant percentage of parents don’t want their kids back in physical school buildings, and health guidelines make it all but impossible for most schools to fit a full complement of students in a classroom without violating social distancing requirements. For the time being, this makes a certain amount of hybrid learning inevitable, which materially alters the act of teaching.
I spoke to Pershan after reading his blog post. He cited the work of the late University of Chicago sociologist Dan C. Lortie, who noted that teaching is rooted in “psychic rewards” for teachers. When your contact with students is inconsistent or unpredictable, the emotional day-to-day payoff of teaching isn’t always there. It’s a struggle to build trusting relationships and a positive and effective classroom culture among a rotating and unpredictable roster of students. It’s also easy for a low level of rigor and sophistication to creep into the work. Student indifference and lack of motivation becomes hard to ignore or combat. In sum, hybrid instruction not only makes the job harder, “it also strips away a lot of the things that people love about the job,” explains Pershan, who notes that many teachers have students they’ve never even met in person.
Not all hybrid teaching is created equal. Pershan makes the subtle but important point that “synchronous” hybrid learning, with only a few kids present in-person is really hard; when just a few kids are online it’s more manageable. “When most kids are in the classroom and a few are online…it’s not more effective for the kids who are online,” he notes. “But at least I feel like my presence at school is worthwhile. I can more easily help kids with things, I can keep an eye on everyone, and more important, it feels like there’s a real social environment.” When the numbers are flipped, with only a few kids physically present, “that’s a recipe for frustration,” Pershan observes. “That feels like you might as well have everyone stay at home, since you’re basically teaching online anyway.” But you’re also responsible for the kids who are physically present.
My own sense is that teachers needn’t be consciously “afraid” of hybrid teaching for Pershan’s thesis to make sense. Confirmation bias seems enough to tip the balance. Much like putting off recommended dental work if you’re not in pain, it’s human nature to avoid unpleasant tasks if they can be avoided. Teachers might simply be more susceptible to cite concerns for their “safety” if it forestalls returning to a job that has been made more difficult or unpleasant due to circumstances beyond their control. A crisis or public health emergency brings out the best in us. But as the emergency goes from an acute to a chronic condition, creating permanent changes in the structure and rewards of the job, it makes sense that teachers might resist, even unconsciously, putting themselves in harm’s way—psychologically, if not physically.
Some will perceive this analysis as merely another flavor of excuse-making and putting adult interests ahead of kids, or argue that any in-person instruction is better than none, therefore teachers should just suck it up and get back in to class. But teacher effectiveness matters under any scenario. The proof of Pershan’s provocative hypothesis may be in teacher retention. Economic uncertainty tends to reduce teacher turnover. If the economy shows signs of life and the job market improves—with the demands of teaching remaining high and the psychic rewards diminished—we shouldn’t be surprised by a sudden rush for the exits.
It may already be underway. A new RAND study suggests that Covid-driven changes to schooling are pushing some teachers out of the profession before their scheduled retirement dates. Almost half of public school teachers who left the classroom after March 2020 did so because of the Covid-19 pandemic. “At least for some teachers, the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have exacerbated what were high stress levels pre-pandemic by forcing teachers to, among other things, work more hours and navigate an unfamiliar remote environment, often with frequent technical problems,” according to the RAND report.
Pershan’s astute observation and the RAND report post offer, for me at least, a kind of hammer through glass moment, offering a different context for my own frustration with teachers’ reluctance to return to the classroom. The resolution is not entirely clear. Perhaps schools and districts might curtail synchronous hybrid learning in favor of full-time online academies for parents who demand a remote option. At the very least, it’s another argument for dispensing with the “new normal” and returning to the old normal with urgency, for everyone’s sake—parents, students, and teachers.