Burnout and Black Screens: Being a Teacher and Parent in a Pandemic


I spent a leisurely hour shopping at Trader Joe’s tonight while my husband puts our kids to bed. I’m not sure at what point a trek to the grocery store became “me time,” but that’s where we’re at. The cashier and I are making casual conversation when she asks what I do. “I work with English language learners at a middle school,” I tell her.

“That’s amazing,” she replies and grabs a bag of dark chocolate from behind the register and sticks them in my bag next to the eggs and edamame. “On the house. Teachers need some love right now,” she says. I am truly touched. I thank her and walk away quickly before I start crying and make it awkward for everyone.

Empty Classroom ChairsIt’s not hard to make me cry under normal circumstances, but this year it seems to be my new extracurricular hobby. As a teacher and a parent this year, I have never thrown this much effort into anything and still felt like a rampant failure. And now as students have been trickling back into Washington schools, I’ve been scouring the forums and comment sections regarding in-person learning. I can’t help it; it’s equal parts curiosity and masochism. For every lovely and encouraging comment geared towards educators, there are dozens claiming we are lazy, selfish gremlins who’ve been on paid vacation for the last year. Ouch. It’s hard not to take that personally.

It’s Just Six Weeks, Right?

It’s been a whole year since the governor announced a six-week lock down. I just wish he had waited until the end of the school day to announce it; the fire alarm was pulled seven times that day. There is no bravery that parallels a middle schooler with no fear of consequences.

For anyone with school-aged children, school closures have meant immense stress and heartbreak. School is more than just an education; it’s socialization and sports. It’s mental health and stability, access to food, and a safe place for kids to be while parents work. I watched my own kids grapple with the sudden life upheaval and fail to understand why they couldn’t go back to preschool and kindergarten. I’ve never felt this helpless before, and yet I know that schools are spectacularly challenging places to manage during a pandemic.

We are in large part underfunded and overcrowded. I work in an old building with a very outdated HVAC system, and until recently, I had almost forgotten how much middle school students love to touch each other. Reminding kids to keep their masks up over their noses is a fresh hell I never knew existed. Many of our families have also opted not to return to school because students are medically fragile, they live in multigenerational families, or they just plain don’t feel safe.

Low Bandwidth      

In any normal year, I send my children out the door and into a loving classroom. I am a support role in their education, and I wouldn’t change that. I am in awe of teachers who can mediate the insanity of skinned knees and nose picking while helping kids to grow, whereas I’m more equipped to help you craft a thesis statement. But when sending my kids to school was no longer an option, I desperately wanted to use my skill set to create a magical homeschool experience. I wanted to actively participate in their education and help them thrive.

I tried so hard in the beginning. I threw my energy into academic scavenger hunts and feelings journals and charting the growth of our seedlings. I so wanted to provide them a worthy educational experience, but the expectations for remote learning ramped up quickly and then my energy was thrown into hobbling together an online teaching experience. Doing both became impossible. It felt like working while on vacation – straddling a line and doing both things poorly.

And this became a year, more so than any other, that I prioritized other students’ education over my own kids. It broke me. This is my skill set, this is where I shine, and there was not enough time, resources, or sanity to try and do both well. My kids, probably like a lot of others, got too much screen time, too many bribes to stay quiet while I was on a zoom, and none of the magic I wanted to give them. There was, however, more than enough guilt to go around.      

You’re Muted!

The energy given to teaching has also felt painfully inadequate. The large majority of us became teachers because we like kids. Teaching to black screens and begging kids to unmute themselves is hard. There are students struggling, students who have disappeared, and students who are clearly playing video games while we discuss algebra. This year has been endless phone calls, home visits, zoom tutoring sessions during our off hours, and bringing in some of our most vulnerable students one at a time. iPads

Most of my colleagues spend an unprecedented amount of time creating new curriculum, video taping themselves, and researching new ways to engage students. My daughter’s kindergarten teacher last year brought art supplies and graduation gifts to each student’s house. This year, her first grade teacher had a stress-induced heart attack and came back to Zooms before he was medically cleared because he missed the kids. I am surrounded by teachers grappling to make remote learning work, and I see parents doing their best to fill in the enormous gaps that distance learning creates. None of this looks very pretty, but it stings to be painted as a villain who doesn’t want what’s best for kids.

What A Year This Week Has Been

As we’ve been bringing students back into the building, it’s both strange and reassuringly familiar. Kids are excited to be around each other –  there’s an energy and optimism that have been missing from the building for the past year. As more and more teachers are getting vaccinated, the anxiety is starting to decrease, and hope is building. It feels good to work with kids in person and know the faces behind the black screens. We will meet kids where they’re at and celebrate empathy and resilience.

I know this has been excruciating all around, but I hope it is understood how much we care about your kids. When they come into our zooms and our classrooms, they become our kids too. More than anything, we just want you to know that we’re doing our best to take care of your kids in any forum we’re given, and a little dark chocolate never hurts.

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Emily Corak has spent the last three decades in the Pacific Northwest and prefers to live in Vancouver because parking in Portland terrifies her. A mom to two kids, ages 3 and 7, Emily has been an educator for the past decade and she currently works with middle school English language learners. She wasn't planning on becoming a mother, but she's glad she was so careless because it turns out she really likes being a mom. Most days. Emily is now going back to school for her MFA in creative writing after deciding she had more to offer the world than breast milk and unsolicited grammar advice. When the world allows, she spends any spare cash on plane tickets, and she lives for books, tea, and all things Top Chef. She occasionally writes about anything and everything that comes to mind, and you can find her work here: https://offbrandmusings.blogspot.com/