By Erin Nerlino
Erin wrote the article “From Heroes to Scapegoats: Teacher Perceptions of the Media and Public’s Portrayal of Teachers during COVID-10” in the latest quarterly issue of The Educational Forum. The article is available free in the month of October.
It was April 2021, amidst arguably the strangest year of teaching in the profession’s history, and I was sitting in my classroom after school one day, wracking my brain about how I might attempt to review with my 11th grade AP English Language and Composition students for their upcoming AP exam. With some students Zooming into class remotely and others in person, I was chained to my computer desk, limiting any more interactive and engaging configurations of a lesson. My own connection to the subject I loved so much was distant. I worried about students and their social emotional state. I felt defeated.
As I was deep in thought, one of my colleagues walked into my room. Only a year apart in teaching experience, we had undergone the tough and overwhelming first few years together. Avoiding the all-too-common reality of high early-career teacher-attrition rates, we came out of it better teachers and even more committed to our profession. We were in our respective eighth and seventh years teaching at the time. Without saying anything, she looked at me and tears ran down the ripples of her mask. I nodded in recognition of what she was feeling. “I don’t know if I can do this anymore. I’m not even sure I can last the year,” she said.
I thought about arguing that maybe she just had a particularly bad day, but what did a good day look like anymore? I thought about arguing that it was a bad year to make that decision, but for the first time in my career, I didn’t believe that the next year would be better than the one before. As I walked out to my car, I thought about how drastically the nature of our jobs had changed, seemingly overnight – how much of a toll this year had taken physically, emotionally, and mentally on ourselves and the students.
Later that evening, I did my weekly check of the education news. I wanted to stay updated on the latest COVID-related policies and developments without falling prey to the barrage of overwhelming news. I found an article about recent upticks in COVID cases and schools needing to temporarily close due to related staffing shortages. I made the mistake of reading through the space at the end of the article for the public to comment. The vitriol directed towards teachers in the comment section was nothing short of devastating. The stark contrast between the monumental effort my colleagues and I were putting in to try to make this year work and the portrayal of teachers in the rhetoric of the media and public struck me.
And thus, my efforts to capture teachers’ voices and experiences during COVID-19 were born out of my frustration at the disconnect between the complex realities teachers faced in the classroom and the perception of teachers in the outside world. Needing to act upon this frustration, I conducted a research project via a survey that collected 122 full-time, public school teachers’ perspectives on the matter. I write about these perspectives in the current issue of The Educational Forum. Here’s just a snippet of data that emerged: in response to a multiple-choice question that asked teachers about their overall perception of the portrayal of teachers in the news, media, and public since March 2020 and through the following 2020-2021 school year, 52.5% of respondents said “gross mischaracterization of teachers,” 43.4% said “somewhat of a mischaracterization of teachers,” 0.8% said “no thoughts,” 1.6% said “somewhat of an accurate characterization of teachers,” and 1.6% said “very accurate characterization of teachers.” 95.9% of teacher respondents in this study felt that the news, media, and public mischaracterized teachers. Why is there such a gap between the way teachers experience their work and how the news, media, and public portrays their work?
The process of analyzing teachers’ responses was an intense combination of cathartic, discouraging, emotional, powerful, inspiring, and confusing. I was awed by teachers’ willingness to convey their honest experiences even during a time when personal and professional stress abounded. And I was also immersed in the pervasive sense of difficult-to-describe frustration that came from such a misalignment between teachers’ sense of their work and others’ descriptions of their work.
The study reminded me that words matter. Comments matter. Seeking genuine understanding matters. Constructing informed perception matters. Listening to individuals who have first-hand experience matters. Only when we take care to acknowledge how much they matter can we work toward more productive dialogue and a more productive future, especially when it comes to education.
Erin Nerlino is in her 11th year teaching English Language Arts at regional public high school in the Northeastern U.S. She earned her EdD from Boston University in curriculum and teaching and is interested in teachers’ work experiences, perceptions of policy, and how teacher voice can better improve educational change.