Educator Karen Dodson Shares What it’s Like to be a Teacher in Today’s World

By: Jeff Nazzaro

In addition to the obvious disruption it caused for educators, the COVID-19 pandemic struck in the midst of a national teacher shortage playing out at the K–12 level. It was a shortage specifically related to certain areas, such as Special Education and STEM subjects, and disproportionately affecting high-poverty schools (those where greater than 50 percent of the student body are eligible for federal poverty assistance). Reasons for the teacher shortage, according to Eduventures Research, include “ever increasing job responsibilities, a lack of professional advancement pathways, and poor professional development opportunities.”

“The pandemic struck in the midst of a national teacher shortage…”

Declining pay rates, which were already lagging behind those for careers requiring similar investments in education and professional development as teaching, and increasingly demoralizing work environments where teachers may fear for their safety—particularly in high-poverty schools—are contributing factors to the poor teacher retention. Overall waning enrollment in teacher education programs across the nation are also helping to fuel the shortage.

Eduventures Research, for example, shows that the number of students enrolling in traditional Bachelor’s teacher education programs, despite a small increase towards the end of the decade, dropped by 35 percent from 2010 to 2019, and by 23 percent over the same time period for graduate programs. As enrollments in teacher preparation programs have continued to fall, interest in majoring in education among high school seniors has too. Ten percent fewer of those graduating in the spring of 2020 were leaning towards entering the field. Meanwhile, nine percent of California teachers left public school teaching in the state from 2016 to 2018 alone, according to the Learning Policy Institute.

“Ten percent fewer graduates in the spring of 2020 were leaning towards entering the field of education…”

UCR University Extension instructor Karen Dodson “We know the statistics and have read the data about the teacher shortage,” said UCR University Extension GATE Certificate and Youth Programs Coordinator Karen Dodson, who also serves as Supervisor of Teacher Education for the UCR Graduate School of Education. “As with all trends, this is cyclical. Teachers are resilient, just like their students. Those that stay will stay because they believe in the power of education, and the power of the connection.”

In spite of all their colleagues in California and across the country who have retired or decided to change careers altogether, most teachers have weathered the storm, making the on-the-fly shift from traditional in-person instruction to the online learning modality conducted via Zoom meetings necessitated by the pandemic. In September, after the California Department of Public Health extended the universal indoor mask mandate for K–12 educational settings first instituted in January 2021, the state’s teachers returned to the classroom en masse, and in masks, to once again ply their vital trade.

“While there are so many new opportunities with technology that allowed teachers to connect with their students during a pandemic, this distance has made it challenging to reconnect while in person,” Karen said. “Teaching, at its best, is an intimate interpersonal exchange between two individuals, the teacher and the student. Teachers have not only brought their own emotional challenges back to the classroom but are also dealing with a classroom of students who have suffered loss in social, emotional, and academic areas. Students learn to navigate the world in classrooms.”

“…distance made it challenging to reconnect when in person…”

In yet another new development, with the FDA authorizing the emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine to include 5- to 11-year-olds, there are calls for mask mandates for schools in the state to be lifted. Meanwhile, teachers are continuing to return to the classroom, day in and day out, masked up and making the most of being back to in-person instruction.

“I spend my days moving from one classroom to another, watching my student teachers and their mentor teachers work to bridge the gaps that, at this point, can be gaping,” said Karen. “With masks on, teachers are showing up and doing all they can to reconnect with students, support students to reconnect with each other, and provide students with the skills needed to reconnect with schools and schooling. This is beyond challenging.”

Meeting the challenge throughout the pandemic has, according to Eduventures analysis, led to widespread “burn-out, stress, and fatigue.” According to a RAND Corporation survey, 78 percent of K–12 educators were dealing with frequent job-related stress during this time, compared to 40 percent of all working adults. The same survey showed that prior to the pandemic, roughly 15 percent of teachers indicated they were likely to leave the profession, but that number jumped to 25 percent by the summer of 2021. Teacher self-care definitely needs to be a priority.

“With masks on, teachers are showing up in spite of all the challenges, and doing all they can to reconnect…”

But through it all and what lies ahead, Karen and the other hard-working educators persevering through these difficult times know from experience just how important and rewarding their chosen profession is. “I still say there is nothing like that ‘Aha’ moment,” Karen reflected. “That moment, in person, even with a mask, is still one of the things that makes teaching worth all the challenges.”