Although teaching has always been known as a worthy profession, it has never been known as an easy one. Teachers have always spent their own time and resources on their students’ behalf. They have juggled behind-the-scenes responsibilities in a job that requires them to be always on for their students.

In recent years, a shortage of qualified educators both in California and nationally has increased the burden on classroom teachers, school counselors, and administrators. Then, COVID-19 took a challenging profession to a new level of demanding.

A Sense of Calling

One thing many educators share is a sense that their work is their life’s calling – a way to serve God and others through their career. That sense of purpose and service is what often drives educators to give time and effort over and above the hours they spend in the classroom or administration office. It has also been a sustaining force for many during the pandemic.

Sean (07) and Alicia (09) Sand are both teachers at Roosevelt Middle School in San Diego. Sean teaches physical and health education, and Alicia teaches math and science. For each of them, teaching has been the fulfillment of a calling.

“I come from a long line of teachers, so I saw it modeled,” Sean said.

Alicia was a biology major at PLNU and was working a summer job at SeaWorld when she discovered her passion for teaching. “I started in the education department and ended up doing day camps,” she said. “I realized how much I loved to teach kids and adults about science. That’s what led me to get my credential.”

Krista Herrera (M.A. 10), Ed.D., is the administrator of professional learning and student support for Kern County Superintendent of Schools. As an undergraduate, she studied political science and planned to attend law school. She eventually changed her mind and decided to pursue teaching. Herrera said Jill Hamilton-Bunch, Ph.D., associate dean in PLNU’s School of Education and Bakersfield Regional Center director, convinced her she “would change the world as an educator” and encouraged her to pursue an administrative credential.

Before becoming a math teacher at East Bakersfield High School, Destinee Desiderio worked as a guidance technician in the high school’s career center. She earned her credential from PLNU and went on to receive her M.A. in educational counseling from the University of La Verne. Her long-term goal is to serve as a school counselor after she gains experience as a classroom teacher.

Amber Love (97) is a school counselor for Springs Charter Schools, which serves students in TK-12th grade. She earned her undergraduate degree in sociology from PLNU and went on to earn her M.S. in educational counseling from National University.

Todd Price (B.A. 95, MTL 08, M.A. 11) is director of transportation for the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District, a role he never anticipated having but loves. Price earned his undergraduate degree in athletic training and worked in sports medicine for a while before returning to PLNU to earn his teaching credential at the Bakersfield Regional Center. He earned a Master of Teaching and Learning (MTL), his administrative credential, and his M.A. in Educational Leadership. After teaching science and serving as a vice principal, Price’s superintendent had him on a track to become a principal when the need for a director of transportation emerged. The superintendent called on Price, and he ended up loving the role. Working on the classified side of education, he has worked with new teams and had an impact on the entire district.

These PLNU alumni show that no matter when or how educators understand their calling to help students, their sense of purpose is important.

These PLNU alumni show that no matter when or how educators understand their calling to help students, their sense of purpose is important.

Adapting Under Pressure

Teachers have always had to be adaptable – adhering to new standards and expectations, pivoting when lesson plans need to change, accommodating students’ needs on the fly, and learning new skills and technology. When the pandemic closed schools, educators had to flex their adaptability muscles in unprecedented ways and under great urgency and scrutiny.

Herrera, as an administrator, was called on to resource her district in myriad ways. She and her team created nine weeks of turnkey curriculum for TK [transitional kindergarten] through 12th grade in math, English, English language development, and socioemotional learning. They helped schools transition from in-person to virtual environments. They trained 15,000 educators in three months.

“Typically, you become an expert and then teach from that knowledge base,” she said, “but it was more ‘We are learning with you.’ The teachers we worked with were amazing. We were all failing forward. We all had to learn from each other and from the kids. That was a good experience, too. Kids are digital natives.”

Herrera’s district installed wi-fi in buses and parked them in neighborhoods. They solicited donations of devices for kids who needed them.

“It was a collective effort to ensure kiddos had what they needed,” Herrera said.

For Sean Sand, learning new technology was a fun challenge, but he observed that it was difficult for some.

“For a lot of educators, [Zoom] waiting rooms, kids being able to mute and unmute, kids turning off their cameras was very challenging,” he said.

Desiderio agreed that the technology piece was difficult. It was especially hard due to her large class sizes — often about 40 kids each — and the fact that students have different learning styles and needs.

“We’ve had to learn how to use technology in so many different ways,” she said. “I was making YouTube videos for the kids, which is kind of new to me. It’s hard to talk to a screen of blackness on Zoom to teach. We had to do a lot of adapting. I was able to use [a program called] Pear Deck to help with seeing their interaction in real time even though they weren’t in a classroom with me. That helped me keep the kids accountable even when we were distance learning. Coming back a year later and doing a hybrid was hard, too, because you had kids on Zoom and in class. It was very challenging to go back and forth. I’d have to address both groups’ needs.”

For Alicia Sand, the technology and engagement pieces were tied.

“What was daunting was engagement, especially as a math and science teacher,” she said. “Especially in the beginning when I didn’t know much about the kids that I had in my Zoom classes, I was looking at a lot of blank screens with just kids’ names. We had to figure out how to best use the tools we had to connect and make them feel safe and comfortable as best we could and still be able to reach them with our content.”

Mental Health Crisis

Herrera also recognized that kids needed more than academic support during the pandemic.

“We were concerned with connectedness for our students,” she said. “We really felt like during this uncertain time, connection was even more important than content.”

In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on a youth mental health crisis in America, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the report: “Before the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people, with up to 1 in 5 children ages 3 to 17 in the U.S. having a mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder. Additionally, from 2009 to 2019, the share of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%, to more than 1 in 3 students.”

Among the advisory’s recommendations was increasing support for educators. For now, educators have had to do the best they can for their students in real time. Even students without serious mental health challenges often faced a relearning curve related to behavioral, social, and emotional norms and expectations at school, which made the first few months of in-person learning extra challenging for students and teachers alike.

“They forgot what it was like to be together,” Sean Sand said. “Some forgot what it meant to be well-behaved students. It’s not their fault, but they forgot how to act with an adult, with each other, even being in a classroom and things like: when they can go to the restroom and how to not be on their phones all day. It really has taken our full staff to help students adjust, and we have seen a lot of improvement. No one has opted out of understanding and helping these students.”

For Alicia’s part, the need to address middle schoolers’ socioemotional needs has always been a priority that she balances with the need to teach her subject matter content.

“Everything I do is through the lens of helping kids grow as learners and people,” she explained. “Middle school is a really crucial time for kids as they get to know who they are, who they connect with, and what their strengths are. They are learning how to be learners. Teaching the content is an avenue for that and for helping them grow as individuals.”

In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on a youth mental health crisis in America, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a school counselor, Amber Love has often been on the front lines of helping students through mental health challenges, stress, and grief. The pandemic not only increased students’ needs in these areas but also made them harder to meet.

“As a counselor, things during the pandemic were extremely difficult,” she shared. “Students often would miss their virtual session or if they did show up would leave their camera and microphone off. Not being able to read students’ body language or hear their voices was essentially like doing my job completely blind. All the context clues that I normally use to tell if a student is doing well or not were suddenly stripped away.”

The challenges her students faced also affected her.

“The most difficult thing that I experienced during this pandemic was the loss of a student,” Love said. “At the time of our loss, we were transitioning back to in-person learning with some students being on campus and others choosing to stay home and continue virtual learning. I struggled with how to help students through their grief that I didn’t have eyes on. I worried that they were out there struggling on their own to deal with their grief. At the time, I reached out to my pastor, and he told me I could only help those who came for help and that I could not control everything … This was a tough lesson.”

At her pastor’s suggestion, she did make a video about grief and what it looks like and then sent it to all her students and parents so they had a resource to access.

“Now that the majority of our students are back in person in our schools, it is important to continually assess their mental health,” Love said. “Students returned to school with new anxieties, new beliefs, and some with new compulsions. Schools have worked hard to offer social emotional learning for all students and to provide flexible grading policies to try to ensure equity for all students. We have a long way to go when it comes to finding true normalcy as everyone’s mental health was affected in some way by this pandemic.”

Few Hands = Heavy Work

Even before the pandemic, a shortage of qualified teachers in California and nationally added stress to the educational system. Unfilled positions affect students and other educators. According to the Learning Policy Institute: “The reasons for teacher shortages are complex and predate the pandemic. Largely stagnant salaries over the past decade and a 19% weekly wage gap between teachers and other college-educated professionals, combined with a culture of teacher blame and punitive test-based evaluation, have taken a toll.”

For Desiderio, one of the biggest challenges has been dealing with large class sizes.

“I just don’t feel like I can be super effective at my job when I have 40 kids in my class,” she said. “Kids have different learning styles, and some kids have IEPs [individualized education programs]. How does one person focus on the needs of 40 kids? I can barely move around in my classroom [because] there are so many desks.”

In addition to leaving teachers exhausted and schools potentially understaffed, the COVID-19 pandemic has created temporary shortages of healthy school staff members and high numbers of students absences.

“It’s been challenging even though they are back [learning in person],” Desiderio said. “With all of the guidelines, we are constantly having a lot of students gone – and not just for a day or two but for a couple of weeks due to quarantine issues. I still continue to use Canvas and try my best to keep them up to date.”

“Teachers also had greater needs. When we were online, some were teaching with their own kids next to them. We had people experiencing loss. Adults needed love and support, too.”

For Todd Price, the director of transportation, staffing has also been a challenge, especially during the omicron surge.

“I would have people checking phones at 4 a.m. to see who could be at work or had to call out or be quarantined. When we don’t have enough employees, we break down [bus] routes. At the peak, we had to cancel a portion of routes. It was really stressful. I credit my office staff who worked from 4 a.m. to 10 at night trying to figure it out, but you still didn’t know what would change by morning. They did this because they care about the program, about me, about the kids.”

For Price, the willingness of his staff to put in extra time and effort became personal when he himself was sick.

“In the beginning of August, I contracted COVID and was very, very ill,” he said. “It scared me. My staff were so wonderful. They filled in; they said we’ve got your back.”

Herrera said their district has also had trouble with staffing during pandemic surges – to the point that some schools even had to close for a few days. Schools have also had to take on new responsibilities, such as contact tracing, and amplify existing services.

“We did food distribution, provided extra support services and counseling – everything became much more intensified,” she said. “Teachers also had greater needs. When we were online, some were teaching with their own kids next to them. We had people experiencing loss. Adults needed love and support, too.”

The Power of Gratitude

The educators who talked to the Viewpoint all noted that being thanked for their work makes a big impact on them, especially when they are tired or discouraged. Expressing gratitude is a way parents and others can show their support.

“We assume that teachers know we appreciate them,” said Herrera, who is also a mom, “but I think saying thank you and acknowledging that it’s been a hard couple of years and I appreciate what you’ve done for my kiddo is really honoring.”

Along with thanks, grace, patience, forgiveness, and teamwork are all gifts we can give teachers.

“We all went to school, so we all think we know what teachers do,” said Herrera. “Yet, so much of the work that happens never gets shown – tutoring at lunch, showing up at sports games because there is no one else there cheering, buying lunches, books at book fairs, or yearbooks for kids who need them … It’s been a hard time for everyone, and teachers need some grace, too. If you have a heart for this, ask how you can help. Maybe it’s cutting out stars, reading to a kid virtually, being a big brother or big sister. Don’t be intimidated to offer your help if you feel called to do so.”

“We assume that teachers know we appreciate them. but I think saying thank you and acknowledging that it’s been a hard couple of years and I appreciate what you’ve done for my kiddo is really honoring.”

“Understanding that teachers are human, and we are going to make mistakes [is huge],” said Desiderio. She pointed out that parents and teachers share the same goal of wanting students to succeed. When a partnership can be created where parents and teachers support each other, everyone is able to be more effective.

Strength in Community

In addition to being teachers, the Sands are parents of an infant and a three-year-old. Although they love their work, the extra demands of pandemic teaching and caring for their own children has been exhausting. Having support from each other and from parents has been helpful in maintaining their commitment to their calling. They have also been happy to be part of a school environment where they feel strong partnership.

“In our little Roosevelt bubble, I’m encouraged by the response and the ability to problem-solve,” Sean said. “I think the students can see it – that they are loved and that we want them to succeed.”

Destinee Desiderio draws support from her colleagues as well.

“Your support group of your teacher friends are what get you through,” she said. “It wouldn’t be the same without them. They are going through the same trials and tribulations.”

Both Desiderio and Todd Price said their faith plays an important part in keeping them strong during difficult times as well.

“I have faith; I am a Christian,” Desiderio said. “If it weren’t God giving me the strength, I would have quit.”

“From a faith perspective, I don’t start my day without reading Jesus Calling, Price said. “God’s really been testing me to ‘count it all joy when you face trials of many kinds.’ I don’t think I’ve ever been closer to God in my entire life … even in tough times, God is good.”

Christine is the editor of the Viewpoint magazine at PLNU.