The sources interviewed for this piece asked to remain anonymous to protect their professional identities. They have been referred to by fake names.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit schools hard, and for Canada’s newest teachers, classrooms are filled with more pressure than potential.
In 2017, for the first time in over 15 years, the number of retiring teachers in Ontario exceeded the number of new teachers entering the workforce. Since then, school boards across Canada have been scrambling to make up for this growing shortage of educators, which has only worsened due to COVID-19.
In provinces where an oversupply of teachers once flooded the job market, it’s a dramatic change of pace. In 2011, 68 per cent of teachers college graduates were unemployed or underemployed in their first year out of school. Now, in school boards where it was once a struggle to make it onto the list of supply teachers, many young graduates are being thrown into full-time positions directly after they graduate.
Even more startling for these young teachers in the environment they’re entering. COVID-19 has turned the daily operations of schools around the world upside down, from frequent shutdowns, to pivots to online learning, to the introduction of in-school social bubbles and ‘quadmesters’—sped-up semesters where students learn fewer subjects at a time, but at twice the speed.
The stresses of the pandemic have been a challenge for even the most experienced teachers. Schools have been COVID-19 hotspots since reopening in September, and the pressure of enforcing pandemic protocols, as well as the fear of infection, has taken a toll on mental health. Many teachers have considered taking the year off, or leaving the profession altogether.
For teachers starting their careers in the COVID-19 classroom, the past year has brought an unexpected set of challenges, along with many unconventional triumphs. With little past experience to rely on, most teachers have had no choice but to tackle issues head-on and prioritize flexibility, as they adapt to one of the most rapidly changing frontiers of the pandemic.
“One thing that they told us when we first started teachers’ college is that you are no longer a student, you are a teacher in a classroom. And it’s a different view in the classroom,” said Jennifer, a first-time teacher, in an interview with The Pigeon.
She graduated from teacher’s college in Aug. 2020, at the age of 23, and was unexpectedly catapulted into her current position as a virtual kindergarten teacher in Kingston, Ont., this fall.
Originally hired as an occasional staff member, Jennifer had set herself up to supply teach part-time for her first year. Instead, three days before classes began in September, she was called up by the principal of her current school to take on a full-time position teaching senior kindergarten, online.
Without the established lesson plans of a long-term teacher, and with little time to prepare, she and her teaching partner have had to adapt to planning days with their kindergarteners on the fly.
One crucial difference between supply teaching and full-time teaching is the workload. Supply teachers aren’t required to develop lesson plans or grade papers like their full-time counterparts.
For first-time teachers, early years spent supply teaching allow them to learn the ins and outs of schools they might potentially settle down in, gaining experience in the classroom and with colleagues.
“The thing I am frustrated with the most is not having enough time to prepare and plan for everything,” Jennifer said. “I don’t think many people realize how much time, resources, and planning it actually takes to plan a whole day of kindergarten.”
An average day in Jennifer’s class starts at 9:00 a.m. when her 5- and 6-year-old students log onto Microsoft Teams. While her students are remote, enrolled in a ‘virtual school’ within their school board, Jennifer herself is still located at a physical school, in the empty classroom that she might otherwise have used.
Officially, kindergarteners only have to work synchronously for 180 minutes daily, leaving much of their school day in the hands of their parents, who are left to supervise the activities and lessons Jennifer and her partner prepare.
For those first 180 minutes, they’ve been prioritizing hands-on experiences and movement, trying to integrate math and literacy lessons while trying to limit Zoom fatigue for learners. Then the instructors cycle through small groups, helping some students with a variety of subjects and skills while others work independently.
Outside of synchronous lessons, Jennifer’s days are filled with lesson planning, liaising with parents, and meetings with the other members of the senior kindergarten team. Despite being employed by the ‘virtual school,’ Jennifer and her colleagues aren’t exempt from other tasks, like yard duty and watching over the students studying in person.
The distance of online learning has taken much of the control out of teachers’ hands. With students as young as hers, many of the asynchronous lessons Jennifer prepares still require an adult to read the instructions, despite efforts to make them as open-ended and low-prep as possible.
If parents are too busy or disengaged with their child’s learning, a lack of communication between parents and teachers leaves instructors in the dark about the progress of their students.
While parents in Jennifer’s class are asked to note down and submit any type of work their child has done in the day, like the activities on the ‘choice board’ prepared for the class, or their child’s drawings and free play, not all do.
In those cases, there is little Jennifer can do to track her students’ progress. It’s also created a knowledge divide between students in her classroom, with many learning well ahead of the kindergarten curriculum thanks to additional work from home, and others falling behind.
For now, Jennifer’s goal is to bridge that gap and to prepare all her students to enter grade one. To do so, she’s been focusing on those that have been struggling and providing extra guidance to help them meet the mark.
“We’ve definitely made connections with our kids, more of a connection that we thought we would,” she said.
“The best part of online learning has been seeing how resilient the students are.”
For other teachers, tackling school in person brings with it a new set of hurdles.
Maddy, who teaches high school French and math in Surrey, B.C., graduated from teacher’s college in 2019 and started her first year of teaching full time in 2020.
Her private school has divided the school year into four ten-week-long quarters. Where students once would have spent half the school year studying four subjects at a time, to limit contact with other students and teachers, they now work in compressed blocks, learning two subjects in half the time.
“In a day, they’ll have a three-hour block in the morning on their first course, their lunch break, their second course for three hours, and then they go home and do it all over again,” she said in an interview with The Pigeon.
“Teaching a subject like math or French […] takes time to sink in. But right now, it just feels like a sprint.”
As a new teacher, Maddy, too, had to start developing her lesson plans from scratch. While she had expected a heavy workload in her first year, the demands of the ‘quadmester’ system, combined with the additional reports and paperwork demanded by her private school, have pushed her schedule to the brink.
“If it was just a regular system, and I didn’t have to essentially plan one entire unit for one week, then I could spread it out a lot more and it’d be a lot more manageable,” she said.
“But just the timeline of things doesn’t allow that leeway.”
Not only teachers have been struggling to adapt to the new schedule. In Maddy’s classes, the most common problem her students struggle with is the pace of lessons.
Maddy’s students aren’t alone in their frustration. In Ontario, where a number of high schools have adopted the ‘quadmester’ model, reports note students are starting to burn out from the intensity of the courses.
There have been a few upsides. Long hours with her students have helped Maddy cultivate strong relationships and a lively atmosphere in her classroom.
Instead, gaps in knowledge created by the months of emergency online learning her students underwent at the beginning of the pandemic are Maddy’s main challenges in the classroom.
“[Last year] a lot of teachers said, ‘it’s optional for you to do this, but try as hard as you can.’ And so, with that option to not necessarily complete all the work in complete detail, there is just a huge range of abilities [among students],” Maddy said.
“Navigating that is really tricky. You know, you’ll have one student who is struggling to do 2 times 3, because they’ve mixed it up with addition, versus a student who’s excelling and bored in class. Just finding that medium is still something I’m trying to learn.”
For Maddy, the mounting workload is leading her to consider whether teaching during the pandemic is really worth it.
“[The pandemic] totally changed my view on teaching,” she said.
“If they use [the ‘quadmester’] system again, I don’t know if I would be able to do another year of it. It’s not a good way to facilitate learning. While I did appreciate the long hours I had with them, there has to be a better way to teach students.”
In Ottawa, Ont., Sarah, another recent graduate, is taking her first year of teaching one day at a time.
Aa a French and gym teacher in an Ottawa elementary school, her work is done around the school. She teaches kindergarten, as well as French and gym for students in elementary grades.
Like Jennifer, Sarah fell into her long-term position by chance. She had been trained for French immersion, but originally wasn’t eligible to teach core French. However, the high demand for French teachers in Ottawa allowed her to take the position as an exception.
Due to the province-wide shutdown that went into effect in Ontario starting December 26, Sarah’s in-person classes shifted online indefinitely.
While the first few weeks after the winter break were an adjustment period, as the school ensured students had access to Chromebooks and internet connections, Sarah feels like her students are finally getting back on track.
Her classes are divided into synchronous and asynchronous components. She runs 40-minute-long French classes live, with additional work online, and tunes in for 20 minutes of gym, with another 20 minutes of independent asynchronous exercise.
The shift to online has made assessment a challenge, but knowing all the teachers in her school, new and old, are facing the same hurdles has helped Sarah stay confident.
“I think the biggest challenge would be not doubting yourself,” she said.
“Just knowing that every teacher, no matter what age, makes mistakes, and knowing that you’re trying your best. Teaching is very much trial and error, and not every lesson is going to go well.”
Thinking back on her first semester, Sarah said she feels like starting her career as a teacher during COVID-19 has been a blessing in disguise.
“What I’ve always said to friends and family is that my main worry going to teaching was that I was going to feel like I was the least experienced person in school. But I think with COVID, a lot of teachers felt like it was their first year of teaching again, and I didn’t feel like I was the only one who was a little bit over their head.”
“I think that this year was definitely a really good year to get into teaching.”