Expert Viewpoint

Virtual School Is Weighing on Teachers

The young teacher’s heartbreak was palpable. “The main reason I became a teacher was to interact with students and help them with their social and emotional learning,” he said, shaking his head. “And I’m not getting that.”

He was one of dozens of K–12 teachers in the United States and United Kingdom who shared their experiences recently for a report by our company on the COVID-19 pandemic’s continuing impact on education. Speaking by video, educator after educator said the unprecedented 2020-21 school year is causing them multidimensional anxiety.

Educator Frustrations

Their long list of worries includes the frustrations of providing a remote learning experience similar to a traditional classroom setting, difficulties engaging students virtually, technology blips, and concerns about amplification of the socio-economic digital divide.

With no immediate return to normalcy in sight as vaccines are slowly rolled out, teachers’ stress level appears to be rising. So is their feeling that others—from administrators to the general public—aren’t taking their concerns to heart, beyond lip service about how valued teachers are.

While these laments likely aren’t surprising to those in the education field, it was powerful to hear them shared so candidly, and it’s impossible not to empathize as these public servants grapple with previously unimaginable challenges.

The theme expressed repeatedly in the conversations was that while Zoom school is better than no school, teachers are struggling with trying to provide the same quality of instruction as in the physical classroom—and, in the end, don’t think it’s possible. Classroom management, socio-emotional learning, and monitoring of student success are all suffering, they asserted.

Some Positives

Not that virtual instruction is all bad. Several teachers said they like how digital conferencing apps allow them to teach synchronously and asynchronously—they enjoy the flexibility of teaching live or recording on-demand lessons for students to watch at their own pace or at a later time.

They also have found that digital conferencing is good at facilitating one-on-one communication with students and their families or caretakers, and can help engage students by building virtual breakout sessions for projects and more manageable class discussions.

But they’re also disheartened by a number of drawbacks. Almost every teacher who spoke to us bemoaned the lesser human connection in virtual environments. The teacher quoted at the beginning of this article was far from the only one who said they got into teaching to build relationships and trust with students and miss the in-person interaction in school.

Teachers also reported difficulties in engaging students in the virtual classroom, such as getting them to be honest and speak up when they have an idea or need help.

Issues for Students

Distractions are an issue, with teachers unable to control what’s happening in students’ homes during their lessons and feeling that they’re always competing for their attention.

Technical glitches with apps, platforms, microphones, and internet connections are frequently disruptive.

Many teachers worry that socio-economic and technological inequalities impact how easily students can access educators, other students, and classwork.

All of this has left many teachers overwhelmed and exhausted. Their jobs were extremely time-consuming to begin with and now they’re working even harder as they adapt to new methods and technologies.

Short- and Long-Term Adaptations

How are they adapting? Many are spending less time lecturing and more altering lesson plans for digital settings and incorporating more visuals, discussions, and group-work assignments.

They’re integrating supplemental teaching and collaboration apps into digital conferencing and devoting extra time to keeping up with remote teaching trends.

And they’re building “off-task” time into lessons to increase empathy between teacher and student, and student with fellow student.

Most of the teachers who spoke to us said they probably wouldn't use virtual communication tools post-pandemic, at least not for classroom education. “I don’t think I’m going to have a use for it in terms of my classroom,” a female teacher said before adding with a smile, “I would love to see if for staff meetings.”

Yet many had suggestions to help improve the digital experience, such as providing instructional/tutorial materials for educators, students, and families to more quickly learn and use new technologies and tech updates.

They’d also like to see a number of improvements to digital conferencing tools, such as the ability to pre-assign small groups/breakout rooms before class rather than during class time, control when students can see each other to cut down on distractions, and toggle between seeing the students’ faces and their screens in order to offer quicker assistance.

As the coronavirus vaccines bring hope that teachers and students can return to traditional classroom settings in the coming months, nearly three-quarters of teachers we surveyed felt they should be considered a priority group for the shots but not ahead of medical professionals and other first responders.

Some expressed concerns about the safety of and long-term side effects from the quickly developed vaccines, but nearly all agreed that the benefits outweighed the risks.

Teachers in our report deeply yearn to return to the classroom. Although technology has provided a stopgap, it simply can’t replace the in-class experience. Let’s hope they get their wish soon.

About the Author

Janelle Estes is Chief Insights Officer at UserTesting, a human insights platform.