BY DOROTHY J. GENTRY
Like so many, Shanda Spears has struggled since the pandemic hit more than a year ago. So much so that her own personal self care has gone out the window.
“I think I have focused more on making the pandemic easier on other people and not taken care of myself during the pandemic,” said the married mom of a 22-year old son, Noah and 12-year-old daughter, Olivia.
“I have not practiced self-care and I think the stress has taken a real toll on me. I am having physical pain that I think is attributed to stress and I am having more stress headaches and muscle pain. I am not able to balance the need to make sure others are okay and still take care of myself.”
What makes Spears’ case so special is she is an educator balancing teaching students both in person AND on Zoom daily, motherhood, a husband with health challenges and elderly parents.
And she’s not alone.
When the global COVID-19 pandemic hit over a year ago the education system was profoundly disrupted across the country and world. The pandemic changed what classrooms and learning looked like. Students – if they were allowed back – wore masks all day, had to bring their own water bottles to school and in most cases, sat behind plastic and glass partitions to prevent the spread of the virus.
Ask any teacher; the last 13 months have taken an emotional toll on teachers across the board. Educators, in particular women teachers, were more likely to feel overworked and overwhelmed as a result of the pandemic mainly because they are also responsible for other duties at home including childcare, caring for elderly parents and maintaining the home.
The challenges of teaching in-person or online have stretched educators to their limits.
According to a report from Fidelity Investments and The Chronicle of Higher Education, after nearly a full year of either putting themselves at risk in a classroom or struggling to reach students remotely, many now say they may change careers or simply quit.
“Teachers have been feeling the brunt of how drastically this pandemic has changed our world,” said Colin Sharkey, executive director of the Association of American Educators, a national professional association.
“The demands that are put on them are off the charts.”
THEY WERE ALL HER CHILDREN!
And Spears knows this first- hand. The 14-year English/Language Arts/Reading teacher at Lady Bird Johnson Middle School in Irving, felt torn between meeting the needs of her students and of her own youngest child.
“As a teacher, I felt like my students needed me at school. I teach 6th graders and I feel like they have missed out on some mile- stones in education and growing up. I am experiencing this as a mother as well,’ she said.
“My daughter is a 6th grader just like my students. They missed the end of their 5th grade year, their 5th grade graduation from elementary to middle school. I
think there are grades/ages that the school side of the pandemic has been harder on.”
Spears also watched her son, Noah, miss out on his college senior activities at SMU where he played football on an athletic scholarship. He missed his final season on the field, senior game and May graduation, although they did have a ceremony in late August.
“I think these things had a big mental impact on students. As a mom, it was especially hard to watch both of my kids miss out on these activities,” Spears said. “As a teacher, I felt even more empathy for my incoming students. This was one reason I felt like I needed to be at school for my students.”
COVID brought about a number of worries for Spears: worried about her daughter being in a classroom with students that might get Covid or be a carrier of Covid; worries about her health or her getting sick; worries about her elderly parents being exposed and getting sick and worries about her husband, Will, who is in the end stages of renal failure.
“I have been constantly worried about myself or my daughter bringing home Covid from school.”
Adding insult to injury, Spear applied to work from home and was approved – but not notified until it was too late to accept the approval.
“I was not contacted by HR or admin at my school to let me know I was approved to work from home until the day before my students returned to the classroom. At that time, I felt it was too late for me to make preparations in my classroom so I made the decision to stay in the classroom in-personIt,” she said.
“It was very disheartening that not one person in admin let me know that I had the option to stay home and protect my family until it was too late.”
So she returned to school and has been teaching all year. Yet she remains cautious and concerned more than a year into the pandemic and with vaccines out and states easing up on or entirely lifting precautions.
“I am still afraid of a family member or close friend being exposed to Covid. I think people are prematurely easing up from CDC guidelines for health and safety and the result is added stress that I internalize,” she admitted.
“As a Christian, I have spent many hours praying for the safety of my family and friends. I do think that God has protected my family and I think I am able to keep a good attitude at school because of the strength God gives me.
I haven’t really turned to anyone for help. I talk to my husband about my concerns and I pray constantly.”
I WAS ALREADY ON MATERNITY LEAVE!
Karonda Davis, an educator for eight years, experienced COVID-19 from an even more challenging perspective. The math teacher and Spears’ colleague at Lady Bird Johnson, was on maternity leave when the pandemic hit.
“I felt helpless; I was stuck in my home for a long time because I was already on maternity leave and then everything shut down right as I was about to return back to work,” she recalled. “I felt scared for my new baby and my family, and I missed my students. I was unable to say goodbye to my students that were heading to high school and it made me feel cut off from my job as an educator.
Davis received help from those closest to her; her husband who is also in education, and her mother. “I am so grate-ful for my husband because he has really been so supportive and an amazing leader in our household during the pandemic; being the voice of reason, being the brave soul that made sure we had groceries and supplies, and he was the sense of calm during this pandemic.
Her mother has been “super helpful” David said, watching now 16-month-old Brandon while his parents are at work. “We are blessed to have him in the safest environment while we are at work.”
Davis said she handles the pressures of being an educator, wife and mom during a still-on-going pandemic by prayer, focusing her time and attention on her family, and “being as present as I can in my career and various relationships. I am focusing the most on what I can control so that I do not feel so helpless as when the pandemic first began. I am leaning on my faith and being grateful for what is actually happening in my life.”
Both Spears and Davis said they have learned a lot about themselves as mothers and educators throughout this pandemic; knowledge that will serve them the rest of their lives.
“I have learned to be a more patient and grateful mother and person throughout this pandemic. Things do not always happen as we want them to, but all things work out for the good,” Davis said.
“I have learned to focus on what is most important and that is my relationship with God, my family, friends, and my colleagues with whom I work because it keeps me grounded.”
As she continues to juggle daily, Spears said she has learned her strength as a woman and has discovered her true passion for helping others.
“I have been through the last 14 months and taken only one day off work. In my 14 years working in education, I have never had a better attendance record,” Spears said. “I think that my students need to know that I am available for them every single day and I think that passion created a big strength in me to show up every day and greet them with a smile and let them know they can truly count on me to love and care for them.
“I have learned that my own children see me as a strong woman who really cares about others.”
Both women offer advice for mothers who are also educators and are still struggling with the changes the pandemic brought to their lives.
Spears advises those educators still struggling to “lean on God for strength. You have to take time to take care of yourself. You have to let your students know that even in a time of confusion and stress, they can truly count on you.”
“My advice is to pray or meditate in order to maintain a sense of peace within yourself, stay active and involved in your community or career, and to focus on what you can control; your attitude, your faith, and your relationships,” said Davis.
“We cannot change that we are in a pandemic but we can choose to love on each other and be appreciative for what we do have right now.”