Teachers say school shootings and mental health struggles have made this year their hardest yet

A third has already made the mental calculation that in the event of a school shooting, she’ll stay with her special needs students instead of trying to flee to safety.

“I’m trying to find the joy in my job right now,” one teacher told CNN, “because I’m hanging by a thread.”

CNN recently asked schoolteachers to tell us about their jobs and how they’re coping. More than 700 responded, from all corners of the country.

Many said this has been the toughest year for teaching they’ve ever had. They asked CNN to withhold their last names out of fear of retribution.

A teacher speaks to students learning remotely at an elementary school in San Francisco in October 2020.

Teachers worry about the threat of shootings at their schools

Mass shootings hit close to home for a veteran teacher in Florida who goes by the name Bear.

“I had a former student die in Pulse, and I live 20 minutes from Parkland,” she said, referring to the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Bear teaches at a special needs center and has been through this before. She kept her students calm after the 1999 Columbine shooting and told her class everything would be OK after Sept. 11, 2001. After both tragedies she cried in the parking lot, out of sight of her students, and then came back, ready to help them.

“We approach our students when the worst of the worst has happened in the world, and we still stand there in front of them and we’re trying to make them feel safe,” she said. “But yet, inside we’re scared to death too.”

Video of panicked students jumping out of a classroom window at Oxford High School offers a visceral look at the terror of a school shooting. That video stuck with Bear because she knows she’d never be able to do that with her students, many of whom are in wheelchairs or are non-verbal, she said.

“God forbid, a shooter comes in our building. I’m not running with these kids,” she said. “There’s no way I’m jumping out the window with a kid in a wheelchair. I’m staying with that kid.”

Bear says her wife knows that’s what she would do in a shooting. It’s just something her family has to live with.

So far in 2021 there have been at least 52 shootings on K-12 school property in the United States, according to a CNN analysis. By comparison there were 37 in all of 2019, the last full year before the pandemic shut down in-person learning at many schools.

Whenever there’s news of another school shooting, a rush of adrenaline runs through Angela, a teacher at a small, alternative high school in Washington state.

She tries to stay calm and professional, but she’s angry about the loss of lives and how the US hasn’t done more to stop violence at schools, she said.

Boston Public School teachers and volunteers deliver printed packets for students to take home on March 16, 2020.

In the wake of each school shooting, Angela said she and her colleagues take stock of their students and their mental health needs. They watch for signs of distress and ask if anyone is being bullied or outcast. There’s an extra layer of scrutiny after a shooting, she says.

School shootings and the pandemic — on top of all the other duties that teachers must juggle each day — create an underlying layer of stress that does not go away, Angela said.

“Every day it feels like I’m wading through this quicksand that keeps trying to pull me under,” she said. “I’m trying to reach the edge, but I can’t quite grab it.”

Many teachers are struggling to preserve their mental health

If you ask a teacher why they chose a career in education, they’ll likely tell you it’s for the love of their students or the little moments they hope will have a lasting impact on kids’ lives.

But for exhausted teachers in 2021, those ideals can get lost. Emily, a science teacher in Minnesota, said her 11 years in the job have been spent putting students first. But this year, she’s exhausted, demoralized and burned out.

Emily said she quit social media and cut back drastically on the amount of work she takes home. With 200 students under her wing, she said the changes were necessary to preserve her mental health.

“I know I’m not doing the best I can right now,” she said. “And that’s for survival. That’s to wake up and be able to put my feet in front of each other.”

This year, Emily said she’s been essentially serving as a therapist, nurse, counselor and life coach to her students — on top of teaching them about science.

“If I could explain what teaching is like right now I would say it’s like trying to build a house of cards out of a deck of cards but you’re outside, and there’s 10-mile-an-hour winds and the table you’re trying to build on is … one of the legs is broken, so it’s wobbly,” she said.

“And you know, the cards are on fire and all the while you’ve got people yelling at you from the sidelines … So it just feels like chaos.”

But as a teacher, Emily said, it’s not in her nature to give up.

Many teachers told CNN they fear they’ve already reached a point of mental burnout. And it’s not just teachers — pediatricians in the pandemic are seeing record numbers of children with mental health problems, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics said Tuesday.
Parents retrieve their kids after the shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan on November 30.

Kelly, a special education teacher in New York City, said as much as she’d like to exercise or do things for herself after the school day is over, she doesn’t have the energy to leave her couch. She often sits there in silence, “feeling like I have nothing left.”

Emily said she sees a lot of people turning to alcohol to cope with their stress. She said that she was too, until one day she realized her drinking was hindering her relationships with her family and how she felt about herself.

If she hadn’t quit drinking, Emily said, she didn’t think she’d be teaching right now.

And it’s not just her mental health that she’s worried about. She said she’s constantly reading cues from her students about their well-being when they seem to be struggling emotionally or academically.

“I really do care more about creating problem-solving individuals who are productive members of society than I do about the (schoolwork),” she said. “We live in Minnesota, we’re dealing with George Floyd and Daunte Wright. My kids of color, these are conversations they need to have. My White kids need to know. These are really important things to make space for.

“Teaching is putting other people before yourself,” she continued, adding that many outside the profession don’t understand how much teachers sacrifice for their students. “And I think that’s what’s the biggest killer is for me right now.”

They’re seeing more violence at their schools

Dozens of teachers who wrote to CNN said they’ve been seeing more violence, threats and behavioral problems — from yelling to physical fights — in their schools.

Kate, a middle school teacher in Connecticut, said she’s been injured twice by students at her school — so badly that she had to take leave both times.

Kate said she required knee surgery after a rowdy student injured her a couple of years ago. She asked that CNN not reveal how she was injured, for fear of being identified.

“I was just astounded,” she said, referring to the knee incident. “I was very angry someone would do this. And there were no consequences, not even an apology” from the student.

A school board member hugs a school bus driver as they return to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It was the first time teachers and staff were allowed back at the school since the mass shooting in February 2018.

Kate said she’s seen an uptick in violence in recent years at her school, from students throwing punches to shoving each other down stairs. She said it started before the pandemic, but this year is worse.

“I don’t feel safe at school. We have had reports of weapons being brought to our school by students,” she said. “I’m hearing students yell at each other, threaten each other, swear at each other. I have heard someone threaten the teacher. … the verbal abuse is just unbelievable.”

Kate said some of her students also don’t feel safe.

“I’ve had multiple students actually come to me as one of their trusted adults and tell me that they do not feel safe in their classrooms,” she said. “That’s heartbreaking to me.”

She said she feels like she can’t quit her job, partly out of loyalty to her students but also because “if I leave the teaching profession now, it’s going to kill my retirement later.”

Henry, a special education teacher at an urban high school in Southern California, said he’s seen more violence among students recently and a greater disconnect between students and their studies.

“I just think kids in general are just much more ornery,” he said. “They don’t want to be in the classroom, they’re irritated, their grades are going down the tubes and much like us, they’re frustrated with grading, assignments and the start and stop (of in-person schooling in the pandemic).”

Between pandemic protocols and behavioral issues, there is too much going on this year for teachers to handle it well, Henry said.

“I feel our principal and district are trying to support us with every ounce of resource they have but simply do not have the answers to our issues,” he wrote. “We are so overwhelmed with questions and answers the only way to cope is to retreat and put one foot in front of the other.”

Staff at Brooklyn Science & Engineering Academy prepare for the reopening of school in New York City in September 2021.

Some teachers are quitting because they’ve had enough

Kelly thought she’d be teaching for the rest of her life, but after seven years the special education teacher in New York City made a difficult decision to leave the profession next June.

“I just feel like my heart can’t take it anymore,” she said. “And it feels terrible and I feel this guilt because I feel like I’m letting the kids down or leaving them behind with this decision I’m gonna make. But that’s what this system does — it preys on people with good hearts and who want to help and make a change, and I think that’s disgusting.”

Kelly said she’s been pushed to the point of no return by school administrators who have ignored her concerns and requests for more mental health resources. And that’s why she’s looking for work outside of education.

Many of her colleagues “fantasize” about quitting, she said.

Kelly isn’t alone. Stress, exacerbated by Covid-19, was the most common reason cited in 2020 for why teachers left the profession early, according to a study by the Rand Corporation. And early data suggests the trend is continuing this year in several parts of the country.

Kelly said teacher burnout typically happens around May or June — at the end of the school year — but in 2021 it started for her and other colleagues in September. That, she said, is when she knew it was time to get out.

The pandemic also has been traumatic for teachers as well as students, she said.

“For me, mental health over the years is so important to me now, and it’s not worth me emptying my cup — essentially for people who don’t care about me or my students.”

Despite it all, many teachers still love what they do

Spend a day in Natalie Stuart’s third-grade classroom in Davie, Florida, and you’ll wish you were back in elementary school, learning from her yourself.

Early on in the pandemic Stuart downloaded TikTok for fun and it quickly became an integral part of her lesson plans. At a time when students were glued to their technology and social media, Stuart said she knew she needed to meet them where they were.

“If I don’t incorporate fun activities, they’re not going to be engaged,” she said.

A second grade teacher at Colin L. Powell Elementary School helps a student read aloud a letter they wrote to the family of Colin Powell after his death due to Covid-19 complications.
Her TikTok account showcases Cardi B paper puppets, dance trends, references to “The Office” and dozens of sneak peeks into how she engages with her students.
Stuart’s creative teaching style landed her in Fort Lauderdale Magazine, which named her the city’s Best Teacher of 2021.

Stuart said she spends about $1,000 of her own money each year to make sure she has the necessary supplies to pull off her lessons. She used to spend more but cut back to protect her budget. The 34-year-old said she still lives at home with her mom because her salary doesn’t cover rent for a one-bedroom apartment.

Seeing so many of her colleagues quit teaching has been discouraging, she said.

“Right now, it’s important for good teachers who are staying in the profession to manage their days differently so that they don’t get burnt out,” she said. “Although that’s very easy for me to say, because I’m I’m not gonna lie — I’m burnt out as well. My only thing is, I’m not going to show that burnout to my students because they don’t need it.”

Stuart said she’s begun taking mental health breaks and finding more down time for herself so she can have more energy for her students. To mitigate stress she exercises, meditates, takes homework home no more than twice a week and doesn’t check email after 6 p.m.

“I go into work every day motivated to make my students happy, to make them laugh, to make them love to learn,” Stuart said. “Because at the end of the day, that’s why I became a teacher.”