President Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcomed the 2020 and 2021 state Teachers of the Year to the White House this week, presenting a glass apple to the national winners for those years.

“Don’t underestimate what you do,” the president told the teachers at an outdoor ceremony on the White House grounds. “… You make a gigantic difference.”

The Teacher of the Year program — sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers — honors a teacher from each state as well as from the District of Columbia, four U.S. territories and the Department of Defense Education Activity. Each year, a national winner is chosen, and they are all brought to the nation’s capital for a week of celebration and learning. In 2020, there was no D.C. trip because of the pandemic.

The event at the White House came at a time of crisis in teaching — with many educators saying they are more pressured and disillusioned than ever.

Chronic teacher shortages are worsening in some places, and hiring substitute teachers is a huge challenge in many districts. Lauded during the early days of the pandemic, teachers and their unions quickly became a target of attack by people who wanted schools to open in areas of high coronavirus transmission.

This piece, written by veteran teacher Steven Singer, explains the state of the profession as he sees it now. Singer — a husband, father, author and education advocate — teaches eighth-grade language arts in western Pennsylvania. He is a National Board Certified Teacher and co-director of the Research and Blogging Committee for the Badass Teachers Association. He is also co-founder of the Pennsylvania-based education budget advocacy group TEACH (Tell Everyone All Cuts Hurt) and author of the book “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public-School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform.” This post appeared on his website, Gadfly on the Wall, and he gave me permission to republish it.

By Steven Singer

At the staff meeting the other day, one of my fellow teachers turned to me and said he was having trouble seeing. He rushed home and had to have his blood pressure meds adjusted.

Another co-worker was sent home because one of her students had tested positive for the coronavirus and she had gone over to his desk to help him with his assignment.

I came home one recent Friday and was so beaten down that I just collapsed into bed, spending the next week going from one medical procedure to another to regain my health.

The teachers are not okay.

This pandemic has been hard on us. Through every twist and turn, teachers have been at the center of the storm.

When schools first closed, we were heroes for teaching online.

When they remained closed, we were villains for wanting to remain there — safe from infection.

Then there were vaccines, and many of us wanted to reopen our schools but only if we were prioritized to be vaccinated first. We actually had to fight for that right.

When our students got sick, we sounded the alarm — only to hear Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tell people not to go to Super Bowl parties but that schools could reopen safely without teachers getting vaccinated.

We were asked to redo our entire curriculums online, then in-person for handfuls of students in funky two-day blocks, then teach BOTH online and in-person at the same time.

The summer was squandered with easing of precautions and not enough adults and teens getting vaccinated.

Then schools reopened in August and September to debates over whether we should continue safety precautions like requiring students and staff to wear masks and if we should expand them to include mandatory vaccinations for all staff and eligible students to protect kids 11 and younger who can’t take the vaccine yet.

It’s been a rough year and a half, and I can tell you from experience: TEACHERS ARE EXHAUSTED.

As of Sept. 17, 2021, at least 1,116 active and retired K-12 educators have died of covid-19, according to Education Week. Of that number, at least 361 were active teachers on the job.

I'm sure the real number is much higher.

According to the Associated Press, the pandemic has triggered a spike in teacher retirements and resignations, not to mention a shortage of tutors and special aides.

Difficulties filling teacher openings have been reported in many states, including Tennessee, New Jersey and South Dakota. In the Mount Rushmore State, one district started the school year with 120 teacher vacancies.

In Texas, districts in Houston, Waco and other neighborhoods reported teacher vacancies in the hundreds as the school year began. And a number of schools nationwide have had to temporarily shut down classrooms because there just weren’t enough teachers.

The teacher shortage didn’t start with the pandemic. Educators have been quietly walking away from the profession for years now because of poor compensation and lack of respect, autonomy and support.

This isn’t rocket science. If people refuse to work for a certain wage, you need to increase compensation. But it’s not just pay.

According to a survey in June of 2,690 members of the National Education Association, 32 percent said the pandemic was likely to make them leave the profession earlier than expected. That’s almost a third of educators — 1 in 3 — who plan to abandon teaching because of the pandemic.

Another survey by the Rand Corp. said the pandemic increased teacher attrition, burnout and stress. In fact, educators were almost twice as likely as other adult workers to have frequent job-related stress and almost three times as likely to experience depression.

The CDC Foundation in May released similar results: 27 percent of teachers reporting depression and 37 percent reporting anxiety.

The Rand survey went even deeper, pinpointing several causes of stressful working conditions. These were (1) a mismatch between actual and preferred mode of instruction, (2) lack of administrator and technical support, (3) technical issues with remote teaching, and (4) lack of implementation of covid-19 safety measures.

I have to admit that's what I'm seeing in the district where I teach.

We have had several staff meetings since students have been back in the classroom, and none of them have focused on how we are keeping students and staff safe from covid-19. In fact, administration seems happy to simply ignore that a pandemic is even going on.

We’ve talked about academic standards, data-driven instruction, behavior plans, lesson planning, dividing the students up based on standardized test scores but NOTHING on the spiky viral ball in the room!

We get emails and phone calls every few days from the district about how many students and staff have tested positive and if close contacts were identified. But nothing is done to stop the steady stream of illness.

And these communiques willfully hide the extent of these outbreaks. For example, here’s an announcement from Sept. 13: “We have learned that a middle school staff member has tested positive for the coronavirus. There were no close contacts associated with that case. We also have learned that a middle school student has tested positive. Close contacts for this case have been identified and notified. Thank you.”

This announcement failed to disclose that contacts for the student were the entire middle school girls’ volleyball team. That is 16 to 17 students who were all quarantined as a result.

Teachers are tired of this. And I don’t mean palm-on-my-head, woe-is-me tired. I mean collapsing-in-a-heap tired.

We are getting physically ill. Even when it isn’t directly attributed to covid-19, it’s from the stress.

At my district, the school board refused to mandate masks. It took action from the governor to require this simplest of safety precautions. Do you know how much these senseless shenanigans drain educators who just want to make it through the day without catching a potentially fatal illness!?

There are so many teachers absent every day. We know because there aren’t enough subs, either, so those of us who do show up usually have to cover missing teachers’ classes between teaching our own classes and fulfilling our other duties.

Things cannot continue this way. We need help and support.

You can't just put us in a room with kids and tell us to work it all out.

You can't refuse to listen to us but blame us when things go wrong.

No one’s going to stay for that — not even for the kids.

We want to be there for our students, to give as much as we can, but many of us are running out of things to give.

The system is built on the backs of teachers.

And we are ready to collapse.