LOS ANGELES — As the Los Angeles Unified School District approaches the first day of school on Aug. 16, students and teachers get closer to the long-awaited return of bustling recess periods, lunchroom chatter and kids raising their hands instead of pushing a button.
But for some teachers, the date isn't a "return" so much as it is a start.
Charlie Pangborn and Shira Alcouloumre, two LAUSD teachers through Teach for America, took on their first classrooms via Zoom before pivoting to hybrid teaching last spring. This fall will be their first time teaching full classrooms of masked faces beyond a screen.
And it's a bit daunting, they said.
"It feels like I'm starting a whole new job," Pangborn said. "This is a completely new world for me. It's crazy how little I feel in control, [but] if you just are there and show up and genuinely care about the students, that's 90% of the battle."
Pangborn will be starting a new job; after teaching special education English at a middle school, he'll be a resource professional in various high school classrooms, assisting students with disabilities in general education classes.
But beyond the difference between those roles, he said switching from virtual classrooms to in-person learning is enough to make the experience feel like starting from the beginning again.
"There are going to be 30 different personalities and energy levels, and these kids, they've got their own problems at home that they're bringing with them to the classroom, and I have virtually no experience in managing behavior on that level," he said. "I'm coming from being able to click the mute button anytime somebody starts really acting out."
It's not like teaching during the pandemic was simple, either. It wasn't, they said.
"I had always planned on throwing myself into the deep end," Pangborn said, reflecting on how he had imagined his first year teaching would be. "I had no idea that the drop-off would be so steep," he said.
Pangborn, who was trained through Teach for America, said the program pulled together virtual training for the first time last summer without a clear idea of what to emphasize.
When he finally got to meet his students online, he didn’t have the luxury a new teacher might have of being able to go down the hall to gather wisdom and advice from more experienced teachers. He’s hoping he can utilize more staff collaboration this upcoming year.
Yet, what Pangborn said was the most difficult to navigate as a new teacher — especially one teaching online — was balancing supporting his students with his mental health.
Being a teacher has always been a mentally challenging job. In 2013, a Gallup poll found that nearly half of K-12 teachers reported high daily stress levels — the highest stress level among all occupational groups surveyed, tied only with nurses. During the pandemic, when mental health issues across the nation took a spike, struggles for many educators only went up, too.
According to a survey by RAND Corporation researchers, 78% of teachers reported experiencing frequent job-related stress in January 2021. For other employed adults, that number was at 40%. Half of the teachers reported feeling burnt out, too, with one in four reporting symptoms of depression. For the general population, only 10% of adults were experiencing symptoms of depression.
As such, mental health struggles for U.S. educators became a glaring issue during the pandemic, and for Pangborn, that was no different. He said that as a self-proclaimed empath, supporting his students through a screen while they struggled with issues so much bigger than a classroom assignment started to take a toll on him.
He would sit in his apartment and listen to a student tell him about a family member who died from COVID-19, a boyfriend who threatened suicide if the student broke up with him, or another student's suicidal thoughts. When he logged out of class, he'd be on his lunch break making a sandwich while talking to a psychologist about getting in touch with a struggling student — then he'd sit in the same place and feel helpless about not being able to do more.
"To be frank with you, I experienced the worst anxiety of my life," he said. "I've never had issues with that before, but just logging off, sitting down and then wearing those stories, those feelings, those lived experiences of those students, and not having anywhere really to take that."
Shira Alcouloumre, who taught 10th grade English at an LAUSD school in Compton, voiced similar challenges about her first year teaching amid the pandemic. Despite feeling overwhelmed and overworked, she said she had to put it all aside to be an adult for her students.
At first, she tried helping by giving her students her cell phone number, but eventually, she had to redraw that boundary. Alcouloumre remembers one weekend where she took 50 calls from students, sometimes with them sobbing on the other end.
However, things got easier once her school went hybrid, and she was able to take on a range of 2 to 10 students. While her hybrid classroom felt more like “babysitting” than teaching, as she still taught her class through the computer and provided a space for her in-person students to log onto their different classes, the smiles and in-person greetings made everything so much better.
"Once I got to see kids in February, it was like a bright light at the end of it all because it was every day you're on a computer, and you're looking at a bunch of black boxes and talking to them all day — and then when I got to see the kids, in person, they're telling me about boyfriend drama and trying out for the volleyball team," she said. "And I think it might have been because of COVID they had no one to talk to, they just unload everything onto you, and it's so much fun … I think I'm gonna get a lot more of that this year."
Pangborn got to go back last spring, although he only had one student in person while the rest of his class was online. Beyond getting to interact with people in real life, he said the physical location of the school building made his mental health struggles lessen.
"I saw my wellness just spike immediately when I went back in person. Even though my students weren't with me at school, my own well-being and happiness went way up just because I could separate the two. I had my place where I could do my work and help my students, support all of the issues that they brought to me, and then I could go home and just be Charlie, not Mr. Pangborn anymore," he said. "And the thing is, students will be able to do the same thing."
There's a lot to be gained when Aug. 16 comes around. Pangborn is excited to feed off the energy of those around him; Alcouloumre is ready for her students to unleash their creativity on her classroom's whiteboard and door. For new teachers, that excitement comes with some nerves, too.
"I'm so bad at remembering people's names after they tell me. I'm truly worried I'm going to forget kids' names!" Alcouloumre said.
But it's clear that returning to school — or rather, for Pangborn and Alcouloumre, starting at a fully-opened school for the first time — will be a refreshing and freeing change.
"It'll be a big change, working with students in person. And I'm really excited," Pangborn said. "I will be working with students and supporting their needs and helping them make up for two lost years of their childhood."