Courtesy of Kevin Kalman
Once Assistant Principal Loan Hong turns off her computer, she goes into “mommy mode.” While simultaneously helping her school-age, age, submit homework and entertaining four-year-old, she checks her email constantly, unable to pull herself away from work.
“There’s just not enough time in the day, and you get that sense of guilt,” she said. “I do have a sense of guilt as a mom because I’m not able to interact with my kids (during the workday).”
Hong said she is rarely able to find time for herself. Even on asynchronous Wednesdays where she thinks she’s less booked, her schedule always fills up.
“You’d think that there would be a little bit of a lull for the teachers and administrators, but I feel like there’s meetings upon meetings upon meetings.”
The opposing pull of work and caring for her two young children pushed special education teacher Leanne Haghighi, Branham’s 2020 teacher of the year, into taking a leave of absence. Though she has settled into a routine caring for her kids, she is still worried about the loss in income.
As someone who has to take care of her children, she qualifies to receive aid under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which pays employees up to $200 a day, but takes out from it the daily $165 cost for a substitute.
Like Hong, Haghighi is torn between her loyalty to her students and her need to raise her children.
“It just didn’t feel right to leave them if I had the opportunity to take leave,” she said. “It’s hard because I feel like I’m choosing between financial stability and my family. No matter what there’s a sacrifice, and I’m in a fortunate enough situation where I could take a financial cut for the time being.”
According to an October 2020 UCSD study, work-life balance since the start of the pandemic has taken a toll on teachers’ mental health. They are not worried only about their safety and their family’s, but in the mental health of their students. Complicating efforts is the novelty of learning new ways to teach online, especially with low engagement among students.
Haghighi felt that being a parent and a teacher in this pandemic has hobbled her life both professionally and domestically. In choosing either her job or her family, she chose to be there for her kids.
“I felt a lot of guilt,” she said. “(I felt like I’m) not being a very adequate teacher. I felt mediocre at best.”
“And also just the same with being a mediocre mom,” she continued. “I didn’t feel like I was doing anything very well, and that’s not a very good feeling.”
Taking leave was the action she needed to take to help relieve her stress.
“I just feel a lot more relaxed, and I feel like a better mom,” she said.
Though teacher and staff struggles are varied and complex, their friends and colleagues are stepping up to fill in gaps in their social lives.
Spanish teacher Erica Marquez has hosted art nights over Zoom on Fridays at the end of each month.
English teacher Melanie Vega led teachers through baking pumpkin bread, and will host a seasonal session later this month. Each Friday morning, school social worker Kevin Nguyen hosts “Spill the Tea With Kevin,” a space for staff members to talk about anything on their minds, offering support and words of encouragement to teachers who need it.
“It’s really just a really simple gesture to bring back that sense of community and connection,” Nguyen said. “A lot of folks are really feeling isolated right now, and we never get to talk to each other anymore.”
Nguyen said he doesn’t want the event to feel like therapy, but he wanted it to be warm and welcoming. Six staff members joined his first session, and Nguyen appreciated that everyone was able to speak and feel heard.
“I think that it’s really important for us to know each other just because there’re so many things that we as a staff are trying to do this year that require a certain campus culture and climate,” he said. “Wanting to start building that was the intention behind this little act of kindness.”
The lack of a common workspace for teachers has left teachers looking for ways to connect, whether it’s through online meetings or a simple phone call.
Nguyen advises teachers to lean on each other and to do their best to connect with others whenever they feel stressed. He believes that connection is necessary in order to build a community online.
“We are each other’s biggest support,” he said.
Hong is interested in participating in one of these staff organized events and aims to maintain relationships with her peers. She meets over Zoom or chats with colleagues over the phone.
“I’ve tried to reach out and to share my experiences, and all teachers have been so supportive. I want to be the same,” she said. “We’re allowed to give each other grace. It’s just a crazy time right now.”