Suddenly Distant UCSC professor tracks the stressors of teaching during the pandemic


By Ryan Loyola

As an educator studying education and pedagogy, Lora Bartlett is well versed in the “grammar of schooling.” That grammar speaks to the structure students expect from their schools  — teachers with groups of students, blackboards, tables and chairs, a bell schedule.

But over the past 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has completely disrupted the grammar of schooling.

From the moment she had to change from orating in lecture halls filled with hundreds of UC Santa Cruz students to fiddling around the technical lingo of Zoom in her office, it became clear to her that the pandemic would change the way teachers did their job. Being the researcher she is, she got to work.

Not only did they want to document the short-term impact on educators, Bartlett and her team wanted to see if there would be any permanent changes in teachers’ work.  “When we started out, we had this idea to turn around what we were learning as quickly as possible, and feed it back to schools and teachers so that they could use it to help inform the ways they were continuing to navigate the pandemic,” she said.

Bartlett is one of the principal investigators in “Suddenly Distant: Teaching in the Context of COVID-19,” a research project following 75 teachers’ lived experiences during the pandemic and its implications on the future of education.

The biggest thing Bartlett’s research has shown is that the pandemic has been an enormous stressor for teachers as they saw the most valuable aspects of teaching, the interactions with students and collaborations with colleagues, begin to change dramatically.

Bartlett noted that in order for teachers to teach well, they need stability. As some schools seesawed between in-person, remote and hybrid learning throughout the year, it posed a major challenge for teachers as they employed different practices to teach in those two different modes.

Additionally, in a survey with more than 750 teacher participants, only 5% of them said that they had extensive experience teaching online before the pandemic. A digital divide among teachers was mostly seen on generational lines as older teachers who had been teaching for a long time without the use of computer tools suddenly had to quickly get up to speed on using technology.

Bartlett specifically recalls a technologically challenged Texas science teacher who was one of half a million teachers who joined Facebook groups devoted to teaching tips and tricks in the pandemic.

“She went into one of those groups and she said that she needed a millennial. She needed a teacher who could help her with her technology needs,” Bartlett said. “And she would in turn help that teacher with their science teaching skills with their pedagogical and content knowledge around teaching.”

Regarding how the pandemic will permanently change education in the future, she notes that there will probably never be another snow day again.  Now, there’s both the expectation and the capacity for schools and teachers to just shift to a different technology to deal with access during difficult times and in emergency cases like wildfires.

She also doesn’t see online learning as the way of the future due to the inequitable access and the challenges of creating interpersonal relationships, but she does see schools adopting learning management systems like Canvas and intends to keep on using them.

However, students and teachers alike may face challenges in returning to a more consistent schedule of in-person classes, Bartlett said. The large number of students who haven’t had a regular school day in the last 18 months and the subsequent struggles that they might face reintegrating into a real classroom could be the biggest obstacle that teachers face. She compared the experience of returning to in-person learning to the culture shock that people feel when in a new country and culture.

“When we were remote and flattening the curve, we all anticipated stress that is like a culture shock,” Bartlett said. “But when we were returning to school in person, there was this idea that it would be smooth and not have the complications that it did. But in fact, it does continue to have problems.”


UC Santa Cruz education professor Lora Bartlett analyzes the way that the COVID-19 pandemic had changed the way teachers taught over the past 18 months and looks at how it could permanently change pedagogy in the future.

And while much has been made of the mental health of students, the same can be said towards educators as they have been the ones who were given an intense emotional and mental burden. Teachers’ well-being was unquestionably compromised by the pandemic and its part of what is fueling an increased exit from the profession.

There are also the realities of being short-staffed, something that most schools are experiencing in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties and beyond. Schools not having substitute teachers, the lack of maintenance staff, an absence of bus drivers, and an overall shortage in service-oriented support roles is an ongoing challenge for schools and classrooms this fall.

During the pandemic, Bartlett noted that while there was a lot of rhetoric about “learning loss,” there has been little attention about what was gained. Educators increased their ability to attend to the social and emotional well-being of students, distill curriculum down to its core components, adapt to new technology, and reach out and collaborate with one another despite the increased distances they are from their students.

“That learning is something that we will bring forward with us and will shape what schooling will look like. We just don’t know yet exactly how it’s going to shape schooling,” Bartlett said. “That’s what I’m going to study for the next year and look at how this learning and experiences that teachers had in the last year and a half will help shape what schooling looks like as we move forward.”

“If nothing else, this pandemic showed us what teachers are capable of in terms of directing their own professional development,” Bartlett added.

Now as teachers have been returning to classrooms around the country, Bartlett is astonished at what a joy it is to be back in the classroom again. But as she heads back into the classroom, she can’t help but think about the loss that was experienced during the pandemic. How it became a struggle to support one another and the moments of connection that were gone in an instant. Now she hopes we’ll slowly get that back.

“And we’ve all been missing that ability to gather and co-create our community experience of learning together,” Bartlett said. “That’s not my research. That’s my observation as a mother and a teacher and that is the thing that as we get back to it, I think being able to regather again increasingly safely, and being able to reconnect is how we can start to heal.”

Featured image: Adobe Stock photo

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Ryan Loyola

About Ryan Loyola

Ryan Loyola is the Assistant City Editor at City on a Hill Press, the student-run weekly at UC Santa Cruz. He also is a contributor to the College Journalism Network working in conjunction with CalMatters reporting on higher education.