In the wake of the pandemic and educator burnout, I made a life-changing decision at the age of 50 to return to the classroom. For three years, I had served as a middle school administrator. Just as teachers across the country were riding the emotional roller coaster of a drastically altered teaching and learning environment, principals like myself were feeling it, too. In 2021, I decided to step away from my principalship at a small public charter school in Albuquerque, NM, and step into the “new normal” of classroom instruction.

As a principal during COVID-19, I had never worked so hard in my 23 years in education. The demands of the job were already hard enough before the pandemic devastated communities and schools nationwide. After two years of constant changes and adaptations in my professional responsibilities, I had exhausted my personal strength and desire to be the person juggling the balls and spinning the plates. I needed a change for my well-being and for my shifting family responsibilities.

My support system of colleagues and parents from my school respected my choice and reminded me that it takes courage to prioritize our families and our duties within them. Given severe staffing shortages in schools and widespread educator burnout, a switchback in my career path as an educator filled me with hope, resilience, and a renewed commitment to students who typically do not have access to a highly qualified, National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) such as myself. Choosing to return to teaching immediately put me at ease, and I felt excited to reenter the classroom. I consider this move the best decision I’ve made at this point in my career.

Supporting Adolescents’ Social and Emotional Learning

I had become an NBCT and renewed my certification years before I became a principal. In my new role as a classroom teacher, I wanted to teach high school students and support adolescents in their social and emotional learning. So, I became a teacher at Sequoyah Adolescent Treatment Center, a residential treatment facility in Albuquerque for young men struggling with mental health and emotional well-being. In this role, I applied all that I had learned during my 16 years of working with youth at the Bernalillo County Juvenile Detention Center. My new students were immediately familiar to me.

As teachers, we all have students with mental health challenges. Sometimes we are aware of those challenges, and most of the time we are not. My students at Sequoyah are working on improving their academic abilities in a small classroom environment while addressing their psychological well-being. Typically, my students spend six to nine months working on developing coping skills. They live together, eat together, attend school together, and strive to stay healthy together.

I knew that I made the right choice to return to the classroom. This school year I will prepare to renew my National Board Certification by participating regularly in reflective practice with my co-workers, attending training in trauma-informed best practices, and experiencing the joys of teaching a classroom of learners.

Finding a supportive and nurturing environment post-COVID was critical to supporting my continued development as an NBCT. Principals are the No. 1 support for all teachers. A good principal can make a school year, nurture a new teacher, and inspire professional growth. Principals can identify and support time in the school day for teacher-to-teacher collaboration. They can listen to teachers’ concerns, and they can validate and act on teachers’ needs. And they play a role in facilitating conversations between parents and teachers. School leaders also provide ongoing professional development in a teacher’s selected emphasis areas based on conversations with the teacher, their evaluation data, and the teacher’s self-identified professional growth areas.

Advice for School Leaders

This school year, I’d encourage school leaders to be extra cautious not to overwhelm teachers with new initiatives that are piled on top of curriculum implementation, paperwork requirements, and mandated program implementation. If administrators are going to add responsibilities, they should be mindful to take one (or two) away. Principals can be gracious in understanding that a teacher’s ability to balance time is firmly at the crux of a calm, confident, and competent teacher. Grading papers, teaching students, engaging parents, and handling other duties quickly consume a seven-and-a-half-hour day.

School leaders can check in on teachers with positive affirmations to keep uplifting our voices as well as our attitudes. All teachers’ well-being, health, and safety matter. Therefore, principals can acknowledge that while a school day can have stressors, school leaders can hold firm in supporting teachers to leave their work and worries at school at the end of the day and respect the boundary between work and home. That way, teachers can enjoy a fresh start to each school day.

While federal monies have become available for social and emotional learning, COVID preparedness, and staff development due to the pandemic, school leaders don’t always have a say in how these funds are spent. I believe that principals should have a say in what organizations and programs wish to provide services to their schools. And to make the best decisions on which ones to greenlight, principals can ask teachers whether they think certain programs are a good fit. Given that classroom teachers must balance core content instruction, elective instruction, and new initiatives, school leaders can be mindful of a teacher’s learning curve for understanding these programs and provide time and space for them to discuss them colleague to colleague, especially for novice teachers.

My hope this school year is that kids can get back to being kids, and teachers, like myself, can get back to the business of teaching in this “new normal.” What do I mean by that? We all can be mindful about prioritizing health and safety in the classroom and ensuring that students feel comfortable and competent as classroom learners, with or without their computers. I’m especially hopeful for student-to-student learning and for students to engage in actual conversations, which are critical for social and emotional development. Students need to hear what their peers’ think, and they need to see each other’s emotions and expressions. 

I want to enjoy watching my students apply and develop their natural curiosity through hands-on learning, group activities, and projects. I want to hear them laugh and make each other laugh.

I hope my students will question the world around them and participate in it, instead of being passive learners. I hope they will freely engage in face-to-face debate and dialogue about some of our world’s more pressing issues such as global warming, exploring space with new technologies, or feeding the world’s growing population.

At my school, students can take a bike class, and they can earn a free bike and helmet after completing the required coursework. I’ve watched students who have earned those bikes and helmets eagerly step out of school and ride on the miles of trails in their community. I am excited for them to feel the wind in their face while they observe people and enjoy the scenery. I think the saying about bike riding—that once you learn, you never forget—applies in some ways to the magic that happens in the classroom. Once kids know what it feels like to be students in a classroom with a caring and compassionate teacher, they’ll always remember that, too.

Bianca Belmonte-Sapien is a high school teacher at Sequoyah Adolescent Treatment Center in Albuquerque, NM. She previously served as the principal/assistant principal of 21st Century Public Academy in Albuquerque.