A science classroom at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in Harlem sits empty in July 2020.

'I'm hanging by a thread'

Updated 10:42 AM ET, Fri December 17, 2021

(CNN)One schoolteacher says she's been badly injured twice by students. Another says she's so drained at the end of the day she doesn't have the energy to leave her couch.

A third has already made the mental calculation that in the event of a school shooting, she'll stay with her special needs students instead of trying to flee to safety.
The deadly shooting last month at a high school in Oxford, Michigan, is yet another reminder of the many stresses facing America's educators, who are still struggling with the overwhelming challenges of teaching in a pandemic. Another surge in coronavirus infections — and the looming specter of a return to virtual or hybrid learning — is only adding to teachers' anxiety.
A vague and viral TikTok trend warning of nationwide school violence on Friday — which authorities have dismissed as non-credible — has nevertheless prompted widespread school closures, stretched law enforcement resources and put families on edge ahead of a critical holiday travel season.
"I'm trying to find the joy in my job right now," one teacher told CNN, "because I'm hanging by a thread."
CNN recently asked schoolteachers to tell us about their jobs and how they're coping. More than 700 responded, from all corners of the country.
Many said this has been the toughest year for teaching they've ever had. They asked CNN to withhold their last names out of fear of retribution.
A teacher speaks to students learning remotely at an elementary school in San Francisco in October 2020.

Teachers worry about the threat of shootings at their schools

Mass shootings hit close to home for a veteran teacher in Florida who goes by the name Bear.
"I had a former student die in Pulse, and I live 20 minutes from Parkland," she said, referring to the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Bear teaches at a special needs center and has been through this before. She kept her students calm after the 1999 Columbine shooting and told her class everything would be OK after Sept. 11, 2001. After both tragedies she cried in the parking lot, out of sight of her students, and then came back, ready to help them.
"We approach our students when the worst of the worst has happened in the world, and we still stand there in front of them and we're trying to make them feel safe," she said. "But yet, inside we're scared to death too."
Video of panicked students jumping out of a classroom window at Oxford High School offers a visceral look at the terror of a school shooting. That video stuck with Bear because she knows she'd never be able to do that with her students, many of whom are in wheelchairs or are non-verbal, she said.
"God forbid, a shooter comes in our building. I'm not running with these kids," she said. "There's no way I'm jumping out the window with a kid in a wheelchair. I'm staying with that kid."
Bear says her wife knows that's what she would do in a shooting. It's just something her family has to live with.
So far in 2021 there have been at least 52 shootings on K-12 school property in the United States, according to a CNN analysis. By comparison there were 37 in all of 2019, the last full year before the pandemic shut down in-person learning at many schools.
Whenever there's news of another school shooting, a rush of adrenaline runs through Angela, a teacher at a small, alternative high school in Washington state.
She tries to stay calm and professional, but she's angry about the loss of lives and how the US hasn't done more to stop violence at schools, she said.
Boston Public School teachers and volunteers deliver printed packets for students to take home on March 16, 2020.
In the wake of each school shooting, Angela said she and her colleagues take stock of their students and their mental health needs. They watch for signs of distress and ask if anyone is being bullied or outcast. There's an extra layer of scrutiny after a shooting, she says.
School shootings and the pandemic -- on top of all the other duties that teachers must juggle each day -- create an underlying layer of stress that does not go away, Angela said.
"Every day it feels like I'm wading through this quicksand that keeps trying to pull me under," she said. "I'm trying to reach the edge, but I can't quite grab it."

Many teachers are struggling to preserve their mental health

If you ask a teacher why they chose a career in education, they'll likely tell you it's for the love of their students or the little moments they hope will have a lasting impact on kids' lives.
But for exhausted teachers in 2021, those ideals can get lost. Emily, a science teacher in Minnesota, said her 11 years in the job have been spent putting students first. But this year, she's exhausted, demoralized and burned out.
Emily said she quit social media and cut back drastically on the amount of work she takes home. With 200 students under her wing, she said the changes were necessary to preserve her mental health.
"I know I'm not doing the best I can right now," she said. "And that's for survival. That's to wake up and be able to put my feet in front of each other."