Compared to the months of distance and hybrid learning, this school year looked — at least from the outside — to be a more normal one than the last. But teachers across the state are saying it's already proved to be the hardest of their careers.

They're exhausted, scrambling to get students caught up academically, all while noticing kids — particularly elementary schoolchildren — are nearly two years behind in their social skills.

Then there's the revolving door of students coming in and out of COVID quarantines — and the challenge of ensuring they're learning while at home. Widespread school staffing shortages mean teachers are having to fill multiple roles, with some even taking on custodial work or driving buses. If too many teachers are out with no substitutes, schools may have to switch back to periods of distance learning.

In addition, the growing politicization and polarization of education topics, from mask mandates to history curriculum, have brought a new level of tension and distraction to school conversations.

"It feels like this huge push to get it all in — to catch students up on what they missed, all while trying to get these kids confident, independent and believing they are capable of success in school," said Jean Voigt, a second-grade teacher at Kennedy Community School in St. Cloud.

This year has required a new level of energy and commitment for teachers, she said.

That pressure is taking its toll: Teachers across the state are feeling burned out and expressing concern over their own mental health, while at the same time working to prioritize student well-being.

Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, has talked with educators in about 80 school districts as a part of a listening tour this fall.

"Things are not good," said Denise Specht, Education Minnesota's president. "The amount of stress, anxiety and mental health issues we're hearing about is unlike any other year. And we're only two months in."

Local union chapters report higher numbers of teachers wanting a break or to leave the profession altogether, Specht said. In surveys, teachers are naming their own mental health as a primary concern.

"I think there's an urgency to go back to normal without fully recognizing that our students and education professionals have been through a lot of trauma," Specht said.

Shortages of substitutes, bus drivers and support staff have accelerated the exhaustion teachers are facing. The issue isn't limited to Minnesota; it's proved crippling in schools across the country. Districts in Denver and Seattle, for example, were forced to cancel in-person classes last week because they simply didn't have enough staff.

In Minnesota, districts are offering sign-on bonuses for bus drivers and higher pay for substitutes, with some even asking parents to get licensed to fill in. When there's no substitute available, schools have to combine classrooms or call upon other staff to plug holes.

"It's really hard for teachers right now — there's so much stress," said Sandy Munson, a school nurse in the Walker-Hackensack-Akeley district and head of the local union. "Teachers just want to teach and take care of their kids."

Still, meeting students' needs also looks different this year, said MJ Bach, a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at Kennedy Community School in St. Cloud. Even at the middle-school level, teachers had to spend the first weeks of classes re-establishing the everyday routines, expectations and procedures of being at school, she said.

"Every teacher I've talked with can tell that students' social and emotional maturity is basically two years behind," Bach said.

Bounthavy Khamratthanome, a social studies and science teacher at Nicollet Middle School in Burnsville, said his approach this fall was to "assume nothing and teach everything" — a philosophy he said he had before the pandemic, but one that's become increasingly important.

"The pandemic forced us to rely on the strengths that teachers have always had to have — innovation, creativity and empathy," he said. "We're facing challenges, but I do think that in some ways we were built for this."

Khamratthanome, Voigt and Bach all agreed the success of their work is tied to building trust with students and parents.

"Relationships are the most important thing in any year, but even more so now," Bach said. "I'm spending even more time really working to get to know my students."

Specht, of Education Minnesota, said school districts are emphasizing the importance of such social and emotional support for students, but teachers need it too.

"Educators tend to put others above themselves," she said. "They want to be strong, be positive, be there for their kids."

Specht said that in the short term, school leaders need to find ways to allow teachers the time to plan lessons and grade. Longer-term solutions will need to look at effective recruitment and retention of educators and school staff.

If some Minnesota schools have to switch temporarily to remote learning because of staffing issues, "it may be the relief valve that prevents mass resignations later this school year," Specht said.