Chances are at least one teacher made the list of things you’re thankful for this year.
Maybe it’s the teacher who helped your kid tackle equations, or the educator who helped your shy youngster come out of his shell. Maybe it’s a beloved instructor from years ago who first encouraged the talent you turned into a career.
It is out of an abiding gratitude for teachers that I must tell you: Many of them are hurting this year. They are leaving the profession in worrisome numbers. And our schools and communities will be all the poorer if we let this trend continue.
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The Austin school district has seen a dramatic uptick in teacher departures over the past two years. Typically, between the start of the school year and the end of November, the district has about 80 teachers who decide to leave the classroom. In each of the past two years, that number has been closer to 200.
Mind you, these are teachers who decided to leave before the semester is even up. Others are nearing their breaking point but holding off on making a decision until the semester or school year ends. The exodus is far from over.
It’s no coincidence the spike in teacher departures aligns with the COVID-19 era. At the dawn of the pandemic, teachers suddenly had to design for distance or hybrid learning, making the best of a bad year. Now they face the steep climb of making up for learning losses.
Austin teachers aren’t the only ones feeling this strain, of course. A national survey taken this January and February found 1 in 4 teachers considered leaving the profession at the end of that school year. Pre-pandemic, similar surveys put the number closer to 1 in 6.
And across professions, people are reassessing their priorities and pivoting to other jobs, a phenomenon known as the Great Resignation. Still, teachers in general “were more likely to report experiencing frequent job-related stress and symptoms of depression than the general population,” the RAND Corp. report found.
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In Austin, the anxiety among many teachers is acute.
“I have never seen, in 24 years, the level of stress that’s occurring in AISD right now,” Ken Zarifis, the president of the Education Austin teachers’ union, told me last month. “Almost every call we get to the office is about how overwhelmed school teachers and employees are right now.” The problem isn’t contained to certain schools. It’s everywhere, Zarifis said.
The reasons could fill a book, and some factors vary from teacher to teacher. But here are some of the common themes I have heard:
Planning time at school
In theory, teachers have planning periods when they can grade papers and devise upcoming lessons. In reality, much of that time gets gobbled up by state-mandated training, school-required meetings or requests to cover someone else’s class because there aren’t enough substitute teachers available.
Burnet Middle School teacher David DeLeon, one of 16 teachers who provided recorded testimony at the Oct. 28 Austin school board meeting, described teachers routinely taking their work home. “They’re working 10, 15, 20 hours extra a week, if not more,” he said.
Megan Barrett, who works at a school that’s on an improvement plan because of low test scores, told board members she often works until midnight filling out data sheets and goal plans, and she works through many weekends, too.
“In nearly 11 years, I’ve never felt this degree of burnout,” Barrett said. “This is going to definitely be my last year.”
More resources from the district
All of the initiatives to help students who fell behind in the COVID-19 era land squarely on the shoulders of teachers, but they don’t feel like they’ve been given extra resources. Just extra work. And we already expect too much from these dedicated people.
“I’m a teacher, and yet that is not enough,” Ofelia Reedy, a Spanish teacher at Dobie Middle School, said in recorded testimony to Austin school board members. “I’m expected to also be a behavior modification specialist, a diagnostician, a counselor, a parent outreach specialist, an attendance clerk, a conflict resolution manager, a contact tracer and much more.”
The school district can’t keep piling more duties onto teachers’ plates. They must provide real support — actual staffing — to accomplish new initiatives.
A supportive workplace
Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde is clearly an empathetic leader, and she has spoken about the importance of tending to students’ emotional needs amid the upheaval caused by the pandemic.
Teachers, also enduring the trauma of the past two years, need to feel as if the district cares for their well-being, too. Instead, teachers have told me about demoralizing walk-throughs this year by administrators who deliver admonishing reports instead of constructive coaching.
In a similar vein, teacher Kelli Griffin told school board members that “we have been penalized this year with more walk-throughs, more than we’ve ever had before, even though we should be getting love and support from admin and from our new superintendent.”
Elizalde told board members she would reach out to each teacher who provided testimony at the Oct. 28 meeting. And in a conversation last month with the American-Statesman’s editorial board, the superintendent told me she understands teachers need more planning time and resources, and she’s looking at ways to provide them. She also lives in a world of limited funds and growing state mandates. I don’t envy her that job.
The situation lacks tidy solutions. That doesn’t make it any less worthy of our attention. That abiding gratitude we all feel toward teachers must become an action plan to give educators the support they need.
Grumet is the Statesman’s Metro columnist. Her column, ATX in Context, contains her opinions. Share yours via email at email@example.com or via Twitter at @bgrumet.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Grumet: If teacher exodus continues, we all lose