Dianne O’Bryan has had enough.
She has seen too many talented teachers leave the profession she’s dedicated the past 27 years to. It’s a growing problem this third pandemic school year, she said, as educators navigate threats from angry parents and the tense political climate that has seeped into schools.
O’Bryan decided it was her time to speak up, on behalf of veteran teachers like herself, and those who have just entered the industry in what she calls an increasingly toxic environment.
She gave a passionate speech at this week’s Blue Valley school board meeting, and soon the video was seen by thousands on social media across the country.
Why did she do it? “I’m genuinely worried about losing great teachers, losing great district staff,” O’Bryan, a Blue Valley High School teacher, told The Star. “Teachers, counselors are burdened with so much more than they ever have been. Inside the entire system, there’s so much work that needs to be done for kids right now. And then to have communities coming at schools with such negativity, I’m worried we’re going to be losing some wonderful people.”
At the school board meeting, she warned the community that there is a crisis in schools, and it is not whether critical race theory is taught in class, what books are on library shelves, or even COVID-19.
Instead, she said, it is the “teacher shortage that is getting worse.”
“Ask a principal how many qualified candidates apply for teaching positions. It’s shockingly low,” O’Bryan told the board. “For those of us in classrooms every day, it’s no surprise that our co-workers are thinking about and some actually planning for their exits at the end of this year.”
“For those angry, highly critical, accusatory parents in our district, please know that you’re a major contributing factor to teachers leaving,” O’Bryan said. “You have a choice to be angry, but we also have a choice to leave.”
Her words immediately resonated, with educators across the country commenting that they were experiencing the same stressors and negativity surrounding schools. And now O’Bryan is on a mission, she said, to change the conversation and encourage a return to civility and respect for educators.
“I felt like I needed to say something because I want to stay,” she told The Star. “But I don’t want my last five years of teaching for me to continue to be really negative. One of my former students started her first year teaching. And she said she saw the video and thanked me for speaking up for teachers. And I was thinking to myself, this is who we have to fight for. We have to speak up so these great, young teachers will stick with it.”
She emphasized, in an interview, that she wants to see more parent engagement in schools. But it should be done with respect.
“I feel very strongly about parents advocating for our children. I believe in that. I just think we need to think about how we go about doing it,” she said. “This is not school that I recognize. I don’t want this to be the normal.”
A recent Missouri State Teachers Association survey showed that 51% of teachers in the state consider leaving the profession often or very often. And 62% said this year is more stressful than last year. In Kansas, teacher vacancies almost doubled this school year, according to a recent report, from 771 in the fall of 2020 to 1,253 this fall.
Throughout the pandemic, several Kansas City area school districts have reported a rise in resignations and retirements. Debates over COVID-19 protocols pitted some parents against teachers, as several educators have voiced concerns about safety in their classrooms and unfair workloads.
This year, educators have been met with new challenges. Many schools have reported a rise in student threats of violence and behavioral issues. Teachers have been on the front lines enforcing mask mandates that many parents continue to protest. And they have been giving up their planning periods and personal time to fill in for their peers as schools continue to struggle with staffing and substitute shortages.
Principals and district administrators have been driving school buses and serving food in cafeteria lines due to an overall shortage of school employees.
And teachers have been caught in the middle of ongoing battles as a vocal minority of parents protest critical race theory, diversity initiatives and LGBTQ library books they deem inappropriate for students. Those were all hot topics ahead of the November school board elections in Johnson County, where three newcomers won seats on the Blue Valley board, including two who campaigned against mask mandates.
“Administrators spend hours a day dealing with angry parents instead of connecting with the kids in their schools,” O’Bryan told the school board. “Teachers fear the chances of getting that email, where angry parents target them without getting the full story. We also know that you’ll post about us on social media, sometimes even including the names of staff members.”
“The negativity surrounding schools is toxic.”
O’Bryan made her comments at the meeting to a crowd of parents, many of whom were there protesting the district’s mask mandate for younger students. Many have argued that masks should be a family’s personal choice, not a requirement.
The meeting turned tense when a Blue Valley student stood up to talk, asking that the school board reinstate its mask mandate in high schools. The student said that mask decisions were shrouded by a “very vocal minority of anti-science bigots.” A man in the crowd immediately interrupted the student, yelling over him to say that he couldn’t use the platform for “personal attacks.” It took about a minute of parents arguing before the board could convince them to let the student give his comments.
During O’Bryan’s plea to the board, she said, “As a community and as a country, we must change how we go about disagreeing with things happening in our schools.”
“You may not realize that this current climate is a major reason teachers want to leave, but it is,” she said.
At the meeting, school board member Stacy Obringer-Varhall also gave a passionate speech as she steps down from the board after nine years. She pleaded with parents to sit down and talk with their children about the added stressors they are facing.
“I would also urge you all not to believe all of the misinformation that is so easily available these days,” she said. “Masks are not a political decision, they are one of public safety. We are not teaching critical race theory in our schools. We are, however, working hard to make sure that our students feel safe, welcome, understood and valued. For some, this focus on diversity, equity and inclusion may be uncomfortable. But it is necessary.”
She said that outside political influences during the November election were unusual and concerning, and that the community needs to pay attention.
“I do not recall a political party in the past getting involved to the level that we just saw. It is not a good look for Blue Valley,” she said.
In Blue Valley and other Johnson County districts this fall, some candidates received the endorsement of the 1776 Project PAC, a national political action committee that claims to be “committed to abolishing critical race theory,” even though the advanced academic concept is not taught in Kansas K-12 schools.
The Blue Valley races also brought a large amount of campaign spending often unheard of for local school board races, which typically are sleepy affairs.
Jim McMullen, a conservative candidate who narrowly won a seat on the board, spent more than $50,000. His opponent Lindsay Weiss spent nearly $12,000, which also was high compared to campaign spending in previous school board elections.
At this week’s board meeting, incoming member Kaety Bowers, who ran alongside McMullen as a conservative opposing mask mandates and critical race theory, made her own call for unity in the community.
“We can’t afford to have two sides any longer,” Bowers said. “Our community prides itself on being inclusive, but what everyone seems to be experiencing is anything but. We are losing teachers to burnout. We’re losing students to other schools. We’re losing students to suicide. We’re losing staff faster than we can replace them at times.”
She also spoke at the Kansas state board of education’s meeting this week, asking the board to consider a more lenient policy for temporarily hiring substitute teachers due to staffing concerns.
Mischel Miller, director of teacher licensure and accreditation at the Kansas Department of Education, said the agency is working on adjusting standards for substitute teachers to help relieve schools. The current minimum requirement is 60 semester hours of college credit for an emergency substitute license.
Miller said some Kansas districts already have hired substitutes who don’t meet that requirement.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Miller told the state board.
O’Bryan warned that in the next four months, teachers will be making decisions about whether to return to classrooms next year.
“Now’s the time for change. Something has to change,” she said. “Your child’s education depends on great teachers. And the clock is ticking.”