'Not like any other year': Eugene School Board hears from teachers about burnout

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The Eugene School Board convened last week with the purpose of discussing a few key topics, such as hearing from more students in board meetings and decisions.

However, another major issue that rose to the surface was educator burnout, brought up by teachers during Wednesday night's public comments and board members in their reports.

Across Oregon, schools are experiencing shortages of teachers and staff, coupled with students trying to transition back to school settings and managing ongoing pandemic protocols. Since the first few weeks of the school year, teachers have expressed being overwhelmed more than previous years.

The Eugene School District has added several "no-school" days to the calendar this year so teachers could have time to catch up.

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Added days off shouldn't affect state requirements

Board members expressed concerns at the Nov. 3 meeting about whether the proposed calendar changes, which included no school the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, would give families enough time to rearrange their schedules or find childcare. Two weeks later, it denied the proposed plan for no-school days, meaning students attended as normal the day before Thanksgiving. The board then asked the district to come back with a new plan for no-school days throughout the year, which it approved in a special meeting Nov. 23.

4J's calendar changes as presented and approved at the Nov. 23 special board meeting.
4J's calendar changes as presented and approved at the Nov. 23 special board meeting.

Even with the no-school days this fall, the district is still on track to have the number of instructional hours for students the state requires, district spokesperson Kerry Delf said. For grade 12, the state requires 966 instructional hours. Grades 9-11 need 990 hours, and grades K-8 with 900 hours.

Instructional time is defined by the state as any time the student is engaged in instruction, learning activities and learning assessments. Some other things such as meal times also count as instructional time, according to the state.

Last school year, districts were allowed to have up to an additional 60 hours for staff professional development and up to 60 additional hours for parent-teacher communication count toward instructional time. This school year, the state reduced those allowances, to no more than 30 hours of each being counted as instructional time.

With these board-approved no-school days, the district will need to ask for those allowances this year.

"The plan is just to wait and see whether there are any snow days and then make decisions about the amount of allowances to request," Delf said.

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Teacher: 'I feel exhausted physically and mentally'

Carmen Duato, who teaches at Cal Young Middle School, shared her own difficulties she's experienced this fall during public comment.

"What I have felt, and what I have seen this year is not like any other year," she said. "I don't just feel tired — I feel exhausted physically and mentally. I work, on average, eight to 10 hours on the weekend, and several evenings during the week planning, updating (online teaching platform) Canvas, grading and emailing, and I'm not alone. Many of my colleagues face the same challenges."

Duato urged the district to allow volunteers to come back into schools with proof of vaccination, accounting for the state requirement, so the schools can bring back its Middle School Mentor program.

She also proposed a campaign with a focus on how the public can help support students safely, including possibly some "unconventional ways" to assist overwhelmed counselors, such as enlisting help of local universities' graduate students who need practitioner hours.

Jesse Scott, who teaches at Spencer Butte Middle School, also spoke about strain on teachers this year.

"We want better. We need it. It will take work and a significant change to achieve the educational system we all deserve. So let's work together to start planning a better system," he said.

"Right now, we need triage — that is important and may help us make it to the end of the year with enough teachers in classrooms to care for our students. But what's this next year look like? It's time to work together and dream of a better education for our youth and our future."

Board members also mentioned having heard this from teachers.

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"The information (teachers) shared has admittedly left me feeling a level of despair that I cannot shake," said board member Maya Rabasa, who attended a listening session with the teachers union. "And though it's an incredibly uncomfortable feeling, it's a good thing I cannot shake this despair, because it would be too easy to be complicit in not making some profound and necessary decisions in order to boost morale in our school. And not just morale, but to make the work actually doable with the ultimate goal of making the work sustainable, rewarding and even (exciting)."

She pointed to some solutions that often come up such as smaller class sizes and more hires, which have budget impacts. She also proposed boosting teachers' morale by ensuring teachers and their expertise feel valued, because many have expressed they do not feel trusted to carry out their work, she said.

Discussions of increased student inclusion

The board also had an in-depth talk about how to best include more student voice in decisions. The board already for years has had students from each of the district's high schools serve as representatives to give updates on the goings-on of their schools during meetings. This year, student representatives have been chosen and will start attending in January.

Board members discussed how to best expand on these solutions this school year and next, such as regularly including leaders of student affinity groups and potentially creating a student advisory group. This will be an ongoing discussion.

People can listen back to meetings after they're posted online at 4j.lane.edu/board/meetings.

New days off for 4J students

The Eugene School District recently approved additional days off for students to provide workload relief days for teachers. Here are the days that are changing from a regular school day to a no-school day:

Elementary schools: Dec. 6, Jan. 21 and April 15.

Middle and high schools: Dec. 7, Jan. 21 and April 15.

Contact reporter Jordyn Brown at jbrown@registerguard.com or 541-246-4264, and follow her on Twitter @thejordynbrown and Instagram @registerguard. Support local journalism, subscribe to The Register-Guard.

This article originally appeared on Register-Guard: Burnout a major problem, teachers tell Eugene School Board members

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