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Andrew Liu

On Dec. 6, PLD Lamplighter hosted an education rountable at Dunbar High School. Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, AFT President Randi Weingarten, Dr. Demetrus Liggins and a panel of teachers and students discussed teacher burnout.

Why Teachers are Leaving and Why it Matters

PLD Lamplighter hosted a roundtable in December to listen to teachers and to spark a discussion with decision makers on how to combat the loss of Kentucky's educators.

It’s no secret that the pandemic shook up the American workforce. The “Great Resignation” taking place across the United States doesn’t exclude teachers, and some say that without a major effort to rehabilitate the professional demands–physically, mentally, and emotionally–the number of teachers leaving the workforce won’t slow any time soon.

And for many teachers, that’s exactly what they want: a re-evaluation of what their profession really stands for.

As one respondent said, “People have little understanding of or respect for the work that teachers do…until these attitudes change, there will be fewer and fewer individuals choosing to become professional educators, more teachers will leave the profession due to disillusionment, and the teacher shortage will rage on.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers and educators already faced many challenges and great responsibilities, so it is hardly a surprise that the added stress and labor of mid-and post-pandemic instruction has caused a decrease in teacher retention rates nationwide.

A March 2021 study conducted by Quartz Magazine and the RAND American Teacher Panel found that only 69% of teachers and educators planned to teach until retirement in comparison to 74% in the previous year’s survey.

Another survey from the RAND Corporation found that one-in-four teachers were likely to leave the profession at the end of the 2020-21 year–an increase from the one-in-six statistic from the previous year.

So, what are the impacts of teacher loss on the public education system? While a mass exodus from the corporate world may not cause significant disruption for American families, the loss of public educators could. Not only does a loss of teachers affect students learning, but it also affects the ability to adequately educate a new generation of professionals.

But it’s not too late to bring teachers who are thinking of leaving, or who have already left, back to the profession. When asked what it would take to stay, most teacher surveys include responses that indicate hope that their needs will be considered. With the Kentucky General Assembly starting today, maybe these issues will be addressed.

After a discussion including input from education stakeholders such as Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, Senator Reggie Thomas, and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, we have ascertained the top three reasons teachers are leaving, and what Kentucky is doing about it.

Teacher Compensation

From the 2018 pension protests to a lack of support for teacher raises in the legislature, and increased work demands during the pandemic, many teachers say they don’t have hope that their profession will ever receive the respect it deserves.

“Although no one goes into education to be a millionaire, that does not mean as elected officials we should exploit their part and their role,” Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman said.

Often, teachers will say that their pay is not what is keeping them in classrooms, but over time, the plea that educators make each legislative session appears to be muted by the bills that are killed on the legislature floor.

According to Kentucky State Senator Reggie Thomas, teacher pay should be a priority in this legislative session.

“It is a constitutional requirement for the legislature–that’s their number one job–to build an adequate, equitable public education system in Kentucky,” he said, “and one the ways we believe that should be done is to attract the best and brightest through increasing [teacher’s] compensation.”

There is a common acceptance that classroom teachers are underpaid. An Ipsos Survey released in 2018 found that nearly 60% of respondents feel this way, and that same year Kentucky teacher Hope Brown was featured in TIME Magazine as an example of teachers who have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

And these are professionals with advanced degrees. When you compare others with similar credentials, the data is clear. The training to become a teacher is not commensurate with their compensation.

Senator Thomas explained that it was a “tax revenue issue.”

When it comes to legislation concerning taxpayer dollars, it is always is a divisive subject, especially when it comes to salaries.

The two-year state budget, made in 2020, originally included a $2,000 across-the-board pay raise to teachers as proposed by Governor Andy Beshear, but that was quickly taken out before the budget passed. Instead, teachers received the typical 1% raise similar to budgets past.

Sen. Thomas said that in the last three years the legislature has postponed teacher raises because of COVID, but that could change this session. Kentucky had a $1.1 billion budget surplus in fiscal year 2021, boosting the state’s budget reserve fund to $1.9 billion heading into the 2022 legislative session.

“In the 22-24 budget we should give teachers a 2% raise the first year,’ he said, “and another 1% raise after that.”

Representative Killian Timoney (R-KY) said that previous bills concerning teacher pay were not passed because there were unanswered questions.

“Would that be a bonus, would that be a permanent thing?” he said. “Because all of those things have to be vetted, obviously, for long-term sustainability. One of the things we need to make sure we’re doing when we do make financial decisions when we do purchase things, or go with programs, that they are sustainable and that we can maintain them moving forward.”

He mentioned an anticipated budget surplus and that, along with federal COVID relief money that the state is still receiving, could create an opportunity to address teacher pay.

“I’m very optimistic that those [bills] will be heard,” he said.

But even if that happens, teachers say that there are other reasons they are leaving, including professional respect.

“The number one thing that we need is time … we need time to grade, we need time to prep, we need time to call home and make parent contacts, we need time to just be able to meet with our students and make relationships with them,” English teacher and AFT representative Trevor Tremaine said.

Educators are paid for the work done between the beginning and end of the school day. They are not paid overtime for the work that they do after hours.

Tremaine said that most teachers are not able to complete grading and lesson planning during the school day, especially when planning time is often taken by meetings and other duties.

As social studies teacher and AFT representative Sharessa Crovo said, “a teacher works to plan to do more work later.”

And students notice.

“Many times I have seen grades updated at 2 or 3 a.m. While I appreciate [my teacher] staying on top of things, it concerns me how late he is staying up to keep up with his work,” senior Allie Barnes said.

In addition to class size and salary, educators would like to see changes around licensure, professional development, and other benefits. What a district has to offer can heavily affect not only recruitment efforts, but also retention if other districts are able to offer more.

FCPS Superintendent Dr. Demetrus Liggins said, “If we can raise teacher’s pay–we’ll never be able to pay teachers nearly enough as they are worth because they are worth their weight in gold–but if we could pay teachers across our entire spectrum of education a wage that shows they are appreciated and the work that they do is valued and is important in our culture and society, that would go a long way.”

He also said that there are things the district can do. For one, help offset the costs of education degrees and licensure.

“Student loan forgiveness is one way that I think we can really attract people into the field,” Dr. Liggins said.

He also said that the district has been investing time and energy into brainstorming benefits for future educators.

“I plan on really providing something where if a student graduates from Fayette County Public Schools and they would like to go into teaching and return to their community to go into teaching giving them a contract that says ‘when you graduate you already have a job to come back to work in Fayette County,” he said.

Increased Work Demands Post-COVID

It is not unexpected to see an increase in teacher burnout and a decrease in teacher retention rates given the added responsibilities teachers face in the aftermath of virtual learning. 

Teachers have been forced to adapt to an array of unprecedented circumstances during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years. These circumstances have ranged from adapting to different methods of instruction, challenges to establish connections and relationships, and having to manage tricky technology.

In addition, teachers now act as mediators, social workers, instructors, hall monitors, and security ambassadors in the post-virtual instruction classroom. Such work conditions and responsibilities are often to blame for low retention rates nationwide. 

“Teachers [in Fayette County] are facing many issues while having to do the job we do every day,” FCPS Chairman of the School Board Tyler Murphy said. He said that he understands because he is also a full-time social studies teacher in Boyle County.

But these types of work conditions don’t exclusively affect teachers. They also impact students, their quality of education, and their academic success, and because of this, Kentucky is facing a looming crisis.

“Our teacher’s working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. You can’t untie that,” Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman said.

Lack of adequate compensation, increased stress/work demands, teacher abuse, lack of mental health resources, and adverse working conditions have caused teachers to burn out. 

Representative Timoney said that he ran for office because he didn’t like how he was treated as a teacher, and he wanted to have a voice and advocate more.

“Teachers are professionals,” Representative Timoney said, “and they do a job that other people can’t just jump in and do, so the way teachers are treated needs to be unique. They need to be heard, and they need their concerns to be listened to.”

But, according to the numbers of teachers who have left or are planning to leave, this isn’t happening in a meaningful way.

The National Education Association found that 32 percent of respondents said the pandemic has led them to plan to leave the profession earlier than they anticipated in a survey conducted in June 2021. This is an increase of 4% from 2020. 

“I think teacher burnout has increased because we had such a large number of things added on to what we were already asked to do,” Crovo said. “I am not willing or able to do something that is hurting me and hurting others, and that is where we are right now.”  

In addition to these stressors, schools have steadily seen an increase in class sizes over the past decade. Many classes at Dunbar have rosters of 35-40 students, up from an average of 30 students in past years.

Once positions open, school districts are having trouble filling those vacancies due to the low retention rates. This leaves schools with one solution: increase the class sizes of current teachers to make up for the loss of staff. 

“[Class sizes are ] a big concern coming from a lot of my colleagues all across the state and all across the country,” said Tremaine. “It’s kind of a vicious cycle- we have people leaving and then there’s nothing to retain them once they’re [teaching].”

Lower class sizes could have a significant impact on a student’s academic success and post-graduation plans whereas higher class sizes mean that teachers are less able to tailor instruction to every student’s needs. 

“With higher class sizes, one person can only do so much,” Crovo said.

Teacher burnout has become a prevalent issue with complaints of overwhelming stress and strain being heard on even the district level.

Chairman Murphy spoke to PLD Lamplighter about what he hears from teachers in FCPS.

“[Educators] feel pulled in all kinds of different directions, and they want to make sure they continue to get all the resources they need to support student learning,” he said.

Teachers, and ultimately their students, are cracking under massive amounts of stress. 

In terms of teacher support and resources offered by the district and the state, educators feel that there is not enough being done. 

Although efforts are being made, teachers say that needs are not being met realistically. 

“In terms of what isn’t working, we get a lot of communications to ‘practice self-care’ or to ‘take a breath’ but there isn’t much beyond that,” Tremaine said.

So what do teachers really need?

Tremaine said that as a building representative and a member of the School-Based Decision-Making committee, that he hears from a lot of teachers who are sharing stories and asking for help.

“We need material help,” he said. “We need help in the classroom, we need help managing mental health, we need help living.”

Disrespect and Abuse

According to many teachers, harassment and disrespect are big reasons behind the increase in educators leaving the profession.

“Burnout for teachers is always feeling that we have too much to do, a feeling of being tired, of being overburdened, and not being afforded the dignity to come with the job,” Tremaine said.

Trends like “Devious Licks” on TikTok spark the majority of this disrespect and allow it to become more normalized. This normalization of harassment impacts the quality of teaching, which influences the student’s attitude towards their education.

“I think the issue that we have to first address is the overall culture and experience of teaching in general. Our young people need to see their teachers thriving,” Dr.  Liggins said.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, teachers say that they haven’t felt as if they are thriving at all.

“It was very scary when people treated us like we didn’t matter,” Crovo said. “Like, you have to watch all these kids all day…like a babysitter.”

Parents, and those outside of the classroom, often turn on teachers when something goes wrong within education, and this excessive stress to the workday because they are being criticized for matters outside of their control.

“It seems like no matter what we do, we get backlash and we get blamed for everything,” Crovo said. “We can’t fix everything.”

Teachers feel the pressure to assist their students with whatever they need, but challenges like the disrespect they receive can hinder their ability to do so. 

“It’s hard to perform at the top of your game if you are dealing with all of these other hurdles and don’t feel supported in doing that,” Murphy said.

Receiving disrespect and harassment from students can lead to consequences for the teachers in terms of their social and emotional health. Oftentimes an educator’s mental health is reflected in their teaching abilities and their attitude toward the profession. 

“[Teachers] feel pulled in all kinds of different directions and they need support to get the resources they need in order to support student learning,” Murphy said. “We talk about the social and emotional health of our students but we need to talk about it for our educators as well.”

In order to combat this issue, the state of Kentucky has implemented a mental health initiative for public schools.

A “Student Mental Health Action Summit” took place in October, and it allowed for peer-led discussions on the topic of student mental health.

“We started with the student mental health initiative and we are going to follow up with the teacher mental health initiative,” Lt. Gov. Coleman said.

Although the summit focused only on student mental health issues, Lt. Gov. Coleman said that she felt that teachers are also in need.

“Those are not two different issues,” she said. “What we hear from students, we often hear the same from teachers,” she said.

Included in this initiative are roundtables and discussions that involve educators and students. They aim to promote dialogue surrounding mental health and the improvement of it. 

“We held 10 roundtable discussions with middle school and high school students,” Lt. Gov. Coleman said, and according to her, teacher roundtables are next on the agenda. The initiative will tackle the mental health of educators which is directly impacted by the harassment and abuse they face each day.

Representative Timoney said that, as a former classroom teacher and principal, he is also concerned about what teachers are facing, and he said that teachers should be shown more respect.

“The more that we can do to help the public and help other people understand how difficult things are, truly, and how skilled a teacher needs to be, I think that will benefit us.”

Teachers say that they are also negatively impacted by various levels of their own administration ranging from a lack of resources, inadequate compensation, and the expectation to work after contract hours or to supplement their classroom materials out of their own pockets.

“It’s one thing to give educators directives, but it’s another thing to actually give them the tools to carry out those directives,” Murphy said.

Aside from facing day-to-day harassment, there are more serious life or death situations of abuse at hand. Since the pandemic, groups of parents have gathered across the country to protest mask mandates. Some of these efforts have turned violent, making it hard for educators to want to put their lives at risk. 

“Communities across the nation have seen a disturbing spike in threats against educators and school board members over COVID safety measures…” the National Education Association said in a press release.

Beyond COVID-induced instances of harassment, there are also recent headlines about deadly school shootings. Teachers say that coming to work each day can prove difficult when there are fears and anxieties in the back of their minds.

Has the toll on mental health during the pandemic made students even less stable and more likely to commit acts of violence? An analysis by Education Week found that there have been 31 school shootings in 2021, and 89 school shootings since 2018 with the most recent one in Oxford, Michigan, being the deadliest since May 2018. 

For many teachers, it starts to pile up.

“When you add hall duty, checking the bathrooms, and metal detector duty, that makes us feel taken advantage of and it creates a toxic culture and environment,” Crovo said. “People aren’t excited to come and do their job.”

This harassment and disrespect, along with increased work demands and lack of compensation, contributes to the recent spike in teacher burnout and diminished retention rates. It is vital that educators feel excited to come to work and share their passions with students.

“I can see teachers bearing the burden of the difficult times we’re going through,” said Representative Killian Timoney (R-KY). “I always hear ‘I’m at my breaking point’ and I ask what I can do. How can we fix this?”

He said that in the legislative session, he is taking steps to educate his own party about what being a teacher is like. “I’m going to protect public education as I said I would,” he said.

The session will start on Jan. 4 and must end by midnight on April 14.

This story was originally published on The Lamplighter on January 4, 2022.

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