by Tena Starr
Although Vermont has been spared a school shooting, one of the many things that “Stella,” a classroom teacher, frets about these days is violence. Responsibility for keeping her young students safe weighs heavily on her.
“The rise in school shootings is so scary,” she said. “It can happen anywhere, we know this. So often I think about where I could hide my kids so they wouldn’t be seen from windows in the door or from outside. Which pieces of furniture would be easiest and quickest to move in front of an entry point? Or which pieces could protect children? Will the door close quickly enough?
“If we have to escape, where will we go? I fear opening my classroom windows because a bullet goes through screens. Mostly I fear not being able to protect every child and one or more of them gets killed.”
This is the second part of a series we are writing in an effort to illustrate the challenges educators, and classroom teachers in particular, face and, in part, why there’s such a teacher shortage, not just in Vermont but nationwide.
When just a first name is used, it’s a pseudonym. Although we rarely do it, in this case we granted teachers anonymity when they sought it so they could speak freely. All but one we spoke to remains in education, though maybe not in the same district or capacity.
The educators we spoke to talked about everything from trouble taking bathroom breaks, to burnout, and their frustration at being unable to teach as they’d like because of disruptive behaviors and the increasing amount of emotional and social support some students need. They talked about hostile parents and a hostile political atmosphere that portrays them as adversaries rather than people trying to nurture and provide children with an education. They talked about lack of respect and community support.
The shortage isn’t all due to teachers leaving; the fact that fewer people are going into education also plays into staffing shortages.
Former North Country Supervisory Union (NCSU) Superintendent John Castle, who now heads the Vermont Rural Education Collaborative, said the teacher shortage predates the pandemic, though COVID certainly took its toll on schools — on teachers, administrators and students.
The nature of a teacher’s job has changed over the years, he said. Teachers never went into the profession to get rich, but they were respected, and their income was more aligned with norms than it is today as wages have increased in the face of worker shortages all-round.
Teachers in Orleans County with a bachelor’s degree start at around $41,000, while median income in Vermont is $63,477, according to the U.S. Census.
Also, the national political climate has tended to discourage teachers, Mr. Castle said. “They’re disparaged, they’re maligned, they’re accused of grooming, of indoctrination. It’s a hostile work environment where you feel bombarded by the news media and Facebook.”
He said it would be wrong to think that challenging behavior has only manifested in the past ten years or so. There have always been children with challenges, but today’s challenges are different, he said.
“It’s become too regular an occurrence that teachers have to evacuate their classroom,” Mr. Castle said. It’s unsafe, he said, when a kid is kicking, hitting, punching. “There are times when teachers literally have to take the other 16 children out of the classroom.”
Stella is one of those teachers. She teaches young kids, primary grades, up to second grade. People have no idea what happens in classrooms, she said. And they can’t because of confidentiality.
She said she’s often had to close her classroom door because of the ruckus in the hallways. “We would hear banging and yelling and screaming because [students] were removed from the classroom for behaviors.” Sometimes, profanity was involved, she said.
“I’ve had to evacuate my classroom because of one child, go find somewhere in the school to bring my entire class. My room is destroyed when we’re allowed to return to the classroom.”
In theory, the behavior interventionist has the student clean up the room, but a student isn’t going to do that particularly well, she said.
Those students, she said, are called the “heavy hitters. One year I had three. I’ve had a student punch me in the stomach, not very hard, I’ve had a student slap me.”
“I’m not a teacher, I’m a mother, a nurse, a counselor.
“The district’s answer to that is that we need more professional development,” Stella said. “We don’t need more development. This stems from children who rule the roost at home, they don’t want to listen to me or follow directions. Or kids who have experienced trauma — that’s not the kids’ fault. The kids don’t know why they’re acting the way they’re acting. And the rest of the kids suffer.
“I don’t know what the answer is for these kids, but they’re not getting the support they need.”
And, Stella said, she worries about other kids in the classroom and what they’re seeing and hearing. “It’s becoming normalizing and desensitizing kids. My craft is teaching. I’m not a therapist.”
Like another teacher we spoke to, she mentioned the difficulty of taking bathroom breaks because she can’t leave students unattended. “I have to call the janitor and whiz down the hallway,” she said.
The population of challenging student behaviors is increasing — as well as the number of outbursts they have, she said. “Last year it was at least once weekly I’d have to close my classroom door, so we didn’t have to listen to the yelling and screaming.”
The school now has a safety team, which usually consists of a behavior interventionist, the principal, and probably the guidance counselor, she said.
Teachers also have to deal with mounds of paperwork, she said, as well as steady new curriculum standards.
As for support? “How can there be? There’s not plenty of support when kids are still being removed from the classroom on a weekly basis. We don’t even have enough bus drivers. That kid is not getting support.”
She said she went into teaching because “it’s a job where someone learns something new because you gave them that information. It’s just a great feeling. When I work with kids struggling with a concept, work for weeks, or even all year, that look on their face (when they get it) it’s an amazing feeling to see how proud they are.”
What would she like to see going forward? “I would love to see an extra body in the classroom to help support my teaching, help with clerical work. And more support for behavior students who are suffering trauma.”
Orleans County schools have been scrambling to staff classrooms this year. The Orleans Central Supervisory Union (OCSU) went into this year with 86 vacancies, North Country Supervisory Union (NCSU) with 109.
Everyone we spoke to agrees there’s no question that COVID put a deep strain on schools, children and parents. If kids showed up at school with a sniffly nose, they had to be sent home, and working parents were frustrated, wondering how they were going to do their jobs.
Teachers, too, were frustrated when their children had to go home — and sometimes they with them, leading to staff shortages. Also, teachers and administrators dealt with angry parents, who resisted mask wearing and other COVID mandates. Administrators were tasked with contact tracing and staffing schools with teachers out sick or forced to stay home because of COVID or COVID contact.
But what we’ve also heard is that the pandemic was simply a piling on. Problems existed before that. Most of the teachers we spoke to are remaining in education; they just don’t want to be classroom teachers anymore. And even those who spell out challenges that they believe hinder their effectiveness as teachers and have led to burnout largely continue to view their profession as a labor of love.
A teacher we’ll call Susan left OCSU this year to work in another district. “I’m not going to be a classroom teacher anymore, and I wanted to be out of this district,” she said. She was a middle school math teacher for more than two decades.
“I wanted out of the classroom because it’s impossible to meet all the needs of the kids, and you can’t cover the standards you need to cover,” she said.
She said her instructional time was cut, and there was more focus on making school “fun” so kids would like attending school. “I agree that we want kids to want to come to school,” she said, “but we do have to do academics. I had very strong relations with kids, but it was through academics.”
She said she stayed after school with them and let them know that “no matter what, I would work with them on it. That’s how I made connections with kids.”
“I felt like I had been fighting for academics to be a priority. I couldn’t do my job to prepare these kids for tests. That was before COVID, and then it became more impossible.
“Kids are so frustrated. They know they don’t know the material. They feel like failures, and you feel like a failure as a teacher.”
Teachers talk about troubled and disruptive children in terms of “behaviors.” Some children simply need more support than they can get in a classroom, they say.
“I just feel like academics have taken a back seat for a long time, and that’s not who I am,” Susan said. “There are more and more behaviors,” and while there were people in the building to support children, it wasn’t enough, she said.
Paraeducators provide support with a number of things, including children who have behavior issues. There’s also a shortage of paras.
In OCSU a “highly qualified” para starts at $12.75 an hour, a “social emotional learning specialist” starts at $20 an hour.
The past year, she said, she felt like there had been a turn toward “disciplining teachers, not supporting teachers,” which she found discouraging.
“Behavior is really different now,” she said. “It used to be that being in middle school I’d have several classes and there used to be one or two difficult students” out of all the classes. “Now, in every class I have a difficult student and sometimes multiple, who cause disruption to instruction every day. I’m finding there’s no accountability for these kids. They have been through trauma.
“I understand they’ve been through a lot, but if they don’t have consequences, there’s no reason to change their behavior. With some kids, it’s like they’re holding the teacher and the rest of the kids hostage in these classes. It triggers other kids. It’s a horrible thing for the teacher. I can’t imagine what it’s like for these other kids to be sitting through that. It was really difficult, and it was traumatizing.
“We have kids verbalize that often; they will tell the student, could you please stop so she can teach? We just want to have class.”
“Because of the laws, there’s only so much public schools can do. You have to have so much documentation to have a student removed from public school and sent to an alternative program. And it’s extremely expensive to send them to an alternative program.
“Teachers and principals have all thought about those things, but you can’t just send them. It takes a lot to get there, and there has to be availability.”
“We’ve got some kids whose parents may have addiction issues. It’s not that they don’t love their kids, but they have struggles that are making it difficult to be available for their children. There’s a lot of stress in families. They don’t have the structure and routine that there used to be.”
And even children from stable homes often don’t see consequences, she said. “[Parents] say, you can’t do that to my kid, you can’t keep my kid after school.”
Also, she said, social media doesn’t help anything. “They’re horrible to each other on social media.”
Susan said she tried to make connections with parents from the beginning. “When I have to make those phone calls, or have meetings with them, I try to start with positive comments and really try to frame the conversation so it’s about looking for solutions. I’ve been pretty lucky with the parents.”
This past year, though, she said, she felt threatened by a student who brought a weapon to school and “stared her down.”
“The final straw was the day I sent her up and she came back and refused to leave and just kept staring. I was going to remove the rest of my class.”
Susan also mentioned the stress caused by public meetings and accusations that teachers are teaching critical race theory (CRT).
There’s so much misinformation, she said. “It’s disheartening.” It was ridiculous that it was suggested that even math class started with CRT, she said. “I know it’s something that has really affected teachers in this district,” she said.
Teachers now are under constant scrutiny, Susan said. It’s a 24/7 job.
“I don’t want to be 24/7. That’s not what I signed up to do.” She said she doesn’t drink, but if she wanted to go out for a beer with friends, someone might put it on Facebook.
Tracie Surridge has taught for 25 years. She currently teaches third- and fourth-grade humanities. She said she’d like to leave but can’t for financial reasons. She exudes enthusiasm for her charges, talking about activities she does with them and their small acts of kindness toward her. In her years in education, she said she’s moved around.
She said standards, constant curriculum changes and technology have changed her life as a teacher. “I’m there until six at night keeping up with curriculum requirements,” she said. And she sometimes works Saturdays.
She’s not alone in that respect.
Ms. Surridge is the teacher who found herself in the school parking lot wrapped in a blanket so she could teach remotely during COVID. She didn’t have adequate Internet at home. She used a gas station bathroom. She said she wasn’t the only teacher in the school parking lot, and more arrived as the weather got better.
“If anybody had told me 25 years ago that I’d be teaching virtually, I wouldn’t have believed it,” she said.
Ms. Surridge said she’s had classes with, “like, five who had severe behavior issues. I had a class a couple of years ago that was really rough. I tried everything. Incentives didn’t work, consequences didn’t work.
“One of the harder things today, I think, is that parents want to be their kids’ friends, and I come from the generation where you didn’t want to get in trouble in school because you’d be in trouble at home. You can definitely tell the kids who are taught to respect adults.”
“I think the behaviors are the hardest part to deal with. The worst behaviors are in the upper grades. They will tell you to f..k off to your face. I think it goes back to that respect thing. And there’s a lot more social emotional behaviors now than there used to be.”
She said she tries to get to know her students before school starts, sending out summer letters asking about family dynamics, allergies, what parents’ hopes and dreams for their children are. “And I ask the kids what they want, too.”
She goes to softball and baseball games and had a youth group for many years. “I do a lot of teaching kids empathy.”
This past year, Ms. Surridge said, was “like playing whack-a-mole.” Teachers were out because of COVID, students were out because of COVID.
“I don’t want to teach anymore, but I can’t retire.” For one thing, she said, she spends a lot on her classroom’s needs. “My budget used to be $700 to buy what I needed for my classroom. It’s $300 now. My sister and her boss bought $500 of school supplies for my class.”
At the same time, she said, she “feeds on the kids.”
“Every class has its challenges, but it’s also got its bright spots. I had one eighth grader who brought me roses. I’ve had front seats at weddings. You’ve got to be in it for the kids; you’re not in it for the money.”
There’s been more teacher turnover in the last five years than in the previous 20, Ms. Surridge said.
A working teacher who we will call Sally, said she doesn’t face a lot of challenges as a preschool teacher. One of them is that, even though preschool is in the public school building, it’s a separate entity and operates under separate rules and regulations, which parents don’t often understand.
“On top of being a classroom teacher, I also have to clean and manage the classroom. I wear a lot of hats,” she said. Preschool teachers have to clean throughout the day, including the bathroom. “At this age, there’s always pee in the bathroom,” she said, laughing.
“For my kiddos, it’s a little tricky because they are just learning how to be human,” she said. Sometimes, those children who can manage a classroom, who can regulate themselves, don’t get the attention because an educator’s time is taken up with those who can’t, even if it’s just one or two children, she said. “We have a lot of trauma.”
Because of staffing shortages, she also sometimes subs for upper grades. There’s not much respect for teachers anymore, either from students or parents, Sally said. “The way they speak to teachers, especially middle school students, is rough. And there’s not a lot of consequences that can happen.”
“There used to be consequences at home if I got in trouble at school,” she said, but now it’s more likely that parents challenge disciplinary efforts.
“Teachers aren’t respected anymore,” she said. “Parents are trying to be their friends, not their parents. They [students] know they can get away with things because there’s not a lot we can do. We don’t want to offend anyone, hurt anyone. We can’t give out punishments like you could when I was in school.”
For instance, she said, a kid can’t be held in for recess because it’s required that children get a certain amount of exercise time. They can be required to walk, rather than play, at recess, though, she said.
“I’ve been in public school pre-K for five years, and the biggest thing I see schoolwide is a lot of disrespect. There’s a lot of entitlement in the older grades.”