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Teachers tell why they are leaving school

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This is the first of two articles about the causes of the teacher shortage in Vermont schools.  

by Tena Starr

Spend ten minutes listening to a classroom teacher, and you will begin to understand two things:  Why many are leaving and how devoted to their students they are despite challenges that include the tough choice between providing the support the neediest need and the level of instruction others seek to thrive.

Teachers tell stories about trashed classrooms, children with serious behavior problems, and a decreasing ability to do their job — teach — because they’re too often putting out figurative fires, cleaning bathrooms, responding to parent complaints, devoting more and more time to supports that families, rather than teachers, once provided.  And they’ve been struggling to keep up with ever changing curriculum and rules, especially around COVID.

Teachers we interviewed for this story talked about everything from having to evacuate a classroom because of the disruptive behavior of one or two students to not being able to take timely bathroom breaks because they can’t leave students alone in the classroom, even briefly.  One, who had bladder issues, said she was told by her doctor that she either had to figure out how to get to the bathroom or wear a diaper to work.

They spend hours and days on “professional development,” live with anxiety about violence at school — directed toward them or students.  They fret about other children being traumatized by the behavior of some classmates.  They deal with hostile parents and politicians and disrespect from both students and the community.  One teacher said there are students who will tell you to “f…k off to your face.”

During COVID-imposed remote learning, one dedicated teacher taught mid-winter from the school parking lot wrapped up in a blanket — she didn’t have good enough Internet at home.

Teachers have been attacked for everything from mask mandates to curriculum.  Those we spoke to say they feel frustrated and not supported by either state policy, their community or, in some cases, their own administration. Universally, they said that COVID made things worse, but, for the most part, the pandemic only exacerbated problems that already existed.

And then there’s the money, which is, at least anecdotally, a reason that fewer people are going into education.

An Orleans Central Supervisory Union (OCSU) teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no prior experience starts at $40,851.  At ten years of experience, pay is $49,021.  A teacher with a master’s degree and no experience starts at $44,528.

A North Country Supervisory Union (NCSU) teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no prior experience starts at $41,110.  At ten years it’s $53,665.

According to the U.S. Census, 2020 median income in Vermont was $63,477, meaning half was below, half above.  Average income was $83,767.

This paper has paid considerable attention to the teacher shortage in OCSU elementary and middle schools.  The high school, Lake Region, appears to have been largely successful in keeping its staff.

The problem isn’t unique to OCSU’s elementary schools, however.  NCSU is facing the same shortages, the same staffing problems, and in all cases, schools are resorting to unusual measures to make sure that when kids go back to school this fall someone will be there behind the desk at the front of the room.

That someone, however, may have a bachelor’s degree but not have a teaching certificate.  He or she might be a student teacher or a person with no teaching experience at all and working under a provisional or emergency license.

In Charleston, at the time of this story’s reporting, the plan was for a Troy math teacher to teach Charleston middle school students via video with a proctor in the room.

It’s a national problem, and Vermont hasn’t yet had to go to the lengths Texas has, for instance.  There, some rural school districts will go to four-day weeks this fall due to lack of staff, say national news reports.

This year, OCSU lost 86 teachers and staff members.  That’s out of about 325 employees at any given time, said Lisa Worden, OCSU administrative assistant to the superintendent.  “Some of these vacancies were to fill short-term leave of absences, internal movement of positions, as well as interventionists who are contracted with federal funds that are not long-term positions,” she wrote in an email.  “At the end of 2017-’18 we had 63.”

“I could send you a list of reasons folks have left, but we have not separated our data by teacher,” said OCSU Superintendent Penny Chamberlin by email.  “We have many people who have left, so the feedback is mixed.

“I would say the main reasons are: (not in any particular order); family care pressures (child care, or health of themselves or others); closer commute (being rural, we have people traveling far distances to and from work); salary (we have been addressing salary concerns for OCSU as compared to those districts in our region.  Teacher Collective Bargaining negotiations will begin this fall); feeling overwhelmed from the past 2.5 years of COVID pressures; and housing challenges (either folks are trying to find more affordable housing or there are no options for them to remain in the NEK).

“In the future, we will be summarizing our feedback from exit surveys and providing them to the board and the general public.  We will have the feedback sorted by category.

“Once school begins, I hope my schedule opens up a little more where I can get into the schools and have the ability to be more responsive to the immediate public.”

OCSU has a teacher exit survey with comments from teachers that it won’t release, saying most recently that decision is based on the advice of its attorney.

OCSU has had to hire people with no teaching experience who will work under temporary licenses.  And it’s struggled with coming up with a staffing plan, though one is now in place.

NCSU started the year with 109 openings, said Superintendent Elaine Collins.  “We currently have about 30 certified positions still open and about 20 support staff still open,” she said earlier in the month.  “It’s definitely more than other years.”

The supervisory union is trying to support people who will work under provisional and emergency licenses, she said.  Last year, she said, there were 27 teachers working under provisional licenses; this year there are 40.

Is the district ready to open classrooms later this month?

“Ready or not, here they come,” Ms. Collins said.  “There’s ready, and then there’s our best.  Every principal is going to create systems that work and are safe.  It will work.  Schools will open, teachers will do their jobs, but it’s an increasing tendency that we can’t find people to fill positions.”

Ms. Collins and her team are working on a number of initiatives to retain teachers and attract new ones.  She’s worked in education for 34 years, most recently as principal of Newport Elementary School, and said it’s increasingly hard to fill positions with fewer young people going into education.  It’s a problem too big for schools to tackle alone and would likely benefit from state intervention, maybe providing incentives for young people to go into education, she said.

“The pandemic has definitely been a contributing factor” to the staff shortage, she said.  “Last year was, hands down, the hardest year.  People were just edgy all year.”

There was the “changing landscape of this classroom is going to be remote, then it’s not.”  Parents were upset about kids having to miss school — and parents having to figure out their care while they, the parents, went to work.  And sometimes, understandably, parents were not “super gracious” about that, Ms. Collins said.  “It made a positive work environment challenging in a short time.  Principals were contact tracing, there were changing protocols and guidance.  In every layer of the system, everyone was doing everything they possibly could.”

But at the same time, she said, there were no community events, much less interaction between schools and the community.  If you see someone and have a positive interaction, “they’re much less likely to take their heads off the next time you see them.  There’s been a separation, as well as separation with colleagues.”

Asked about behavioral issues, she said, “I will say that, generally, in the last ten years behavior for students has become more complex.  There’s more serious addiction, which leads to more trauma.”

“We have a strong behavior team here to varying degrees in varying schools,” Ms. Collins said.  “I felt like we were making some headway, but then the pandemic hit and took some stuff backwards.”

“I absolutely understand where teachers are coming from,” she said.  “Mental health has become much more of an issue,” and there is a lack of services. “Our schools are really kind of fronting that, we’re dealing with kids every single day.  We have to take them, every kid, as they come.”

Also, there are food and financial insecurity issues, and an affordable housing shortage, Ms. Collins noted.

“We are making the best of a not ideal situation, and kids will learn,” she said.

 

A teacher’s perspective

 

Rob Boskind was one of the NCSU teachers who left.  He’s a thoughtful man who taught for seven years and did not easily arrive at his decision to get out of education.  After agonizing for months, he departed as a math teacher at North Country Union Junior High at the end of this year.  The entire system is overworked, he said, and he realizes his departure will add to the dilemma, but he said he was exhausted.

“I really enjoyed teaching,” Mr. Boskind said.   “There was always a struggle, but I always also felt like there were a lot of good things happening.”

The “struggle” he’s talking about is one that all the teachers we spoke to talked about.  Some kids come to school ready to learn and able to handle themselves in a classroom.  Other kids are dealing with trauma, emotional and social issues, and lack of home support.

For classroom teachers, that percentage — even if it’s small — of troubled or disruptive children can mean they have less time to do what they hoped to do — teach.  At the same time, teachers expressed deep concern for those children.

“Those kids who need a huge amount of support and time, it’s not really fair to the whole school the percentage of time they take up,” Mr. Boskind said. “But when you see a kid just barely hanging on….  I want to put in the time, but is it okay to sacrifice for one or two students?”

“For me, the roughest days were the days where it felt like nobody wanted to learn, when classes are disrupted, when parents are calling to complain, and it just felt like none of my day was spent doing what I’d actually signed up for as a teacher, which is helping kids learn math.”

That delicate balance between actually teaching, as well as supporting the kids who need much more, was doable his first years teaching, he said.

“COVID kind of broke all that.  So many kids, after a year of remote learning away from school, had forgotten what it was like to be a student and what that looked like.”

Time, he said, was spent on “re-teaching” kids good habits rather than on instruction.

“I feel like when we came back (after remote learning) there was this great divide.  Half the students had worked hard while they were away and wanted to learn.”  The other half, the less motivated, had veered farther from learning.

“There was always that divide, but COVID made it way bigger,” Mr. Boskind said.  “After COVID, that lower group became much less invested, it was much harder to motivate that group upon our return.”

“It wasn’t any one thing, it was a collection of things,” he said about his decision to leave.  “Some of the other big struggles that seemed to get worse after COVID was working with parents.”

Mask mandates, which in some cases became a political issue, compounded instructional problems.  As a teacher, he didn’t have to deal directly with students who wouldn’t wear masks or wouldn’t keep them over their noses.  They were sent to administration, he said.

“Then it comes down to, do you want the student to miss instructional time for masks, mostly just sit in the office and not do anything?  Do they not get instruction because their parents told them they don’t need to wear a mask?  It’s very frustrating, there’s no good solution to that.”

“COVID, to me, really felt like it made everything go from very challenging but just barely doable” to too hard.  Before COVID, “it was on the right side of the line of still manageable but hovering over that line.”

Teaching middle school and high school (which he has also taught) carries a “ton of emotional baggage,” Mr. Boskind said.  And often kids don’t have someone at home to talk to.  “Being that support person in addition to trying to teach becomes emotionally exhausting and hard to sustain.  COVID kind of pushed things over the edge.  More of my time was spent on emotional support and behavior support rather than instruction.”

Like others, he said he truly wanted to support those kids who needed him.  He said he’s renewed his teaching license; maybe he’ll go back to education someday.  But for now, he’s taken another job at a 50 percent-plus raise with less stress as a software engineer.

He said his hardest day was this year’s eighth-grade graduation “my last group of kids going up to high school.”

“I don’t see myself going back until things improve,” he said.

What does that look like?  He isn’t sure.

 

Emma

 

Several of the teachers we talked to are still working, and though we rarely do it, we have in this case granted anonymity, for understandable reasons.

A middle school teacher we’ll call Emma, who has an advanced degree in education, said she left OCSU this year because of life circumstances rather than giving up on a system she would have continued to try to work with despite its challenges.  “I’m an educator through and through,” she said.  Teachers, she said, “put their heart and soul into it.”

However, she added that she believes Vermont’s education system is in crisis and is not meeting the needs of students or teachers.

“Some of the biggest things I’m most concerned about have been the political atmosphere in the Northeast Kingdom, the lack of professionalism in schools, and communities that are pushing an agenda,” she said.

“These are very angry parents.  The kids come in angry, reiterating what their parents have said.

“You’re dealing with some families that have whatever trauma or anger unleashing on educators,” Emma said.  “Some of these families are so angry — with the Governor, with their neighbor ….”

She said that at a doctor’s visit, the nurse asked a question she hadn’t heard before: “Have you ever been threatened?”

“I said, I’m a middle school teacher.  A student said he was going to slit my throat.” She said she and the student were soon on good terms again, but ….

At one school, she said, the principal quit after feeling so threatened by a parent that he put the school on “soft lockdown” one day.

“We’re all a team.  It’s confusing for the kids and creates a lot of emotional turmoil.  One of the biggest reasons for leaving is that we come home and can’t stop thinking about these difficult interactions.  Teachers have an intense need to care and help these children and feel they are not being supported.  But I don’t think teachers get the support from community members and parents as much as they should.”

“It’s very juvenile for adults to be the way adults have interacted.  They see teachers as adversaries instead of people who are trying to be kind and gentle and guide their children.”

And when a local politician doxxes a teacher —  “there is a line, and you have crossed that line, and that needs to be addressed,” Emma said.  “There’s a distrust of education and educators.”

An Irasburg teacher was doxxed last year, meaning his private information was given out by state Senator Russ Ingalls after a parent complained that the teacher had asked students what names and pronouns they wanted to use.

“We understand kids and what kids need, but the parents and administrators sometimes forget the support teachers need,” Emma said.  “Why would we stay in a mentally draining, exhausting job where we are continuing to get criticized and fight the tide?

“As a veteran teacher, I had a couple of students who would sabotage the lesson.  I’d pull out all my strategies, we have a series of steps we go through.”

To an extent, she said, it’s a middle school student’s “job” to question, to be subversive.

“But is this one student taking away the learning from the majority of the class?  At what point do you need the administration to provide an alternate placement?  I was able to say this student is no longer able to be in the classroom derailing the lesson, they need some intervention.  I’ve done what I can as a classroom teacher.”

Emma said she’s been an interventionist with academics.  “With behavior, we need the same system.  There needs to be:  This is the structure, this is the system in place.”

“When a student’s behavior escalates to the point where they’re throwing things, screaming, they’re telling us they need more support,” and that’s not a classroom teacher’s job, she said.  “What are the other students thinking and seeing?

“How do we help them and also provide instruction and make sure other students feel safe?”

“What ends up happening is the student goes out (of the classroom) and administrators do what they do, and they bring the student back in when they’re not ready.  That’s been really hard for teachers.  They say, I just told you this student is not ready to learn in my classroom and giving them 15 minutes to cool down doesn’t work.”

“When you have a superintendent who wants to discipline teachers, instead of providing support, that goes down to the principals, and their stress goes down to the teachers,” who are already dealing with enough, Emma said.

Schools need good leadership and to “recognize the efforts of the teachers trying to work with these challenging students,” she said.

She said her last year of teaching was one of her best because she was working with a principal who respected her as a veteran teacher.  “When I said, this isn’t working, we’d have a conversation.  I was being listened to and being respected.  I felt like an educator.”

Some more authoritarian administrators don’t understand that if you “expect teachers to punch in and punch out, that’s what you’re going to get.  When administration pushes down on teachers, well, wait a minute.  We’re paid low, we teach multiple grades, we’re wearing many different hats.

“This isn’t Wall Street.  Most teachers go into teaching because they love kids, they love helping them grow.”

“I think leadership is a big issue.  It’s critical.  It’s key to motivating people.  Listen to people and give them the benefit of the doubt.”

 

 

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