Covid challenges, student misbehavior pushes teachers to limit, out the door

Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

A math teacher explains how to calculate the angles of a star using trigonometry.

Lynda White, who taught English, creative writing and social studies at El Monte Middle School in the small Central Valley town of Orosi for 21 years, started having panic attacks this school year when that she was going to campus.

“I was sitting in my car, breathing slowly, trying to calm myself down because I knew when I got to campus it would be horrible,” White said.

The veteran educator was among thousands of California teachers who left their jobs before the end of this school year. Some teachers left due to the challenges of teaching during a pandemic, while others feared contracting Covid-19 and some were offered better paying jobs. Many have just exhausted themselves.

White was exhausted and disappointed to deal with student misbehavior, which had escalated since schools reopened after the pandemic shutdown. Students routinely arrived late to class, argued, interrupted classes, and ignored his instructions. White said she sent disciplinary referrals to the principal’s office, but no action was taken.

“I had thought about it and was planning to retire in December,” said White, who is 58. “I thought it was only a few months. I was counting the days. The way I thought about it in my mind is that I don’t want to be a quitter.

Teachers, already stressed by distance learning, thought things would improve after schools reopened. They knew it would be difficult for the students to adjust to returning to school after almost a year away, but they were not ready to deal with the social-emotional trauma the children had suffered and to their reaction to the change in their routines, White said. .

To make matters worse, school administrators weren’t responding to requests for help and parents often didn’t return calls, she said.

“I realized that I’m on my own in this area,” White said.

White attempted to restore order in his classroom by giving misbehaving students lunchtime detention. Most did not show up. Those who did were often disruptive. It was during one such session, after a student yelled at her and stormed out of class, that White realized she was done with teaching.

White went to the principal’s office and told the administrators she was leaving for the day. The following day, her doctor put her on stress leave, which continued until her retirement in December.

California teachers are retiring earlier than expected

In the last six months of 2020 – after the pandemic began – there were 5,644 teacher retirements, a 26% increase from the same period the year before, according to the system. California State Teachers’ Pension Plan. At the end of the school year, 12,785 teachers had retired – 8% more than the previous year. Data for this school year is not yet available, but CalSTRS reports that the number of retirements has stabilized since 2o2o.

Most retirees who responded to a CalSTRS survey said they retired earlier than expected. Almost half of retirees surveyed in the 2020-21 school year said challenges with teaching during Covid were among the top reasons for leaving early.

“I can’t speak for others, but even in our worst pre-Covid years, we haven’t seen the massive outflow that we’re doing now,” said Lindsay Mendoza, president of the Cutler-Orosi Unified Teachers Association.

These resignations then take place California school districts are already grappling with staffing shortages that have resulted in larger classes and more teachers giving up prep and lunch periods to cover lessons when other teachers are sick.

Teachers feel overworked and undervalued

It hasn’t been an easy year for teachers, said school psychologist Kurtis Obispo. Many have not recovered from the emotional stress caused by the pandemic, school closures and the many changes they have had to endure since.

“I know a lot of them felt like things were changing too quickly,” he said. “Every time they adjusted, they had to readjust. There were Covid protocols, attendance tracking for synchronous and asynchronous teaching. Some teachers are fed up and at that moment any small change kicks in.

Teachers also don’t feel appreciated, he said. Families, stressed and worried about whether their children are late, have often blamed the frustration on teachers.

The socio-emotional needs of the students this school year were so high and the staff so low that Obispo quit his job mid-year as well. There were more fights on campus and more students being singled out as a threat to themselves or others, said Obispo, who worked for the Escalon Unified School District in San Joaquin County. Students were struggling to communicate with each other and were more anxious than before the pandemic, he said.

“It was an extremely difficult time,” Obispo said. “I was breaking up fights. I got put on TikTok recently because I broke up a fight.

Obispo was responsible for the mental health of students at a high school and two elementary schools. The district had three counselors in high school, one in middle school, and none in its four elementary schools. It had three school psychologists for its 2,906 students.

Obispo said parents and students call him on weekends and nights. He took the calls because he knew the students needed him.

“I couldn’t sustain the workload with any kind of fidelity,” he said. “I felt like I was so overworked that I was going to miss something.”

Obispo gave his advice to Escalon Unified in December and is now director of special education at Team Charter Schools in Stockton, where he is also a school psychologist.

Burnout is a serious problem nationwide

The exodus of teachers from the profession is not just a California problem. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that approximately 600,000 public school teachers in the United States quit between January 2020 and last February.

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, sounded out membership in January on key education issues. More than half of union members said they were considering leaving the profession sooner than expected. Almost all, at least 90%, said burnout and stress related to the pandemic are serious issues.

Caitlin Santos was in her second year as a special education teacher at the Norristown Area School District in suburban Philadelphia when she quit in October after being placed on stress-related leave by her doctor. Now she works from home as a corporate trainer.

Santos was quickly overwhelmed by her students’ behavioral issues and her own health issues after school started this year. Students in her special education class had to wear masks because of the pandemic, but they rarely kept them on. She was worried about her son, born prematurely and suffering from asthma. At times, students’ behavior escalated into yelling and shoving their teacher, she said. Sometimes they threw furniture. The students she sent to the office were often sent back to class.

Then the district doubled its workload.

“The stress of it all completely wrecked me, and I realized that if I stayed, I wouldn’t be healthy in any form,” she said.

More teachers want to terminate their contracts

There may be repercussions for teachers who decide to leave their jobs before the end of the school year. Although each school district’s contract with its teachers is different, many may prevent a teacher from taking other jobs if they leave during the contract. Additionally, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing can take disciplinary action, including suspension of a credential for up to one year if the teacher does not have good reason to resign before the contract expires.

Local teachers’ union officials across California are reporting a dramatic increase in the number of teachers calling them for information on how they can break their contracts with districts.

Lodi Education Association president Michelle Orgon said teachers who reached out to her wanted to take on better-paying jobs with less stress or wanted to move to school districts closer to home. Others, due to return from maternity leave, did not think going back to school was worth leaving their newborns behind.

United Educators of San Francisco President Cassondra Curiel attributes the recent surge in resignations, in part, to the changing national discourse on teachers.

“Nobody wants to live with a nation full of vitriol and continue in the profession while the pundits are spreading the message that something is wrong with what you are doing,” she said.

Teachers across the country have reached out to Daphne Gomez to ask if they should quit teaching and how to do it. The founder of Teaching Career Coach, based in Los Angeles County, uses her podcast to offer advice on breaking teaching contracts, whether teachers should stay on for retirement and how to find jobs outside of education, among other topics. She also offers digital courses that help teachers identify a new career path. People are listening: she has more than 86,000 followers on Instagram.

When Gomez decided to quit her job as a fifth-grade teacher at Burbank Unified in 2017 due to stress, she didn’t know how to quit the profession and find a new career. Eventually, she found a job as a professional development trainer for Microsoft. After training sessions with teachers, she was often asked for advice on how to transition from education to corporate employment.

She says teachers are participating in the Great Resignation because they sense, for the first time, that there are other opportunities.

In Oregon, White now spends her time writing poetry and short stories.

“Despite all of this, I still miss teaching,” she said. “For years, it was tolerable. It was hard. At the end of each year, I could look back and think that I had made a difference. I could name specific students whose lives I had had a positive impact on. I made them believe they could do the job and be successful. Last year, I couldn’t look at the students and say that I had made a difference for them and would make a difference for them. It was an exercise in futility. I was frustrated. They were frustrated.

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