“I’m not sure I’m making a difference anymore. We are drowning here.”
by Tracy Castro-Gill and Ari Robin McKenna
(This article is reprinted with permission from the Washington Ethnic Studies Now blog.)
On Tuesday, Nov. 9, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) Human Resources Department (HR) sent an email to parents and then 39 minutes later to educators — almost as an afterthought — announcing the unexpected closure of schools just three days later on Nov. 12, sending parents without work flexibility scrambling for childcare.
The HR email author might have mentioned the national teacher shortage. They might have mentioned that — in the wake of the pandemic — substitute teachers have dried up. Nearly every school in the district is shuffling to cover daily absences, with teachers having to use up designated grading and planning time. They might have mentioned that a district calendar initially had Friday as a holiday, and office staff at various schools circulated it before it was updated. They might even have mentioned that, for over a month, staff at SPS district headquarters have been signing up to cover absences — despite, in some cases, not having an active teacher certification.
Instead, HR chalked it up neatly to teachers insisting on taking leave. “We are aware of an unusually large number of SPS staff taking leave on Friday,” the email explained. Then they chose to end the email assuring their audiences that the district’s central office, the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence (JSCEE), would remain open Friday — as if anyone reading this email cared about anything other than classrooms and children.
Many parents read through the rhetoric, and yet a segment of the parent community chose to direct their ire at educators. They picked up where they left off last winter, when they bashed teachers for not rushing back to work — despite not being prioritized for the vaccine in this state. This attitude also disregarded potential community spread, especially among families in Black and Brown communities with higher rates and those living in multigenerational homes.
As these hollow critiques hit social media, a school psychologist who works at an elementary school in the South End, Chynna Jeremiah, expressed a need for educators to anonymously share their stories of teaching during this pandemic school year — including why they decided to take leave — to help families understand the actual conditions educators and students face in schools this year. Tracy Castro-Gill, executive director of Washington Ethnic Studies Now, and one of the author’s of this piece, responded by quickly posting a Google survey inviting SPS educators — defined here as all staff that work directly with children — to share their stories. Unsurprisingly, there were over 50 respondents within 3 days.
The themes that emerged were unsafe working conditions, dealing with COVID-related illness and death, increased workload due to staffing shortages, troubling student behaviors, experiencing disrespectful communication from families and administrators, their own failing mental health, and the need to change professions. It’s clear that many educators are beyond their breaking point and likely can’t hang on for much longer.
One educator summed up what teaching in SPS is like this year using a Schitt’s Creek analogy. “Teaching during the pandemic with SPS is best explained by the scene in Schitt’s Creek,” they said, “where Moira says to ‘fold in the cheese’ but she has no idea what that means — that’s SPS — and I’m David just wanting to know how to do that but getting no real answer.” Another educator had an analogy for parents who demean them, “Blaming teachers and building staff for the dysfunction of the district is like blaming the soldiers on the front line, who were equipped with Nerf guns, for why you are losing a war.”
What dominated the narratives collected through the survey were increased workloads and the district’s disregard for educators’ mental health. These accounts stand in stark contrast to the recent messaging from the district around “self-care.” A theme of last summer’s professional development was “preventing burnout,” a message directly contradicted by emails sent to educators demanding unpaid time be spent posting educational materials online weekly. The tone of this communication was described by one survey respondent as “decidedly authoritarian.” It read, “Failure to follow this directive will be considered insubordination, and result in progressive discipline.”
One survey respondent noted how this authoritarian tone was parotted by his building’s administration, “Public educators are abused daily. We are retaliated against if we attempt to set healthy and appropriate professional boundaries. The district bringing in a speaker during [summer professional development] to talk about burnout, the importance of self-care, etc. is the biggest example of gaslighting I have ever seen … Not going to work on Friday means that it will be one day that I don’t get bullied by my principal …” Another educator surveyed last week agreed, bluntly stating, “My admin[istrator], the SPS leaders don’t see us as humans, they want us to be robots doing their bidding.” Yet another educator made a suggestion for the district’s tagline, “… the motto, ‘SPS: 180 Days of Excellence’ should read, ‘SPS: Where Retribution is a Core Value.’”
Even when educators reported having administrators who supported their “self-care,” the working environment during crisis teaching is such that trauma is waiting around every corner, “I have taken a mental health day off already this year after telling my principal that I was scared about burning out … When I returned that Monday … I had learned that one student had been in the ER for attempted suicide over the weekend, another had been physically abused at a party, and a third had a second family member die for non-COVID related reasons. I felt at that point like I needed another retreat to recover from the secondary trauma. I have been in teaching for 25 years and despite many sick days for myself and my two kids, I think this ‘day off’ in October for mental health needs was probably one of three or four total in the last 2.5 decades.”
Of the 50 responses, 10 educators indicated they were part of the 600 requests for time off on Nov. 12 that led to what the district called “inadequate staffing.” Most of these 10 educators claim they requested and retained substitutes for Nov. 12 months in advance. The majority of them indicated they took leave for the “self-care” the district seemed to be advocating for in the summer. Others were requesting the day off to take care of family members or their own health needs. One educator explained, “My 18-month-old got [respiratory syncytial virus] and ended [up] in [a] children’s hospital. He’s been sick for over a week but because of the lack of subs[titutes], I went to work even when he was just a little sick. Now he’s very sick and has been admitted for the last four days.”
Many educators who didn’t request the day off stated they would be using their unexpected break on Nov. 12 to catch up on their unmanageable workloads. One respondent shared, “I recently witnessed two teachers having an online work meeting on a day they had both taken ‘off.’ I am not sure there are days ‘off’ any more.”
Here are some examples of the ways this staffing shortages and the ongoing pandemic have increased the workloads of educators:
“This year, on top of my normal teaching duties, I am nurse, custodian, hourly staff/recess/lunch supervisor, PE teacher, art teacher, Spanish teacher, tech support.”
“Between school-based admin[istrators] and SPS district admin[istrators], they keep throwing one thing after another at us, and they whittle away at our contract, taking 5 minutes from lunch, expecting teachers to do more recess duty sessions per week, expecting us to be on duty in the a.m. before class starts and again after school until the last child gets picked up. They add more assessments, tests, and required tasks of us, piling on more and more responsibilities without taking any responsibilities off.”
“I’m at the 24-7 beck and call of students and families, and my own family is neglected.”
“Teachers are bearing the weight of students’ emotional distress from a pandemic, expectations from families to ‘get back to normal’ and ‘catch up,’ the health and safety rules of school during COVID …”
It is abundantly clear from these accounts that excessive workloads are taking their toll on the mental health of SPS educators, and the stress and trauma students are returning to school with are exacerbating these conditions. Many students are struggling to return to a routine with expectations, both academically and socially, and for some of our younger students, crisis learning is all they know. One survey respondent lamented, “The most heartbreaking aspect of all of this, is that to my first graders this is not abnormal. This is the only schooling they’ve had.”
Another educator working with older students who have also been severely impacted by the pandemic clarified some of the behaviors staff are contending with. “With a year and a half at home, students are having [a] significantly harder time adjusting back to school expectations … We’ve seen an increase in fights, drug use during school, and smaller things like roaming the halls during class or constantly being on their phones — which while less extreme, still detracts from their learning during school.” Another educator’s experience is even more troubling. “The school has fights EVERY DAY. Physical bloody fights. I can’t even count how many. People have no idea. There are kids drunk at school every day and we have no drug and alcohol counselors. Students are getting high in the stalls. EVERY DAY.” While educators are struggling to support students’ socioemotional needs, they’re also having to deal with anti-vax and anti-mask families and students making demands like this one, “I also have to respond to an email from an anti-vax parent who doesn’t want me to allow students to discuss how they got their COVID vaccine.”
The overall sentiment of the responses left both of us feeling the deep grief and defeat these educators shared, and there was very little sense of hope. As one educator put it, “There is so much more I want to say, but I’ve grown weary of talking too much about teaching with non-teachers, as they just. don’t. get. It.” Another educator said, “This job has always been infinite, but there was always hope that what we were doing was making a difference. Now it is infinite AND feels impossible; I’m not sure I’m making a difference anymore. We are drowning here.”
One educator’s response to the survey suggested a cause for much of the unnecessary pressure teachers are under — on top of the pressure that is inherent in their jobs — and that which has been applied by the return to in-person learning after a pandemic: the bogus idea of ‘normalcy.’ They said, “This year ‘normalcy’ has been shoved down our throats, along with its return to additional (!) standardized testing and expectations that we stay on track for grade-level standards for students who had extremely varied educational experiences over the past two years. This is harmful to students, staff, and relationships between students and staff, and it is making even those who would never have considered leaving education in the past plan their exit at the end of the year.”
Over a half dozen of those surveyed mentioned they were considering or had decided to leave teaching. One educator’s entire response said, “Teaching during this pandemic has brought me to the brink of leaving the school district. I am actively looking for alternatives.” Another veteran educator said, “I love being a teacher. I’m someone who belongs in the classroom. But I have to look out for my mental health and without more support, I will have to step away from this job.”
Perhaps SPS will adopt a more supportive, considerate tone when they communicate to and about educators, because what a school district without them in classrooms looks like is anyone’s guess.
The entirety of the educators’ accounts can be read here.
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The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.
Tracy Castro-Gill is the executive director of Washington Ethnic Studies Now (WAESN), and a Ph.D. candidate in education with a focus on curriculum at Walden University. Tracy will be teaching a class called, “Race, Ethnicity, and Education” at the University of Washington’s Department of American Ethnic Studies this spring.
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him here.
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