Teacher…Interrupted

One week ago today, I turned in a letter to resign from a job I have loved for 14 years. I am one of those people who worries about things long before they happen—even though my husband tells me it’s a waste of energy. (I like to feel prepared for every possibility.) Well, I have worried about this possibility for three months now. I have cried and grieved and wondered what I would do if I could not return to teaching. I launched this blog. And then I did not write on it. Some days I was so tired I just wanted to sleep. My husband had to take a few days off work to watch the kids because I was such a mess. Basically, I’ve been sad. Really crazy sad. How can you prepare to say goodbye to something before you are ready? People say that teaching is an identity. So how do you suddenly become someone else?

Well, decision time came. I was pleasantly surprised that my HR Department would have allowed me to work remotely with additional documentation from my child’s doctor. I was unpleasantly surprised to find out that the full-time caseload for virtual teaching would have been 37-50 special education students ranging from kindergarten to sixth grade. That number of kids spanning seven grade levels made me dizzy. Both my kids (age 5 and 2.5) are home since we cannot send our high-risk daughter to daycare right now. My husband works full-time, makes far more than my teacher salary, and carries the insurance for our kids. How could we balance it? Where would I find enough daytime hours to case manage 37-50 kids virtually during a traditional work week? I asked about part-time work, but the caseload was still 30 students. Any teacher knows that 30 students is full-time work. Why work a full-time job for half the pay? So I regretfully resigned. And I cried the ugly tears.

I know that most teachers are working double the hours right now. And that is just not right. Essentially, I did not leave my organization because they were inflexible to my family’s COVID19 risk. I resigned because of the unmanageable caseload. And I don’t blame the caseload on my school district. Low student funding in Arizona forces school organizations to make impossible decisions to meet the needs of enrolled students. What do you do when you have too many kids and not enough teachers? Well, you assign those kids to the teachers who are left. Will those teachers return each year under a crushing workload? Honestly, no. At some point, teachers leave. And that is the very big problem we face in this state.

There were a few HR disappointments: My organization only grants long-term absences in May, so I had to fully resign. Also, my organization rehires past employees under the same wage limiting policies as new hires, including the 5-years-of-service maximum credit for experience. I still urge districts to change policies that might retain and regain teachers who leave during COVID19, as I suggested last week. But again, I do not blame these policies on my school organization. I blame them on policy makers who have defunded education and forced districts to create unreasonable policies that harm teachers and save money. And I blame this situation on voters who elected these corrupt individuals that seek to destroy public education in Arizona. If you think those are strong words, they are. And they are not exaggerated.  

So my last few days were a blur. I was up most of the night Thursday writing a resignation letter. I expressed gratitude for the experiences, appreciation for my mentors, and made sure to get one final plug in for National Board Certification. I cleaned off my laptop for return. It was so sad peeling off my National Boards stickers. AZNBCT? Does that still describe me? (Yes. Stick it on my personal computer.) DVNBCT Network? Does that still describe me? (Sadly, no. Trash? Can I bear it? No. Stick it on my desk for now.) I found a few scanned class pictures on my desktop and stared at the kids in disbelief. Saddest “delete” ever. I found photos from our project-based learning adventures. Gosh, I will miss that. I contacted my principal about returning my computer. She wanted to wave through the window, but I had to tell her I was too sad. We agreed to a real hug when the world is normal again.

As I walked to her office door to drop and go contactless, I caught a glimpse of the preschool shed. Some reflection: Remember that shed that I begged to purchase so that I could add tons of things to the playground (and have a place to store them?) There it sits on top of the pavers that I laid mostly by myself—while pregnant (because I am stubborn like that). There are the walls and roof that we put up together as a preschool team with the help of our plant foreman. That shed never looked exactly right. What do you expect? We aren’t handymen. As I looked at the shed and dug through the memories, I had a distinct feeling that I was leaving things better than they were before me. A breath of fresh air while choking back tears. I set the computer down and headed back to my car with a lump in my throat.

When I pulled back into the drive, I decided to get the mail. I had that feeling of closure and rest that comes only at the end of the year. But the weather was weird. Warm sun, cool breeze? So different from the feeling of summer. I guess that final endings have a different feeling. I came inside and laid down with my kids so the little one could take a nap. They were exceptionally loving and calm that day. My daughter touched my face and said, “Love you Mommy.” She was wearing the hairband that I wore on the day she was born. I took note of that beautiful symbolism.

Becoming a Mom really does change you forever. It makes you question things like working over the weekend and stressing so much that you can’t enjoy family time. I have been slowly finding myself these past three months, and I finally feel really peaceful. I’m not sure what is next, but knowing what is over feels reassuring. I am ready to move on. For now, I am a teacher…interrupted. I want to find work that contributes to the profession and supports the teachers who are trying to stay. And so I finally truly begin the journey of a recovering teacher: Finding my place outside of the classroom. Deep breath. Fresh air.

Will the Teachers Come Back?

I guess I might say these past three months have gone by in a blur. That would accurately describe the fast pace of keeping my two small kids busy and safe 24/7—and also the tears I have cried about the uncertainty in my professional life. (I’m no martyr. I know that COVID19 has been tough on everyone. My heart is with you as well.)

There has not been much time to write these past few months, but I have had lots of time to think. I’ve thought about my 14 years of teaching, my colleagues, my students, and the things I’ve been missing while home with my kids. I’ve wondered if our community would get a handle on the COVID19 outbreak. I’ve wondered when the vaccine will be ready for high-risk people like my daughter. I’ve wondered about the health and stress of my colleagues who bravely charge forward in this new teaching world. I’ve wondered what would happen if I’m forced to resign when my leave expires on Friday. I’ve wondered if my organization might have part-time, asynchronous, remote positions for people like me. (I know–a truly impossible request.)

But as COVID19 surges on, the community continues to socialize amidst the outbreak, and the vaccine continues to be “almost ready,” I have spent a lot of time wondering: If I do have to resign this year, will I return? Will other teachers like me come back?

I think this is a very important question for our community right now. Teacher shortages in Arizona are a persistent problem. In September 2019, Arizona faced a 21% teacher shortage. This year, that percentage has grown to 28% according to surveys in September 2020. And I suspect the percentage will continue to grow as more organizations return to campus learning, the second COVID19 wave builds, teacher stress grows, and teachers who are on leave run out of time. There is a lot at stake. And there will be a lot to rebuild when this is over.

How will Arizona schools recover their teaching force? And what factors influence a teacher’s decision to return to teaching? Well, I have some thoughts on that. And this feels like an important time to share my perspectives.

Barriers to Return & Doors We Can Open

The Big Move. Changing teaching jobs is like moving. The bigger the change, the harder the move. Some teachers change grade levels on a regular basis to accommodate shifts in student demographics. I compare this to moving within a city. It’s hard, but you can get oriented rather quickly because you’re still connected to colleagues at the school, you know the number for the IT department, and you know where the bathroom is.

Then, there are those harder moves like switching school organizations. This is like moving out of state. People speak a slightly different language of acronyms in a new district, you aren’t sure who to ask for the IT number, and someone forgot to mention that the bathroom is in another building. These moves are so hard. When I switched organizations a few years ago, I wrote that it was like being a second-year teacher again: aware of my shortcomings, discouraged, and overwhelmed trying to get settled.

As a special education teacher (one of the hardest to fill positions), it’s even harder because we must quickly get acquainted with the special education departmental expectations, timelines, personnel, and procedures. Special education teachers often have additional classroom set up as well, like the way I Velcro my pens safely out of preschool reach. It might not seem like a big deal to put up some Velcro, but these seemingly small tasks are numerous. It takes me a full year of slowly working through that carefully prioritized To Do list to make my new classroom a safe and functional “home” for my learning community. And that is an exhausting year. I know it’s a lame excuse for wanting to give up a profession, but if you’ve ever said “We’ll NEVER move again”—you can understand the sentiment. (And this is even more true for teachers who have their own kids at home to balance.)

A door: School organizations who lose teachers to COVID19 should do their very best to bring those teachers back to their same school when they can safely return to teaching in the future. If you are an administrator or HR specialist helping a teacher through a long-term leave request, make this vision very clear. Help the teacher know that they can come back home when this period is over.

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Years of Service. This may surprise the community, but most experienced teachers take a pay cut to change school organizations. You are shocked? Well, it’s true. Teacher salaries are determined by a variety of factors, including years of experience and degrees achieved. But budget-starved Arizona school districts have adopted a practice of limiting the years of service credit to new hires. Many cut off that credit at five years.

What does this mean? When I changed school districts four years ago with ten years of experience, my new district only gave me credit for five years of teaching experience. This resulted in a pay loss of $2000 a year for my family. If you multiply that times the four years I have been there, it’s an $8000 loss to my family since I changed school districts. Doesn’t that feel like a punch in the stomach?

Now, I have 14 years of experience. Should I return to teaching someday with a salary that only acknowledges five years of experience? Would you take that kind of pay cut in a tough profession? This type of pay backslide is not common in the professional world, and it should not happen to teachers. I don’t blame school districts for this. It’s a budget survival thing in a state that underfunds education. But policy makers should pay attention to these outcomes. And you should pay attention as a voter.

A door: School organizations who want to retain (or gain) experienced teachers post-COVID should put an end to the hiring cap on years of experience. This practice is professionally insulting and demotivating. I encourage state policy makers to provide Arizona school organizations with relief money to fuel efforts that will bring teachers back. And I encourage voters to vote YES on Prop 208 to bring additional money to Arizona schools, teachers, and students that could end the salary cap on years of experience.

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Contract penalties. Most professionals work where they choose and freely leave when they please. But teachers are bound by annual contracts to teach within their organization for the entire school year. Breaking a teaching contract early often carries a heavy fine and the threat of losing your teaching certificate. These penalties help school organizations provide stability for students and schools. (And I believe in stability for students and schools). Organizations claim that penalty fees cover the expenses to staff the position again. Perhaps this is partly true. But these penalties just don’t fit these times. People are making decisions for safety, not convenience. Facing these penalties amidst the grief of leaving the job is too much.

The worst part about contract penalties is that teachers sign contracts each year in March for the following year. Imagine if you had to sign a contract to work for your organization four months later. Regardless of the uncertain future, teachers sign their contracts each year. But let me ask you this: Did you expect COVID19 to last this long? When I signed my contract back in March, I remember thinking happily about how things would be back to normal in August. I think we all thought that. Should teachers who signed their contracts in March be penalized if they cannot safely return to the classroom this year?

A door: School organizations should allow teachers with documented reasons for breaking their contract to leave peacefully without financial penalty or loss of their teaching certificate. Perhaps organizations are too afraid to open up this option. But I think they should be afraid NOT to. If you are the administrator or HR specialist making this decision, offer grace. Teachers don’t quit teaching without good cause. And people can’t afford to give up their income so frivolously. Districts should take a chance on being the kind of organization that teachers say was a “good one” during the pandemic. This kindness will pay itself forward in other teachers wanting to work for you. Trust me. We all know who the “bad ones” are right now.

A door: The Arizona Department of Education should hold teachers with documented reasons for breaking their teaching contracts blameless during COVID19. If a school organization chooses to file a request to revoke a teaching certificate, the state should conduct a thorough investigation and consider allowing the teacher to retain their teaching certificate if the teacher acted in the best faith possible. Believe me, I have been traumatized enough by my COVID19 family and financial situations. I don’t have the energy to fight to retain my teaching certificate. And if it comes to that, I might not. Let’s keep the door open by allowing teachers to retain their certificates. We need as many teachers as possible in this state.

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Inflexibility. School organizations have a choice: Be flexible or deal with vacancies. And I am not just talking about teachers. I’m talking about students and their families, too. There has been a persistent culture of inflexibility that concerns me in education recently. Many organizations have demanded that staff be available during the normal workday all day. Despite the real need for schools to offer asynchronous options for families who work during the day, organizations have bravely forged on demanding business as usual. Opportunities to innovate and offer relief to families and staff are being missed. But there will be new opportunities to come.

A door: Organizations need to bravely innovate and find unexpected positions to retain staff. I think organizations need to look for ways to retain high-risk staff remotely and put them to work in ways that ease the burden on campus staff. This brave decision can retain both types of staff and result in better student outcomes as well. Here are some ideas: (1) Experienced teachers could be assigned as mentors (part-time or full-time) to new teachers. This would reduce the burden that other experienced teachers face trying to carry these new teachers along. (2) Experienced special education teachers can help on campus teachers complete clerical aspects of the IEP process, such as building the outer shell of the IEP, helping call to schedule meetings, and creating meeting notices. (3) A teacher at any level can help colleagues evaluate student work samples and post grades. (4) Teachers can also provide virtual support to parents struggling with the Learning Management System. An organization could create a Teacher Help Desk Team to manage these calls that weigh down other staff. I know these are all unusual ideas. But these are unusual times. Some critics might even say these leniencies are unfair to those who do take the risk to teach in person. I would just ask: Do you think it’s fair for students to lose teachers in a profession that is crippled with vacancies?

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Overall, these barriers and doors are certainly viewed through my own lens and experiences. What other barriers do you see in maintaining and recovering the teaching force? What other doors do you see that we can open?

Image credit: Marque1313, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Double_doors_just_inside_back_door_at_drayton_hall.JPG

A Brave New Beginning

Well, it has been quite a month for me. I guess COVID19 has offered plenty of unexpected turns for everyone, but I hardly even feel like the same person anymore. I guess I’m not. Six years ago, I founded a blog called Lead from IN the Classroom. Now, I don’t even have a classroom. And as I sorted through the mess of teacher stuff in my garage this weekend, I couldn’t help but feel the wreckage deep in my soul.

COVID19 has been extra hard for my family since we are protecting my five-year old daughter with Down Syndrome. (People with DS are naturally immunocompromised and she was already hospitalized in February for a minor respiratory infection). Being trapped at home without support from family, friends, or therapy services has been intense and painfully isolating. I’ve skipped many nights of sleep and chewed down all my fingernails reading about COVID19 and praying for a speedy vaccine.

At some point, I realized things weren’t going to be back to “normal” at the start of the school year. As a high-risk family, I worried the most about schools being ready to open before I could safely return to teaching. I hated the idea of taking leave right at the start of the school year and worried about telling students and families that news. Strangely, I never thought to worry about schools opening while COVID19 was still surging and very dangerous for everyone. That has been a big shock to me.

When I found out that my preschool special education classroom was scheduled to open August 17 in a district where K-12 is closed until October 14, I swung straight into advocacy mode. I figured people did not know why it would be dangerous to open a classroom like mine. I wrote emails. I wrote a blog. I connected with doctors. I joined a podcast. I’ve been active on social media. In between these things, I worried about keeping students safe, keeping their families safe, keeping myself safe, and keeping my family safe. I waited to feel heard and acknowledged, but the plan just kept moving forward in a culture of silence. I was devastated.

After three encounters with mask-less employees on my campus the week before employees returned, coupled with news that I was expected to be on campus every day beginning July 28, I found myself filing for leave much sooner than I ever expected.

And I can see the writing on the walls: There’s very little chance that 12 weeks is going to yield a miracle vaccine or flatten Arizona’s curve–especially now that schools are opening. At the end of the 12 weeks, I’ve been told I will need to make a choice: Return or resign. What would you choose? The career you love or knowing your child is safe? I never thought I would face that decision. It’s like a dark, dystopian novel.

And so here I am, a life-long teacher wondering what to do with my life. Will I return to teaching? I truly have no idea. And there have been some ugly tears about that. So I guess I am a recovering teacher, trying to heal from COVID19 and the trauma of feeling voiceless about my own family’s health and desire to protect my students. I don’t know how to stop caring or writing or worrying. So I will be here if you care to join me from time to time. This blog space won’t be negative or hostile. That’s just not who I am. Instead, I hope we can all grow together.

Image credit: I am so grateful for permission to use Kirstyn Smith’s inspirational glass artwork for this site’s banner. It reminds me of healing, life, and cheerfulness. Above all, it reminds me to thrive on this unexpected new journey. I hope you will check out her website and Etsy shop. She is as sweet as she is talented!

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