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Burned out and stressed, Nebraska teachers exiting classroom, starting new careers
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Burned out and stressed, Nebraska teachers exiting classroom, starting new careers

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Even prior to the pandemic, the United States had already been seeing a shortage of qualified teachers staffing its schools, but COVID-19 stress added to the burdens educators faced leading to burnout and early retirements. Steve M. Matthews, superintendent of the Novi Community School District in Michigan, joined Cheddar to discuss the lack of available teachers to keep kids educated. "I think the pandemic just exacerbated some of the issues and kind of pushed the momentum forward for a teacher shortage," he said.

At the height of marching band season, Chris Cotignola's students would see him more than they would see their families. 

Counting the regular school day, band rehearsals, Friday night football games and Saturday band competitions, the former director of instrumental music at Bryan High School would work 65 to 75 hours a week. And that often didn't include any work he did on Sundays to prep for lessons for the upcoming week.

After nine years as a teacher, Cotignola left the profession at the end of the 2020-21 school year to become a financial adviser.

“I was always at school,” Cotignola said. “It’s kind of this never-ending cycle with a lot of teachers. If I don’t sacrifice myself, I’m not a good teacher, but at what cost?”

Cotignola is one of five teachers interviewed by The World-Herald who left teaching during or at the end of the 2020-21 school year to enter new professions. 

The educators said they were overworked, stressed, micromanaged and paid too little for the job. Then came the pandemic. It made their jobs even harder while putting every move under a microscope and making issues that always were present glaringly obvious.

Brooke Sutton, who left her job at Central High School, said the pandemic was 75% of the push for her to resign.

“It just brought so much to light that was otherwise hidden," Sutton said. "Unspoken.”

The former Omaha teachers are not alone. 

Tim Royers, president of the Millard Education Association, said he has never seen so many teachers consider leaving education. 

"We've never seen this many people talk openly about leaving the profession," he said.

The teachers' decisions to leave come at a time when school districts across the state and nation are struggling to find enough staff to do everything from teach social studies to serve sloppy Joes.

Before the pandemic, Nebraska, like the rest of the nation, already was facing a teacher shortage. Too few people are coming out of teacher preparation programs and qualified teachers are choosing to leave the classroom or retire. 

"Crisis is the right word," said Sara Skretta, certification officer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Education and Human Sciences. "When we have districts who are looking for elementary teachers in October because they don’t have them yet, that’s a crisis because you’ve got children that don’t have a teacher."

Many of the teachers who have stayed have been asked to help out in multiple classrooms or take on additional students to make up for staff vacancies at a time when school districts compete to hire substitute teachers.

"We are in a staffing emergency," Robert Miller, president of the Omaha Education Association, told the Omaha Public Schools board earlier this month. "Teachers are overwhelmed, frustrated, burnt out — and we are only in November."

Miller did not respond to a request for an interview to elaborate on his comments at the meeting.

"We know that it takes everyone to make our system go for students, and we care about our staff," OPS said in a statement. "Staff shortages in education is a decades-long challenge that has more recently come to our area, heightened by the pandemic like every industry."

OPS also said as part of the district's strategic plan and in response to the pandemic, its human resources office has begun additional initiatives for wellness and employee retention. The district also adjusted this year's school calendar to provide additional non-student days, including a weeklong Thanksgiving recess. 

"Whether it is supporting paraprofessionals who wish to become educators, building high school education academies to develop a talent pipeline before students turn 18 or our concierge team, our district has innovated and evolved to meet the need today and in the future," the statement said. 

Records show teacher resignations in OPS, the state's largest district, increased in 2020-21 compared with previous years. In 2020-21, 320 teachers resigned, compared with 239 in 2019-20 and 289 in 2018-19. 

Meanwhile, according to information from OPS, retirements during the same time frame remained steady. At the end of the 2020-21 school year, about 85 teachers retired. The previous year saw 88 retirements. At the end of 2018-19, 83 retired.

Royers said his members have told him that this school year is proving to be the most challenging one yet. 

Some students have forgotten how to be in school, Royers said. Many have social and academic gaps that school staff were not fully anticipating.

Last school year, many teachers in the Omaha metro area were simultaneously teaching students in person and online. 

This school year was supposed to be a return to normal for students and staff. While health protocols may make the school environment look different, metro area school districts are open and students are in classrooms. 

"This year is a more challenging year," Royers said. "I think that's the major piece the public doesn't get."

Royers said he didn't understand why teachers were telling him that only a few weeks into the school year. Then Royers, who has been teaching for 15 years, got back into the classroom as a substitute teacher and understood. 

"All the kids are in such wildly different places that you don’t have a moment of rest," he said.

Royers bounced from student to student, trying to help them. When students are in different places academically, teachers must work with them one on one to help each student make progress. In previous years, that might have meant directly working with three or four students. This year, it could mean half the classroom.

He also found that teachers had fewer chances to turn things over to students and let them work alone.  

Skill sets that teachers counted on students having in previous years just aren't there, and it's making this school year especially challenging. For example, Royers said students who are returning to school after doing remote learning don't have the social skills they would have learned at school. 

Jared Wagenknecht, president of the Papillion La Vista Education Association, said educators are telling him how overwhelmed they feel by the number of students in need of significant social, emotional and mental support over the last few years. He said the sheer volume of students "with significant mental health needs has become daunting."

Counselors and other mental health professionals are working hard to address the issue, Wagenknecht said, but the number of staff available to help with students is not keeping pace with demand.

"Educators got into the profession because they want to help students, so the typical response has been to just put their heads down and stay late or take work home because they spent a plan period helping a student in crisis," he said. 

Without more staff or resources, Wagenknecht said, he worries that things are becoming unsustainable for many educators. 

Royers said teachers and school staff are worn down and only now are realizing the weight they were carrying last school year. 

"It's like a runner going to do another marathon and not giving themselves enough down time between races," Royers said. 

For teachers like Sutton, it was just too much. 

“We have a nation full of deeply traumatized children, and adding that trauma on top of everything else it really is too much for people to bear,” Sutton said.

Sutton said she thinks people have unrealistic expectations for what teachers can do in the classroom.

"I can create the best lesson plans in the entire world, but unless a student feels safe, has enough to eat, has a roof over their head or isn't having to worry about the safety of their sister or mom, they aren’t going to absorb my excellent lesson," Sutton said.

Rachel Samson left her job teaching at an OPS high school and now works in insurance underwriting. She said she doesn't really miss anything about her six-year career in education. Since leaving, she said, her physical and mental health have improved dramatically. 

"The mental load I had to carry each day was just insane, and I didn't notice how heavy it was until I changed jobs and realized I hadn't thought about work from Friday evening to Monday morning," Samson said. "That was alien to me as a teacher."

Samson said she was regularly called expletives by students — including 10 minutes into her first class after returning from maternity leave.

Teachers are expected to deal with students' trauma and academic readiness, only some of which they are prepared to do, Samson said. 

"This kid can't read. I can handle that," Samson said. "This kid can't read and is also violent. I don't know how to deal with that. It's too much to handle."

The teachers said the problems they faced do not belong to any one school district but instead are statewide and national issues. 

Teachers often consider moving to a neighboring school district, but Royers said they come to realize that the stress of teaching is not unique to any one district.  

For years, Royers said, not enough people have been entering the teaching profession. 

"We had a recruitment problem," Royers said. "Now we have a retention problem."

School districts across Nebraska are struggling. 

“It is widespread. It doesn’t matter if you are a large district, small district, rural, urban — we’re seeing it everywhere,” said Jenny Jansky, University of Nebraska at Kearney's director of educator certification office and certification officer. 

Last month, the Nebraska Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, comprised of all 16 teacher preparation programs in the state, held a summit to bring together school administrators, school board members, state education officials and others from every corner of the state to discuss the teacher shortage and unfilled positions. 

Jansky, of UNK, and Skretta, of UNL, said the goal of the summit was to collaborate at all levels of education in the state and work to address Nebraska's teacher shortage.

“People are doing a great job trying to be innovative to continue to move things forward," Skretta said, "but at some point, if the people aren’t there, there’s a finite number of solutions that you can have.”

To the surprise of Jansky and Skretta, the 100 people at the summit quickly came up with areas to focus on and study further. Those included elevating and marketing the profession, recruitment and retention and certification.

Skretta said certification was identified because people moving to Nebraska from another state can have a difficult time getting certified.

Any changes, Skretta said, would have to balance expanding certification options with getting qualified teachers in the classroom. 

Task forces have been created and charged with coming up with action in the targeted areas. Skretta and Jansky recently presented the results from the summit to the Nebraska State Board of Education.

Many school districts, including OPS, are creating programs to get current high school students interested in the teaching profession. The payoff from those programs, however, is still years away as those students must first get a college degree. 

Some of the interviewed teachers who have left the profession said they struggle with what to tell students about becoming teachers. 

"Don't do it," Sutton said of her advice to those considering the profession.

Teresa Mendoza, who left her job teaching at an OPS high school, said she wouldn't tell students not to go into teaching. She would, however, tell them to research how much money teachers make and the work required.

"A student-first mentality is all well and good, but if teachers aren't taking care of themselves and can't live their own lives as well, you are creating a system where you have a lot of turnover and you have people who have no business teaching being teachers," Mendoza said. 

Sarah, who asked that her last name not be used due to concerns about her new job, taught for about a decade before deciding to leave her teaching job at an OPS high school. 

She left the profession entirely after frustrations about how the pandemic was handled by her district and how it felt like teachers were considered expendable when they had to go back to the classroom before COVID-19 vaccines were available.

Sarah said some of her fellow teachers were having panic attacks on the way to school, knowing they had limited protection from the virus. 

"It went very quickly from 'Teachers are heroes' to 'Shut up and get back into the classroom,'" she said. 

Deciding to leave her students was difficult for her. 

"That's the thing I miss the most," Sarah said. "My students."

But since she has left the classroom, Sarah has spent more time with her family. Her new job allows her to focus on herself, and she has time to exercise, sleep, make healthy lunches and eat breakfast in the morning — all things she didn't have time for while teaching. 

The body aches she used to get from being stressed all the time are gone.

Meanwhile, she's hearing from her former colleagues who are overextended. Sarah said she knows it likely isn't going to get much better in the next couple of years.  

“I really only anticipate that the shortage is going to get worse," she said.

All of the former teachers interviewed said they are happier and healthier after leaving the profession. They said it's unlikely they ever would return to teaching. Instead, they predicted that more people will follow them out the classroom door.

“If a mass exodus doesn’t happen after this year," Sutton said, "then it’s coming.”

"This year is a more challenging year. I think that's the major piece the public doesn't get." 

— Tim Royers, president of the Millard Education Association

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"The mental load I had to carry each day was just insane, and I didn't notice how heavy it was until I changed jobs and realized I hadn't thought about work from Friday evening to Monday morning." 

— Rachel Samson, former OPS high school teacher

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“People are doing a great job trying to be innovative to continue to move things forward, but at some point, if the people aren’t there, there’s a finite number of solutions that you can have.” 

— Sara Skretta, certification officer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Education and Human Sciences

pullquote 3 - delete title
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