Stressed out schools: How parents and teachers choices are changing education – USA TODAY

On today’s episode of the 5 Things podcast:

How are schools across the nation faring now that school is back in session? Is life in school back to normal or are there still looming effects caused by the pandemic? We’ve all heard of teacher and staff shortages and parents pulling kids from public school because of curriculum issues. It seems, schools are stressed.

According to a 2020 survey conducted by teachers’ union, the National Education Association, 55% of educators are thinking about leaving the profession earlier than they planned. But its not just teachers, according to the teachers union everyone from janitors to bus drivers to cooks are looking for a way out.

5 Things Sunday host James Brown sat down with USA TODAY education reporter Alia Wong and Sydney Boyega, a Texas teacher who inspired this episode, to try to understand what is happening in schools.

According to Boyega, there is a lot of misconceptions about teachers. She said people think because they went to a K-12 school that teaching is easy. She compares that to saying you can direct the movie ‘Star Wars’ just because you’ve watched it a couple of times.

Follow James Brown and Alia Wong on Twitter.

For more on the teacher shortages and how education in being impacted read:

Teacher shortage 2020: Charts, maps show the data by state.

Biden, job search companies partner to take on teacher shortage.

Schools wouldn’t have teacher shortages if they helped, supported them – USA TODAY.

Middle school science teachers often struggle with shaky scientific knowledge.

Teacher shortage affects these disadvantaged students the most.

What we know about teacher shortages in the US.

School counselor shortage hurts students with anxiety, depression – USA TODAY.

If you have a comment about the show or a question or topic you’d like us to discuss, send James Brown an email at jabrown@usatoday.com or podcasts@usatoday.com. You can also leave him a voicemail at 585-484-0339. We might have you on the show.

Podcasts: True crime, in-depth interviews and more USA TODAY podcasts right here.

Hit play on the player above to hear the podcast and follow along with the transcript below. This transcript was automatically generated, and then edited for clarity in its current form. There may be some differences between the audio and the text. 

James Brown:                  Hello and welcome to Five Things. I’m James Brown. It’s Sunday, September 25th, 2022. Go Bills. Every week we take a question, an idea or concept and go deep. If there’s something you’d like us to look into, you can always email me at jabrown@usatoday.com, whatpodcast@usatoday.com. You could also find me anywhere on social media at James Brown TV. If you haven’t heard last Sunday’s show, I suggest you do so. It’s about quiet quitting or changing your approach to work in search of some work-life balance. That episode and this one we’re inspired by one of our listeners, Sydney Boyega. Sydney’s a teacher in Texas. Like lots of teachers today, she decided her district was not for her. In this school year, she opted for a much longer commute in exchange for an environment that fit her better. She says the public has a lot of misconceptions about teaching.

Sydney Boyega:                  A lot of people assume that teaching is easy because most people went through a K-12 school. But that’s like saying that I know how to direct Star Wars because I watched the Star Wars movies a couple times.

James Brown:                  We’ll hear more from Sydney later. Other educators have decided to leave the profession all together. According to a 2020 survey from the National Education Association, that’s a labor union, about 55% of educators are thinking about leaving the profession earlier than they planned. That’s up from 37% from last year’s survey, and that’s not just teachers. The union claims everyone from janitors to bus drivers to cooks are all looking for a way out. Where I live, in New York State, another union, New York State united teachers expects to be short about 180,000 teachers over the next decade. And what’s worse is that they cite US Department of Education data claiming that fewer people are even attempting the state’s teacher certification test. So what exactly is happening here? As USA today’s education reporter Alia Wong tells me, none of this is new and so much depends on what schools we’re talking about, where those schools are and so much more.

Alia Wong:                        I have been hearing about school staffing challenges since the get go, to be honest. When I started my career in education journalism, I was a local reporter in Hawaii and at that time there were efforts to recruit teachers from the mainland as the contiguous 48 states to come into Hawaii to teach because they couldn’t find enough local talent. And a lot of mainland teachers did come to fill those vacancies. But in a classic phenomenon that we see happen a lot, a lot of those teachers ended up leaving those jobs within a few years.

                                            Turnover within the first five years of teaching is extremely high. That’s not surprising. It’s an incredibly difficult job. I’ve heard a lot of education journalists say they tried teaching and then couldn’t do it so they went into education journalism. It’s a really hard job. And so you’ve been hearing about effort to fill vacancies for as long as I can remember, and particularly in areas like special education, STEM fields like math and science. Those fields tend to pay better in non-teaching jobs. If you have a math expertise, you’re probably going to get a better paying job as an engineer than you are as a math teacher for example. Or in if you’re into science, you probably have better luck at making money and research than as a science teacher and so on. So you’ve been hearing about this for a while.

                                           And then nationally, as soon as I transitioned into a national education reporter role about eight years ago, the same things that I was hearing about in Hawaii were happening in places across the country, particularly cities, urban areas. And also rural areas, on the flip side, have long struggled to recruit and retain teachers. So this is almost a perennial conversation that’s come up cyclically over the past decade. Honestly, since the recession, probably before that.

                                           But what’s different about this particular conversation about shortages are the circumstances, of course. The combination of circumstances is unprecedented from the political pressures on teachers, the burdens placed on them in terms of what they’re expected to achieve academically, socially and emotionally, et cetera. For students, their plates are just so much more full now. And then of course we’re coming out of a pandemic and the pandemics particular pressures on staffing, we’re still feeling the ripple effects of that. So as many researchers would say, we’re seeing a perfect storm of conditions right now.

James Brown:                  Very interesting answer there. The two pieces that you left out there. And I wonder how much you know whether these issues are affecting suburban schools as well, private schools as well? Because obviously we got the rural issue that you mentioned and the city issue, but obviously a lot of kids go to those other schools. Are they also seeing a crunch?

Alia Wong:                        The most recent shortages are actually affecting urban areas the most. They’re not really seen in rural areas as much according to the most reliable data we have. But to answer your question, it’s not like those areas are immune to shortages. They’re just not as prominent there. And if you think about what we’ve seen in terms of domestic migratory patterns since the pandemic started, a lot of people are moving out of cities. A lot of people are pulling their kids out of public schools and into private schools, into alternative public schools, into other options, other settings. And so you’ve really seen declining enrollment in urban public school districts and as a result … and by extension you’ve seen shortages of teachers in those areas as well for largely the same reasons. It’s also just much more challenging to teach these populations of students, which makes it harder to retain teachers in those districts.

James Brown:                  I would presume those parents are making that decision in response to any number of things. Obviously there’s been a number of controversies both in terms of whether it’s critical race theory, whether it’s the COVID shutdowns, how long they lasted, how hard those restrictions were. Am I on the right track?

Alia Wong:                        Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. There are many reasons parents decided to pull their kids out of public schools or otherwise move into less urban areas. Particularly in the beginning of the pandemic, it was a lot of fear about health and safety, perhaps valid fear. We just didn’t know a lot. And there was a sense that in particularly urban school districts were overextending remote learning in that they were pushing for remote learning when families were eager to get their own children back into classrooms. So a lot of COVID policies and controversy over those policies led to parents moving out of cities or choosing other schooling options.

                                           And then more recently in the past year or so, yes, we don’t have good numbers, but there have been a subsection of parents who’ve decided that the curriculum being taught wasn’t appropriate for their own children, whether it was history classes about race and the history of racism, or literature that is LGBTQ+ inclusive. A lot of social issues that are embedded into curriculum started bubbling up and influencing parents’ decisions as to where to send their kids to school.

James Brown:                  Yeah. So you’d be running out of options pretty quickly. I mean, to my mind, there’s only a few options. You have your public school, you have your private school, homeschool. Am I leaving another option out?

Alia Wong:                        Yeah, charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run schools, so they fall in between private schools and public schools. And they are also a popular option because they can operate according to their own roles. So they aren’t necessarily subject to district COVID policy, for example, or district curricular policy. They can run things the way they want and that has a lot of appeal for parents.

James Brown:                  So you have parents making a decision and you have teachers making a decision to either get out of the profession completely or move to a different kind of school. That seems to leave a lot of stress on the people who are left. I would think both in terms of students, as I know from my own reporting over the years, where there’s heavy pockets of poverty. That tends to bring down test scores, bring down performance, and at the same time there’s less teachers around dealing with this circumstance as well.

Alia Wong:                        Yep. They think it’s absolutely right. And we hear this in other industries that have of course seen recent strikes or disgruntlement with Amtrak workers, with the nurses who went on strike in Minnesota. A lot of them are saying because of the shortages in their respective industries, the nurses or the Amtrak workers or the teachers who remain, thus have way more on their plates. And it becomes this vicious cycle because those stressors are the same things that pushed the ones who already left away and are bound to at least prompt the ones who remain to consider leaving. And so you have this compounded effect. And I hear that from a lot of teachers that because there are fewer teachers at the schools where they’re working, their jobs are a lot more harder and a lot less rewarding.

                                            I actually spoke with one teacher or one former teacher in Philadelphia, left after his first year teaching. He had long had his sights on being a teacher. He wanted to work at an urban school. He wanted to give back to his community and saw this as the best way to do that. But after a year, it just got too difficult because largely this school he was working at didn’t have enough staff to support him. He couldn’t feel like he could give any one child the attention they needed because he was always trying to put out fires. Any given day, he estimated that a quarter of his students were absent and he didn’t have anyone else at the school to help him deal with those absences to try to improve attendance, to help him manage classroom disruptions. And so that’s a very clear example of what you’re saying, that the shortages lead to conditions that are bound to lead to further shortages.

James Brown:                  Are there other pressures on other types of support positions as well?

Alia Wong:                        Yeah, and in fact there are certain departments or areas of staffing that may be experiencing greater shortages than we’re seeing among classroom teachers, in particular bus drivers and custodians, just perhaps because of competitive pay in other sectors. Those areas are really struggling to fill vacancies. Also, a lot of mental health support staff. Schools are really trying to invest more in counselors and other people who can help support students’ mental health at a time when rates of depression, anxiety among adolescents are at record highs. Filling those vacancies has been top priority for schools. Also, peer professionals, which are basically classroom aids, people who help the teachers provide instruction in a tailored way. So there are many areas throughout the school ecosystem that are really struggling to fill openings.

James Brown:                  Sydney Boyega is a fine arts teacher in Texas and like you, she’s a listener to this show. She called our voicemail line, (585)484-0339, and shared with me that she decided to switch school districts because she was stressed out and was seeking more support.

Sydney Boyega:                  I teach in a small city that might as well be a suburb, but I used to be a rural teacher, and the reason I called is because I am in a really, really great school now. I have an incredible administration, really supportive parents, but I came from a school where that was not the situation.

James Brown:                  And I take it, you relocated?

Sydney Boyega:                  I did not relocate myself, but my commute is much, much longer. So I live further out in a more rural … not even suburban area, it’s just straight up a rural town, a small town. And I worked at a school that was just one town over, but I just couldn’t deal with any of the pressures there anymore. So I was like, this is the first school I’d worked at as a teacher. I need to see what else is out there so that I know it’s not all just like this. And that was actually a really difficult search because there are not a lot of great reviews of a lot of schools right now. And so I’m very lucky to be in the district that I’m in because it is one of the very few supportive and thoughtful for its educators, thinking of what the needs of the educators are because that’s not very common anymore, unfortunately.

James Brown:                  So there are two very interesting points that I want to touch on them both there. A, what are the reviews that you’re seeing for schools that turned you off? And B, what are the pressures?

Sydney Boyega:                  So right now for a lot of schools really in my experience since the pandemic, even though it’s been growing more like that before the pandemic, there’s this culture of treating parents as customers. And so if a parent has any issue within the class, instead of being investigated immediately, administrators will take the parent’s side without getting your point of view. So that’s one of the major negative reviews, as well as preparation time. If there are a lot of substitute teachers in the district, because we’ll be asked to cover these classes during our planning time, which means we don’t have enough time to plan our lessons or grade papers or whatever and it’s not already not enough time. So then that makes you take more work home and instead of working the regular hours that most working adults work, you end up working these 12 or 14 hour days. Even though some of the work you’re doing is at home, it’s just not sustainable.

                                           So when I was looking for a new position, I was looking for districts that I knew would have a supportive administration, which you just get from talking to other teachers, reaching out, especially in your subject area. I teach a very niche subject so it’s very easy for me to reach out to the one or two teachers at whatever school and be like, Hey, I’m just wondering what the support’s like for you. And getting to learn about the resources that that school can offer, looking at the schedule of a typical teacher.

                                            And so at my previous school we were on block schedule, which is where you are with students for 90 minutes every other day. And on days like that, you only have one preparation period every other day, which is just exhausting when you have to be on and present with your students for essentially eight hours straight because the 20 minute lunch break you get is not really enough to sustain yourself through that kind of day.

James Brown:                  What don’t we get about teaching for us non teachers out here?

Sydney Boyega:                  I think the number one thing I see is that a lot of people assume that teaching is easy because most people went through a K-12 school. But that’s like saying that I know how to direct Star Wars because I watched the Star Wars movies a couple times. There’s a lot more paperwork and planning. You have kids who have special accommodations because of a disability that you have to specifically alter your entire lesson for. Oftentimes because of the shortages of support staff, you don’t get the support that you need where you can pull that kid, one on one, aside. They don’t realize that the parent aspect is pretty complex. Typically, every time you discipline a child, you have to call the parents, which has just added another layer of stuff to do. It’s not just what we’re doing in the classroom, it’s all the other stuff. No teacher that I know, no good teacher dislikes the classroom or the students. That’s everyone’s favorite part. The parts that we don’t like and that are getting harder are these planning elements that take up way more time than just getting to be with the kids and help them learn all they can.

James Brown:                  How long have you been teaching?

Sydney Boyega:                  This is actually my fifth year, so I’m beating the statistic. The statistic is that most people do not make it to five years of teaching. So, after this year I’ll have been a statistic theater.

James Brown:                  So I take it you’ve lost a lot of friends who came in with you?

Sydney Boyega:                  Yes, I have, most of my fellow first year teaching friends. I graduated with I think a group of 10 that I’ve been pretty close to. And I believe only five are still teachers and most everyone is still looking at maybe the possibility of having a second option available to them if they feel like they also can’t sustain teaching anymore.

James Brown:                  How long do you think you’ll last?

Sydney Boyega:                  I would really, really, really like to be in the game at least for another 10 years. I don’t know if I’ll be able to. I’m hoping that by drawing the line I’m drawing now I’m able to stay in the profession longer and be a better teacher for the kids because at the end of the day, that’s who it’s about is the kids. You want them to learn from experienced teachers. And first year teachers are great, but it’s also hard. You’re learning how to be a grownup and also do all these new things that you’ve never done before and it can get a little chaotic in the classroom when you’re very, very brand new. So I’d like to stay as long as I can.

James Brown:                  Do you seek advice from older teachers? How do they react to these kinds of stressors and issues?

Sydney Boyega:                  Yes, I absolutely seek advice from older teachers. I think that they’re the best wealth of resources available to anyone who’s been teaching for less than five years. I know that some of them have said draw the line. That’s actually why I decided this year I needed to take a step back, not put everything as a number one priority because they said, you cannot burn yourself out. I know you’re thinking, if I don’t do it, who else will? But also you have to think about if you burn out, then who’s going to be there for the kids? So they’re the ones who have inspired me to take that step.

James Brown:                  Any famous last words, Sidney?

Sydney Boyega:                  I guess my only famous last words is if you’re a parent out there, please be understanding with your children’s teachers. We’re doing the best that we can and we love your kids. They’re the best part of our job, but we also have, if we’re lucky, 20 of them, but now with the staffing shortages, probably more like 30 or 40 of them. And we’re trying to put everyone’s kid first, but it is a difficult task.

James Brown:                  If you like to show, write us a review on Apple Podcast or wherever you’re listening. And do me a favor, share with a friend. What do you think of the show and how has work changed for you? And what are your thoughts on teachers, parents, and education? Let me know by email at jabrown@usa today.com or leave me a message at (585) 484-0339. We might have you on the show. Thanks to Sidney Boega and Alia Wong for joining me and to Alexis Gustin for her production assistance. Taylor Wilson will be back tomorrow morning. For all of us at USA Today, thanks for listening. I’m James Brown, and as always, be well.