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School is out, but teacher stress and burnout is still in session

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Last December, this was how one educator described how his colleagues were doing.

MICHAEL REINHOLDT: The teachers are - they're just feeling overwhelmed. And they're breaking down underneath it. I find people crying in the bathroom.

CHANG: This was the height of the omicron variant. Schools were trying to return to normal after two years of closures, illness and disruption. And Michael Reinholdt, a teacher coach in Davenport, Iowa, said teachers there were drowning.

REINHOLDT: These people are just breaking down under the pressures here because of how much responsibility they're expected to handle. And then simply they're just not given enough time to deal with all of the things that they have to do.

CHANG: And of course, now there's the question of basic safety at schools in the wake of yet another horrific school shooting. Well, as this school year comes to a close, we wanted to know how teachers are coping. Michael Reinholdt joins us again to talk about what has changed, if anything, these past few months. Also joining him are Suzen Polk-Hoffses, a pre-K teacher in Milbridge, Maine, and Tiki Boyea-Logan, a fourth-grade teacher in Rowlett, Texas. Welcome to all three of you.

TIKI BOYEA-LOGAN: Thank you.

REINHOLDT: Thank you.

SUZEN POLK-HOFFSES: Thank you.

CHANG: So, Michael, I want to start with you. Do you still feel the same way you did compared to the last time we spoke, that teachers are drowning? Has it gotten any better the last six months? What do you think?

REINHOLDT: I'm really glad that you were able to play that clip because it reminded me of what it was like at the beginning of the year. And honestly, I feel like we've been thrown an inner tube. So we're floating, but we're only halfway back to the ship. We have a lot of work to do.

CHANG: Well, all of you are dealing with so much now, but I think one thing that is probably at the front of everyone's minds is safety in your classrooms on campus after this shooting in Uvalde. Tiki, what is it like being a teacher in Texas right now?

BOYEA-LOGAN: I'm in an elementary school, and so we are always kind of paying attention. And, you know, you see something, say something. But this current shooting...

CHANG: Right.

BOYEA-LOGAN: ...You know, brought it all back. And I was telling the producer that my husband a couple years ago bought me a bulletproof backpack, I mean, for my job as a teacher. I just...

CHANG: Wow.

BOYEA-LOGAN: Saying that out loud is just so...

CHANG: He bought that for you...

BOYEA-LOGAN: For me.

CHANG: ...A couple years ago?

BOYEA-LOGAN: A couple of years ago. And so it's like, man, I need to make sure it's in there, bring it in the classroom. And just thinking about saying that in a elementary school setting, it's just so ridiculous. But, I mean, that's just what we're dealing with right now, unfortunately.

CHANG: Yeah. I mean, it is just one more thing on top of a pile of things that teachers are worried about. And the last time we spoke, there was a lot of struggle. We talked about the fact that kids were not just behind academically, that they were behind socially and emotionally as well. Tiki, I'm curious because you're a fourth-grade teacher. Is this something you were also struggling...

BOYEA-LOGAN: Oh.

CHANG: ...With in your classroom?

BOYEA-LOGAN: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like at the beginning of the school year, I basically got second-graders because that's when they were - you know, the point where they were in school full time. And so...

CHANG: So even though you were a fourth-grade teacher, you were teaching kids who were emotionally at the second-grade level, you felt?

BOYEA-LOGAN: Yes, and academically. And so, you know, we're back to working miracles. Like, hey; we need to get these kids caught up. We need to, you know, fill these gaps.

CHANG: Yeah.

BOYEA-LOGAN: Again, just more and more pressure. And we're like, hey; these kids have been through a lot.

CHANG: Well, it's not just delayed development that you've been dealing with. There are kids right now who are struggling with serious mental health challenges. We're talking depression, anxiety. How much of this have you all encountered in your own classrooms the last several months?

POLK-HOFFSES: I teach pre-K, so for me, the children are just coming to me fresh. But I have seen my former students. I've heard from my colleagues who have said that they're very worried about the students that they had this year because they saw a lot of depression. Someone even brought up cutting, that they were afraid that a student would begin cutting again. Students were learning in isolation. Then they came back, and they're overwhelmed, and they've experienced a trauma. And unfortunately, all schools aren't equipped to deal with the trauma that these students have experienced during the pandemic.

CHANG: Right. We've been talking about how the kids have been doing this entire conversation. Can I just check in with each of you? How are you doing? School's out now. I mean, how are you feeling at this moment?

POLK-HOFFSES: I'm holding up better than I expected. I just worry about our young educators who haven't been in the field as long as I have. I've been in the field of teaching for 21 years, and I just want to let the young educators know, please don't leave the profession. That's my fear, is that during the summer, they'll just say, I just can't do this anymore because it was just too hard.

CHANG: Tiki?

BOYEA-LOGAN: Well, right now, I'm great, right?

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: You're on vacation.

BOYEA-LOGAN: I'm in Spain. I'm on vacation. But this year has been tough. I have thought many times, you know, not even do I want to do this - because I do; I love it - but can I continue doing this? You know, I feel like they expect us to juggle, you know, 18 different balls and hop on one foot (laughter), you know, while saying our ABCs backwards. I mean, that's how it feels. And, like, it doesn't seem like there's any relief in sight. Everybody wants to come up with a way to fix these gaps. And their solutions - I feel like they don't necessarily ask classroom teachers. They're coming up with these ideas that are just causing more and more work. And it is so hard.

CHANG: So at this point, a question to all three of you, how committed do you feel to sticking with your profession, with your careers?

BOYEA-LOGAN: I'm very committed. I don't want to leave education on a sour note, you know? Like, I feel like for the most part that it'll get better. Hopefully, this year has taught these legislators and upper management of these school districts that there are different ways that we can get these students where they need to be without stressing their teachers out. I'm hoping they look at the data and see that massive amounts of people are leaving. And I hope they really look at that and really ask these teachers and really pay attention to their answers about why they're leaving. You know, what can we do to fix this? - because if they don't, I mean, they're just going to be hemorrhaging really good teachers for the foreseeable future.

CHANG: Michael?

REINHOLDT: Yeah, I think teachers are naturally eternal optimists. They have to be. They have to believe that every student can achieve. They have to believe that they can move that mountain. So, I mean, I'll be back next year because I'm a glutton for punishment. But I truly think there are a lot of my colleagues that are not going to be returning.

POLK-HOFFSES: And we need teachers. We need teachers. Please, people who are listening to this right now, understand. How can you help support your local schools? You need to because, again, these children are our future. We need them educated. Help us educate them, please - a call to arms, a call to action, please.

CHANG: Well, I am grateful to all three of you for all that you do and for sticking with it. Thank you so much. That was Suzen Polk-Hoffses of Milbridge, Maine, Michael Reinholdt of Davenport, Iowa, and Tiki Boyea-Logan of Rowlett, Texas. I appreciate all three of you so much. Thank you.

BOYEA-LOGAN: Thank you so much.

REINHOLDT: Thank you.

POLK-HOFFSES: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.