Oregon teachers are worn down but hanging in there
For months, surveys have warned that teachers around the country are contemplating leaving the profession, but in Oregon, teachers haven’t quit en masse – yet.
Tim Yeomans, Oregon School Personnel Association executive director, said that although some school districts have had more resignations and retirements than usual, the state as a whole hasn’t seen a significant increase.
“There is not a massive exodus out of the system, but there are still challenges in hiring,” Yeomans said.
At this point, about 95% of the teachers for next year have signed a contract, he said, although many districts are struggling to find teachers in specialty areas such as higher math and sciences and special education. Many school districts are also dealing with high administrative turnover and finding classified staff such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers.
A sampling of a half-dozen school districts around the state, though, found districts confident they will have enough teachers. Salem-Keizer Public Schools, for instance, reports licensed staff resignations and retirements are more than double the previous year, but new hires are also nearly double with almost two months to go until school starts. Those new hires include teachers who retired but have been hired back on temporary contracts, which could presage a coming crunch.
Baker School District reports a similar situation, saying its loss numbers this year are consistent with previous years but it is expecting more retirements in the near future.
National teacher job satisfaction hit an all-time low in 2022, with 44% saying they are likely to leave the profession in the next two years, according to the Merrimack College Teacher Survey.
Teachers around the country report this school year was unusually demanding, with students who don’t know how to act in school and who have fallen behind during distance learning. Meanwhile, politics is interfering more with what teachers can do in their classrooms.
Yeomans said several factors beyond the pandemic stresses come into play with staff losses. Some districts are losing staff, especially classified employees, to rising wages in other fields. And a couple of districts have suffered from school boards’ political turmoil, with staff moving to more stable environments.
On the other side of the ledger, bumps in pay and the return to some normalcy with its lessening of parent frustrations have helped retain teachers, Yeomans said. Educators say support from school leaders and attention to work-life balance matter more than bonuses.
“We’re definitely not in a situation where anybody could call this optimal,” Yeomans said. “But there is not a collective hue and cry that this is unmanageable and we’re not going to make it.”
Statewide data on teacher retirements won’t be available until the fall, but Yeomans said the number of teachers in their first five years who resign will be the “canary in the coal mine” of a coming crisis.
Education leaders are particularly concerned about the recent years’ impact on young teachers. When an early-career teacher steps away, schools lose 20-30 years of a spot being filled.
Third grade teacher Josephine Reddington has been working with the La Grande School District for five years and started as a teacher in 2019. This year, she resigned.
“I realized it’s not what I want,” she said.
Reddington said the past few years have piled educators’ plates with demands beyond teaching and it has taken a toll on her health. She was spending most weekends and evenings working, and she wants more time with her family.
She also realized at this early stage of her working life, she could take a chance on using all the things she loves about teaching to pursue a career related to sports coaching and nutrition. Reddington added that a better work-life balance in schools would make her consider returning to teaching.
La Grande Superintendent George Mendoza said teachers cannot sustain the time and energy being asked to meet student needs well beyond academics. Although the district’s retirement and resignation numbers are similar to recent years, teachers are letting Mendoza know the work has gotten harder. The students are traumatized and have fallen behind and society isn’t always treating teachers with respect, he said.
Nearly 60% of teachers say they are burned out, compared with 44% of U.S. workers, according to a recent RAND Corporation study. The Oregon Education Association produced a report earlier this year that said teachers were at the “breaking point.”
School boards can offer some stabilizing support. The Bend-La Pine School District is not seeing a big departure mostly because the district has good relationships between administrators and teachers and has listened to teachers’ requests on issues such as pay and class size, according to board Chair Melissa Barnes Dholakia.
“Our board has been very visible and vocal that we support our teachers,” she said.
Katrina Llona, a special education teacher in the Gresham-Barlow School District, said time with her family is the main reason for leaving full-time teaching but a lack of administrative support contributed to her decision.
“We’re in the trenches, and we need them to know what is going on,” she said. “Being connected through email is not enough.”
Llona will continue teaching part time as a substitute. Her skills are in high demand, and she likes the flexibility of being able to work where and when she wants.
“If a day goes bad, I don’t have to go back,” she said.
Llona considers her pay fair for teaching academic lessons but says educators are being asked to do too many extras. The pandemic has increased student needs, and Llona wants school boards to understand how much schools need additional staff to offer emotional and mental health care.
“I feel like we’re being held responsible to pick up the pieces, and we don’t have enough training for that,” she said. “There is so much going on outside of the school hours that we can’t help support, but the trauma comes to us during the school day.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA