Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators
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Burning the Candle at Both Ends: Educator Resignations and Mental Health

Seeing kids run through the hallway is one of the greatest joys of Stephanie Stoebe’s job: “Some teachers yell at them to stop and walk, but it really fills your heart with joy when a kid wants to be the first person in your classroom.”

But like many other educators, Stoebe’s joy has been tempered by the challenges facing public education in a pandemic-weary world. These issues have not gone unnoticed by media outlets. A quick Google search for “teacher resignation” yields a flood of articles discussing “The Great Resignation” in the education sphere.

When the pandemic first unfolded in March 2020 and schools were forced to shut down, a myriad of feel-good stories followed: signs in teachers’ yards, parades, and creative digital classrooms. A full year of masking, social distancing, and hybrid/remote learning followed.

With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and a significant drop in cases across Texas in spring 2021, the new school year was positioned to bring back a sense of normalcy that students, parents, and educators desperately needed.

Waiting for “normal”

What should have been a year marking a return to normalcy has been anything but. In Stoebe's case, a lack of substitute teachers, intense workload, and new laws have weighed heavily on her mental health.

“I have never had to work so late every day,” she says. “I get to school at 6:45 and leave at 5. I could leave later and still not be done. My husband had to have an intervention with me! We were eating in front of the TV instead of sitting down at the table.  My house was a wreck, and I never had time to ride my bike. Things started getting really bad, and I had to reach out to use the counseling services provided by my employer. I was an Army interrogator; I don’t cry easily.”

Stoebe is just one of over 330,000 teachers in Texas facing shifting challenges in the 2021-22 school year. Before the pandemic, her main concern as a teacher was “… making sure that we kept passion in education. I wanted teaching to be seen as a viable and respected career. That is still a concern as more than 30,000 teachers have left the profession since the pandemic started. People have seen now how teachers are being burdened. … With this shift, we need to make sure that the decisions being made on how to run the classrooms and learning are being made by the people in the classrooms.”

As new variants and political battles add fuel to the ongoing public health crisis, those people in the classrooms find themselves in a culture war. What they teach, what books they can use to teach, and their dedication to their profession seem to be under more scrutiny than ever before—with one public figure outright referring to public education as a “babysitting service” on Twitter in January.

Lockhart ISD Superintendent Mark Estrada has observed this shift in sentiment and speculates that the negativity stems from the uncertainty that we are all grappling with in light of a seemingly never-ending pandemic.

Estrada has spent the past 10 years of his career in Lockhart, a small but rapidly growing Central Texas town approximately 30 miles south of Austin. The city’s unprecedented growth, paired with the pandemic, has presented a multitude of challenges to the district. These obstacles are multifaceted; the ripple effects of COVID-19 are not only felt in the community yearning for a return to normal but also in the local economy.

Housing—in light of rapid growth—is hard to come by; though relief is on the way with multiple developments in the planning phase, the current reality has students and educators alike reeling. In a survey conducted by the school district, the vast majority of educators said they would live in town if it were affordable. Approximately 70% of Lockhart ISD’s educators commute from neighboring counties, with some coming from as far away as San Antonio.

Many working-age students in the district skip class to go to work, according to Estrada. Their decision to earn money during school hours is often borne of necessity to help contribute to their household’s expenses. Estrada says many students take advantage of the grace the schools extend for late assignments.

“We have kids who are saying, ‘My family needs this $500 this month,’” Estrada says. “That’s the reality that our kids are living in.”

The many facets of mental health

Back on campus, Estrada sees firsthand the issues that need to be addressed—in students and educators alike.

In the past 18 months, the district has had to communicate more frequently with Child Protective Services (CPS) due to higher incidences of child abuse and neglect. Many students have entered the “real world” before graduating high school just to help their families make rent or cover utilities, and some have lost loved ones to COVID-19.

District employees have also experienced the trauma of losing colleagues to COVID-19. Multiple bus drivers passed away last summer from the virus, and several others resigned shortly after—citing a fear for their health and safety.

Lockhart ISD allocated $900,000 toward new counselors, but after coming up short in a search for candidates, Estrada says the district had to enlist the help of a vendor to provide counselors for each school.

Other factors impacting mental health for educators include incorporating recent legislation into the classroom—most notably HB 4545, the law requiring supplemental accelerated instruction for students who do not pass sections of the STAAR. The law has been called “out of touch” by those who are tasked with putting the law into practice. Stoebe notes the expectations can be overwhelming.

“Things change so much—too much,” she says. “As soon as we implement everything we have to do, the requirements change. I never used to let anything fall through the cracks. This year? Well, I get the stuff done that I have to and then pick a few of the other important things to do. That’s all that I can accomplish.”

Estrada, himself a former educator, concurs: “We’re in the third school year affected by the pandemic. There’s an increased level of urgency to get our students back on track, but [HB 4545] is unrealistic. Teachers are already doing what they need to do to ensure their students are learning and not being burdened by these new laws.”

Alex*, who’s been an educator for over 10 years, agrees there is already enough happening on campus to introduce “cumbersome” legislation.

“We are already stressed with larger class sizes … with that comes the issue of managing a class that big,” Alex says.

Staff shortages exacerbate the issue—not only in the classroom but also all the way up to administration. Alex says: “Discipline issues happen every year, but they’re harder to deal with when you also face a staffing shortage. It’s like a revolving door at the principal’s office. Administrators have to expedite everyone, and kids are attuned to when administrators don’t have time to properly address their issues.”

Alex worries these compounding issues will hurt public education in the long run: “The country is very divided,” Alex says. “What we’re seeing is the veil coming off.”

As a veteran teacher, Alex is no stranger to disruptive students or dissatisfied parents, but the preexisting problems that plagued schools seem to be intensified by the pandemic.

Although technology was instrumental in keeping people connected while schools were fully remote, the popularity of social media platforms, such as TikTok, has given rise to disruption on a scale not seen before. 

Marcia Glasgow, an English Language Arts teacher in Priddy ISD, agrees:

“Social media has such a stranglehold on young people today. They are inundated with online activities. They communicate in this manner, along with watching videos, movies, and numerous other things. Video games play an important role in many of their lives. Their desire to be ‘connected’ in some way is almost an addiction. Attaining and keeping their interest in classroom subject matter is of major concern to me.”

Referring to the “Slap a Teacher” challenge that circulated on TikTok in October 2021, Alex says: “A lot of the negatives of teaching have come to light. People don’t want to get into a profession where you might get assaulted and have no recourse.”

A profession in peril?

Alex’s concerns about a dwindling pool of new educators may not be far off. According to 2019-20 TEA data, the number of newly certified teachers fell approximately 19% from the previous academic year.

According to Estrada, this is the first year in his decade at Lockhart ISD that the district has faced a certified teacher shortage—and not only in the traditionally high-demand positions, such as STEM.

Estrada believes the public perception of education is driving the shortage of qualified teacher candidates.

“Teachers need to be treated better,” he says. “I try to visit all of my campuses once a week to see the good things they’re doing. A lot of what people see from the outside is the negatives. It seemed like last year parents were more understanding. [Now], teachers say parents are not as supportive as they were, or they’re being blamed for not doing enough.” 

Administration support is vital in these challenging times—though it can take on different forms depending on the size and needs of the district. In Glasgow’s district, the motto is family first. 

“If a member of the staff needs to be absent, for whatever reason, [administrators] are totally supportive,” Glasgow says.

Alex credits his administration with being teacher-centered. “Their expectations are high, but they’ve established a culture of support and understanding. We know why they’re doing what they’re doing,” he says.

In Stoebe’s district, administration has shifted priorities, so educators can focus on more pressing items. “Do we need to each be on three different committees to improve our school and our profession? No. Let’s drop some of the minimally impactful habits that we have picked up. Let’s teach.”

Perseverance in the face of adversity

Stoebe, Glasgow, and Alex are quick to point out the positives. Despite the rapid changes brought about by staffing shortages, new legislation, and other factors that take a toll on mental health, all three still take the time to savor the little things that keep them going.

“According to fourth graders, angles, the Texas Revolution, forms of energy, and Greek mythology are fun stuff,” Stoebe says. “I went into education so nobody would want to leave. Moments like [these] keep me going. And the little random Post-Its that say, ‘I love you, Mrs. Stoebe.’”

“Letters of recommendation—I love doing those,” Alex says. “Just thinking of where they can take the knowledge I’ve imparted is truly rewarding.”

Glasgow says: “The most rewarding part of my career has been the relationships I have enjoyed and maintained with students. I have always searched for common ground with every student. My students know that I care about them first and foremost. Of course, I want them to learn subject matter, but I take pride in them knowing that I was, and continue to be, interested in them and their lives. I maintain contact with several former students and am always happy to reconnect with one.”

Going forward

As educators move forward through the uncertainty of a global pandemic, the hope for a brighter future prevails. And although Alex worries about the future of education, he says with the right resources, new teachers can thrive.

“A mentor’s experience is valuable to someone who’s starting out. Sometimes those mentoring relationships occur in unofficial capacities,” Alex says. “Those open lines of communication can be lifesavers for new teachers who are struggling.”

Stoebe agrees; she eagerly takes student interns under her wing but takes care to balance optimism and caution when she discusses the future with them. “I want to be positive but at the same time realistic with students who are getting into the profession,” she says. “I tell them [these challenges we’re experiencing] are ‘today’s truth’—not the reality, but the anomaly.”

A longtime member of ATPE, Stoebe’s advocacy for her profession extends well beyond the classroom—including testimony for the HB 3 Reading Academies. She plans to continue her advocacy efforts because “I believe [public education] can be saved.  I want to help more teachers find their voice so there is a bigger group fighting for what is right. I have too much to do right now in the public schools to leave.”

As for Glasgow, who is nearing the end of her teaching career, weighing when to leave the classroom isn’t about reaching a breaking point but making a conscious, carefully considered decision on whether she has the spark to continue for another year.

“To truly show the kids that you love them, you must be fully invested in them.  So, [every summer] I assess my health and whether I still have the ‘fire’ to teach another year. Some teachers don’t realize when to say when. I will.”

*Not his real name.


Author: Jennifer Tuten