Teachers across state say pandemic-related job stress is driving dissatisfaction

Shortly after school started last fall, Oregon teachers were already burning out. PMG PHOTO: ANGEL ROSAS  - To combat some of the stress that students may have returning to in-person, many Oregon school districts have hired mental health specialists.

A return from distance learning coupled with staffing shortages in many school districts meant educators had higher workloads and more stress.

In a handful of districts, including Portland, Eugene, Beaverton and Hillsboro, more than 80% of teachers said they couldn't get all their work done during regular hours. In Clackamas County, 41.5% of Oregon City teachers surveyed last fall cited "unsustainable stress levels."

"In far too many districts, staff are keeping schools functioning through long working hours and sheer will," Oregon Education Association leaders noted in a January report called 'Education at a Breaking Point.'

The report used surveys compiled from several districts. It mirrored results from a national survey of educators who said they planned to leave the profession sooner than expected due to pandemic-related stress. COURTESY PHOTO: NCSD - First-grade teacher Kirsten Luettgerodt and Ardenwald Elementary Principal Karon Webster welcome students onto the bus during an orientation session for kindergarteners in 2019.

Reed Scott-Schwalbach is president of the Oregon Education Association. Scott-Schwalbach said OEA hasn't updated its surveys since the winter report, but across the state, the union is seeing teachers struggling to earn a living wage in places like Marion and Deschutes counties. Elsewhere, unions are advocating for smaller class sizes to reduce their workloads, while administrators in districts like Newberg have left over controversial decisions and political differences with elected leadership.

"In so many districts, people were saying, 'I'm stressed, I've reached a point where I have to leave this profession,'" Schwalbach noted.

North Clackamas sees increased departures

The massive turnover OEA's report warned of hasn't taken shape in every district, but some are reporting more retirements and resignations, following the 2021-22 school year.

The North Clackamas School District is now reporting a sharp uptick in employee turnover. In North Clackamas School District, the number of staff retiring this year, 31, is more than double the 14 teachers who retired in 2018-19. Resignations and relocations are also up, from 49 in 2018-19 to 54 and rising so far this summer.

The reasons for the departures vary, but most boil down to work stress or better pay offered elsewhere.

In Portland, the teachers union reported last fall that nearly half its members said they planned to retire early or leave the profession. Teachers said staffing shortages took a toll.

Elizabeth Israel-Davis is a teacher on special assignment, or TOSA. TOSAs are specialists, who often work with other teachers to help students who are struggling in certain subjects. For Israel-Davis, that means deploying reading intervention strategies and working to help children with dyslexia.

But during the 2021-22 school year, she spent roughly half her time shuffling around to fill in as a substitute teacher at different campuses as Portland Public Schools reported a lingering shortage of substitute teachers and educators. It was worst in winter, during the height of COVID-19 omicron outbreaks.

"At one point, we were directed to sub every day in January and February," Israel-Davis recalled. "Often we didn't know where we were going to be until the morning of. Sometimes teachers would leave lesson plans, but other times there were emergency sub plans. You just had to punt and do the best you could. It felt like we were an expendable workforce. They would just send us in to do what nobody else wanted or could do."

She contemplated leaving the profession. Instead, she left the district, taking a job elsewhere.

Overall, Portland Public Schools is reporting less vacancies than three years prior, but in Clackamas County, Lake Oswego teachers union leader Kelly Fitzsimmons was bracing for an uptick in resignations.

"Our retirement numbers were similar to the past three years, but I am fairly certain our resignation numbers are higher than normal based on the conversations I've had with our members and individuals that I know have chosen to resign well before they're due for retirement," Fitzsimmons said.

"Education has always been a difficult career, but the conditions of the pandemic have made it a much more difficult job over the past two years," Fitzsimmons added. "Students need more from their teachers at this time, both academically and emotionally, and there simply isn't enough time in the day for most educators to meet these increasing needs."

In Central Oregon, the issues impacting teachers weren't salary or staffing issues, but COVID rules, pointing to an urban-rural divide. Crook County School District logged 169 religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate for educators at the start of the 2021-22 school year, noting it likely would have lost a big chunk of its workforce without the exemptions.

Educators look for solutions amid persistent burnout

Scott-Scwalbach of OEA said in some cases, the data published in early 2022 was enough to drive changes in labor contracts or working conditions at some schools.

"We were able to sit down with districts and say, 'look, this is not just anecdotal evidence, we have hard data that says people are (considering leaving),'" Schwalbach said, noting districts that collaborate with their unions to find solutions usually see less turnover.

Even if teachers aren't leaving immediately the survey results from several unions point to growing dissatisfaction and increased burnout among Oregon's education workforce. Teachers and union leaders say Oregon legislators could fix that by devoting more funds per student, to address increased needs and keep staffing levels stable.

Oregon ranks 20th in the nation for spending per student, according to data released by the National Education Association in April.

Educators also say scheduling could alleviate workload stress.

Israel-Davis, the Portland teacher, said many districts around the country have a weekly early dismissal or late start schedule to give teachers time to plan and collaborate.

"That could go really far in helping everybody deal," she said. "When you can plan and collaborate, you're not constantly reacting."

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