COVID-19 safety protocols and staffing shortages are among the factors contributing what 41.5% of Oregon City teachers call "unsustainable" stress levels impacting their physical and/or mental health.
Oregon City Education Association's survey confirmed what many teachers had already suspected, that 80% of teachers agree that current workloads are heavier compared to a pre-pandemic school year, forcing most teachers to work evenings and weekends. "Student behavior" and "additional student needs related to the pandemic" were listed by most teachers in the survey as contributing to increased workloads.
"Anecdotally, it seems this year is creating a lot of stress for many of my peers," wrote one of the survey's 299 anonymous respondents, out of the 460 total OCEA members who were asked to take the survey.
TikTok threats on Dec. 17 were the latest incident leading to rising tensions between teachers and administrators at U.S. public schools. Police surrounded Oregon City schools, and dozens of teachers refused to come to work in protest of the administration's response to keep Gardiner Middle School open despite a student's suspension for posting a realistic weapons along with threats to harm.
In a Dec. 13 speech to Oregon City's elected school officials, OCEA President and Redland Elementary teacher Brenda Roland characterized the "Workload Relief and Staffing Crisis" survey results as a "cry for help" from teachers. Roland said school board members have frequently said they care about school staff, and encouraged those elected officials to translate that caring into action before more teachers resign.
"Teachers are struggling, and if we continue at this pace, I'm extremely concerned with the end result," Roland said. "Oregon City School District cannot afford to lose our highly qualified, dedicated and experienced workforce."
Roland said a survey of classified staff in Oregon City would probably yield similar results. Lisa Bolan, an instructional assistant at OC's Gardiner Middle School, agreed the issues are not limited to certified teachers, and that OC staff morale is the worst she's seen it in her 15 years with the school district.
"But having friends in other districts in other states, I can also tell you that it's happening everywhere," Bolan said. "We are also understaffed and sorely lacking substitutes. The number of subs has dropped by half in the state in one year."
Bolan said many students are academically behind after not engaging in remote learning during COVID. Increasingly bad student behaviors are also challenging classified staff and certified teachers alike, exacerbating problems that had already been simmering prior to the pandemic.
"Their jobs in the classroom have become more stressful because of those things, but their responsibilities for professional development, etc., have not eased, and they feel like they are not getting the support they need from administration," she said.
To remedy the issues, more than 80% of OC teachers recommended going to a four-day student week, to create one day a week of teacher planning time. That suggestion is unlikely to sit well with the newly elected majority of the OC School Board who campaigned on the promise of returning kids to five full days of instructional time a week. OC's interim superintendent has also responded with a goal to "keep kids in school" while addressing teacher concerns.
Potentially more politically feasible solutions listed in the survey include converting two or more student-instructional days this year to planning days, an option supported by 89% of OC teachers. A reduced number/length of staff meetings was considered by more than 68% of respondents to be a helpful or extremely helpful suggestion for mitigating increased workloads. Getting rid of mandated Educator Professional Development in favor of planning time for teachers was considered to be even more of a potential boon, with nearly 90% of educators seeing it as helpful or extremely helpful suggestion for "significant workload relief."
Roland said that, despite the toll on teachers' mental and physical lives, they believe in public education.
"They are even willing to sacrifice themselves for their students to make sure their students thrive now and have the skills necessary to succeed in the future," she said. "Simply put, we love our job and care deeply for the young people in our classrooms. At this point, though, I know our dedicated teachers cannot keep up this pace, and I worry gravely about what it is doing to their mental and physical health and longevity in this career."
'Trying to problem-solve'
During their Dec. 13 meeting, OC School Board members expressed general support for helping teachers but didn't make any specific pledges or plans other than to keep listening to concerns.
"I want to be part of the solution," said OC School Board Chair Mandi Philpott.
Roland encouraged the elected officials to see the urgency of finding remedies to teacher burnout. Bolan agreed with the teacher survey's suggestion that the administration could immediately reduce the number of meetings required of teachers, such as goal setting and evaluations.
"Admin could also be more present in our classrooms to observe behaviors and where students are at academically, and then give specific, practical help and advice on how to deal with specific situations and students, as opposed to a general meeting, where the latest trending strategies are given, and then told if we use these, there should be no problems," Bolan said.
Interim Superintendent Kyle Laier said that many solutions would have to be done in negotiations between the teachers' union and HR Director John Ogden.
"We're trying to problem-solve to support our educators while still ensuring that we keep our kids in school and give them the education that they need," Laier said.
Ogden used the phrase "team effort" in describing ongoing initiatives between administrators and teachers to provide educators with needed support in classrooms.
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