Cultivating Healthy Faculties and Staff
by Jill Jenkins
As a gardener, I understand the importance of balancing fertilizer, water and sunlight to create a beautiful rose garden. As a gardener, I understand the vigilance that is required to keep the plants protected from insects, blight and fungus, but as a former educator I cannot understand how state and district administrators are blameless when fewer college students are choosing to become teachers, more teachers are leaving the profession and those who are staying are demonstrating in the streets. As in other industries, cultivating the talent of employees takes not only resources like money and benefits, but also a fair amount of fertilizer, water and sunlight. By that I mean, treating employees honestly and fairly, keeping commitments and supporting them emotionally through stressful situations. A blog that I recently read by Seth Nichols “Why Teachers Are Walking Out,” seems to support my observation. In his blog, he compares teachers to abused housewife who abandons a relationship only after a cumulative effect of years of abuse. He exemplifies this position with the many hours of unpaid work teachers willingly provide before and after contract hours, the countless resources and supplies they purchase with their own funds and the barrage of abuse they endure from parents, students and the media. Finally, after years of endurance, educators like the abused housewife, walk out.
For the most part, I agree with Mr. Nichols article. An abusive spouse will often “string” a spouse along with half-truths and empty promises offering hope for improvement where none exists. Similarly, teachers are often duped by promises made by district or state administrators. For example, when I was teaching, the district technology administrator offered teachers “a free I-Pad and a $200 stipend after completing a six week training in the summer.” Teachers flocked to the workshop only to discover what they meant to say was “the use of an I-Pad provided the teacher remained at the same school in the district and a $200 stipend after the teacher completed the six week summer workshop, twenty hours of workshops during the school year and created a teacher web-site to the administrator’s satisfaction. Many teachers completed the summer workshop and stopped. They felt they had been hoodwinked. I persevered. Even though I already had a web-site, even after the district administrator rejected my new web-site creation three times and even after I called a specialist to show me what I was doing wrong, I persevered. Despite that, the damage was done. I was angry and felt the district had misrepresented the class. Like many incidents, this was not enough to make teachers quit, but the lowering of morale from a serious of insensitive, miscommunications adds to the likelihood that those who can retire early will and those who can transfer to another field will also. Morale is important, not only for maintaing a teaching staff, but also for attracting them.
Abusive relationships are often characterized by a lack of commitment on one person’s part. Healthy relationships require the commitment of both involved. Nevertheless, educators are dependent on the whims of state legislatures for financing. This often creates problems. For example, some years ago the state legislature decided that having two reading specialists in each school would be advantageous. These specialists could continue teaching and train their faculty in incorporate reading across the curriculum. When my principal approached me and asked me if I would be willing to commit to three years of training, once a week from 4-7 P.M. at a school 30 minutes south of my school, I agreed. In exchange for my time, I could look forward to small increase in salary when the training was complete and $200 stipends each six months during the training. After persuading my aging parents, to pick my then ten year old daughter up from her school every Wednesday, feed and care for her, I car pooled weekly with a collogue for the training. The classes were valuable, but after two years, the state legislature eliminated the funding. The state was not committed. Only the teachers were committed, so the program ended Even getting paid our last stipend took over a year. The teachers were disappointed and morale was again low. During the course of my career, many programs and curriculum were discarded after teachers spent hours of their own time developing lessons, and materials. The teachers were rarely consulted or the effects of the decision considered. The actions and lack of commitment on the districts or state’s part affects the morale of teachers and thus their attrition.
Teaching is an emotionally draining career. Not only do teachers spend their own time planning lessons, grading papers and communicating with angry frustrated parents, but also the emotional trauma of students’ lives affects the educators who listen to them and help them sort it out. As a teacher, I heard about physical and sexual abuse, murder, parents who were arrested or deported, parents who were killed, and had students who committed suicide, murdered or assaulted others. Some of my students suffered other disasters. One entire families burned to death. Some were killed in car accidents. Police officers who are not as emotionally close to the public they serve are offered counseling and time off when they witness some emotionally draining event, but teachers are not. Teachers need to be given skills to deal with the emotional stress of teaching. As a teacher I joined a gym, went bike riding with my daughter and walked my dog. Many teachers are given so many extra-curriculum responsibilities, that they do not have time to de-stress. Some districts tell teachers to put the district web-mail on their personal cell phones, so parents can contact them 24/7. First, the district is not offering to pay the cell-phone bill and it is unwise and unhealthy for teachers to be at the beck and call parents 24/7. This is causing teacher burnout. Healthy, happy teachers are more effective. School district need to recognize how overloading teachers emotionally is counter-productive.
According to ”Study Utah Has High Potential for Teacher Turnover and Shortage” by Kern C. Gardner Institute, “40% of Utah educators who started in 2011 were no longer teaching in Utah classroom at the end of their fifth year.” If school districts and the states are serious about keeping teachers, improving benefits and pay is a start, but consider communicating with teachers honestly, keeping promised commitments and providing resources and sensitive decisions to the emotional stress teachers face. Preserving a health teaching staff is like sustaining a health garden. Plants require sunlight, water and fertilizers; teachers require good pay, and benefits. Plants require protection from strangling weeds and insidious insects; teachers require protection from insensitive district communications that misrepresents facts or requirements; the assurance that legislators and school districts will keep their commitments; and the resources and support to cope with the stress related to teaching.