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After more than a decade of teaching theater and English – work which earned her multiple teaching recognitions – Estella Owoimaha-Church decided to leave the classroom this summer.
The recent Los Angeles Unified School District employee had reached a breaking point, much like the hundreds of thousands of other teachers across the country who have exited the profession over the past couple of years due to stressors related to the coronavirus pandemic – along with what many describe as a lack of respect for their profession.
Some education leaders sounded the alarm about a teacher shortage long before COVID-19 came into the picture. But the stress that came with the global health crisis proved the final straw for many.
United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing teachers in L.A. Unified, surveyed its members and found 70% of educators in the nation’s second-largest school district have considered leaving the profession because of the pandemic or other reasons.
At the same time, the National Education Association in February said a majority (55%) of educators were more likely to leave the profession earlier than expected due to pandemic-related stressors. And a recent Gallup report stated that K-12 workers experienced the highest level of burnout of any industry nationally.
Educators reported feeling overwhelmed when schools returned to in-person learning and colleagues who tested positive for the coronavirus were forced to stay home, leaving those on campus to take on additional workloads.
At the same time, they say they’re made the scapegoats for low student performance when the root causes are related to poverty and other societal ills that extend beyond the school campus.
Others say they continue to feel the wrath of parents who blamed teachers unions for prolonged pandemic-related school closures.
L.A. Unified was slower than other districts in the region to return to in-person learning, which occurred in April 2021 after more than a year of distance learning. The majority of UTLA members had previously voted to refuse to return to campuses until certain health-and-safety conditions were met – something which union officials said was not only for the protection of employees, but for students as well.
Some parents also criticized union leaders for not agreeing to more live online instruction during distance learning prior to the return to campus.
Owoimaha-Church believes a lack of respect for, and the demands placed on, teachers have worsened since the pandemic.
When the pandemic struck, teachers were expected to pivot overnight to online learning, and were then “vilified” when they returned to in-person learning and asked for strong COVID-19 health-and-safety measures, she said.
Owoimaha-Church said of the past 2½ years that educators were “constantly given additional responsibilities while being gaslit and told we’re not doing enough, but also, ‘You should take care of yourself,’ but also, ‘You should feel guilty’” for not giving more personal time to students.
“We were guilted and shamed like ‘You should feel a moral obligation to make kids feel normal again.’ Sure, there’s a part of me that wants to make all that happen, but we’re not normal right now,” she said.
To add insult to injury, she said, teachers feel their opinions aren’t valued.
“When we say now is not the time to over-test kids, but they force us to do it anyway, and then turn around and blame us for the low scores, that demoralizes us,” said Owoimaha-Church, who in 2017 was a top 50 finalist for a Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, which recognizes educators from around the world. Last year, she received the Outstanding Theatre Educator Award from the California Educational Theatre Association.
For decades, educators have lamented that low wages discourage people from entering the profession.
In 2021, teachers in the U.S. typically earned 23.5% less than college-educated individuals in other professions, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute. The situation is only slightly better locally, where the average LAUSD teacher earned 22% less than the typical worker with a bachelor’s degree during the 2019-20 school year, according to UTLA.
Given the area’s high cost of living, many teachers, particularly those early in their careers, say they struggle to make ends meet. Two in three LAUSD educators can’t afford to live in the communities where they work, the union said.
In 2021, LAUSD officials reported that a first-year teacher in the district who spent no more than 30% of their gross income on rent would not be able to afford the average rent in L.A. Anyone who spends more than 30% of their income on housing is considered “rent burdened” by the federal government.
The union, which is in the midst of contract negotiations with the district, has asked for a 10% raise each of the next two years for its members, in addition to improvements to workplace conditions.
“Los Angeles Unified acknowledges that economic conditions, including insufficient pay, critical hardships and the COVID-19 pandemic, have complicated teacher recruitment nationwide,” the school district said in a statement.
Due to a staffing shortage last school year, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho deployed non-classroom employees with teaching credentials to temporarily fill classroom vacancies – a strategy that’s ongoing this school year.
Last week, Carvalho said there were 400-plus job candidates in the process of completing their paperwork to become permanent teachers. Once they’re hired, the other district employees who are temporarily deployed to classrooms may return to their regular assignments.
To attract more job applicants, the district has provided hiring incentives, partnered with local colleges and universities to match with students going through teacher preparation programs, and has created alternative certification programs and expanded its targeted recruitment initiatives.
Additionally, the district said it’s expanding partnerships with local entities to address housing affordability and working conditions for families and employees.
It’s not just low wages that have some looking for the exit.
Melodie Bitter, who works at Lorne Street Elementary in Northridge, is an intervention coordinator who’s spent her career working in special education, an area sorely in need of more teachers.
After 35 years as an educator, Bitter is contemplating retiring early in two years, fed up with district practices she believes aren’t always in the best interest of her students. On top of that, there aren’t enough personnel to help with the students, some of whom are nonverbal or need constant supervision, she said.
“We’re not getting the support from the district, and there’s not enough aides,” she said.
Additionally, the district previously offered professional development during regular work hours, and substitute teachers filled in while she attended training sessions. But increasingly, she said, such courses are offered on Saturdays. Even if teachers are compensated, it means giving up part of their weekend.
“Part of what’s burning people out is you don’t have time for yourself,” Bitter said. “Some of the stress just is not worth it anymore.”
Research suggests teacher burnout may be linked to lower student academic achievement and motivation.
Alicia Montgomery, executive director of the L.A.-based Center for Powerful Public Schools, said to improve teacher recruitment and retention rates, educators need to be supported. When she was teaching, she recalled many hours — including on weekends and over the summer — that she put into creating lesson plans and a culturally responsive environment.
“We just expect teachers to do it,” she said. “Nobody thinks about what’s already on their plate. … It’s almost like they’re expected to be martyrs.”
She and others are also advocating for pay for student teachers who work full-time in schools while completing their credentialing programs. In many districts, these positions are unpaid.
A spokesperson for L.A. Unified said while the district does not compensate student teachers, it partners with local colleges or universities that offer teacher residency programs, which provide stipends to cover individuals’ living expenses.
State and federal officials are also taking notice of the teacher shortage and the need to address recruitment and retention issues.
On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Secretary of Labor Martin Walsh sent a joint letter to school districts, encouraging them to increase teacher pay and to expand apprenticeship programs and other pathways for people to enter the profession, including providing scholarships or stipends.
Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education and president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization, said there are signs the teacher shortage problem can be reversed.
Between the 2016-17 and the 2020-21 school years, the number of students completing teacher preparation programs in California increased 37%, she said. She credited the state for recent investments to entice more people to go into education.
The state has invested $3.6 billion over the past four years to support educator recruitment, retention and training.
This includes a grant program that provides up to $20,000 to students who are in preparation programs to become teachers, counselors, social workers or school psychologists — if they commit to working four years in a “priority school” where the need for more fully credentialed teachers is greatest. The state has also set aside funds to expand residency programs and to support a program to get more classified school employees credentialed as teachers.
Recent state investments in community schools that provide health clinics, social services, tutoring and other resources for students and families onsite will help with staff retention as well, Darling-Hammond said.
“All of those things end up helping teachers stay in the profession because they don’t have to be everything to every person. They can rely on these resources,” she said. “There are a lot of things coming into the pipeline that are making teaching in many schools more attractive.”
Time will tell whether it will be enough.
Owoimaha-Church, who is now the executive director for Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, an advocacy organization, admits she’s conflicted about whether she’ll ever return to the classroom.
She likened the challenging environment that educators work in to being in an abusive relationship.
“That’s how a lot of teachers feel – that we are in an abusive relationship and we keep coming back because ‘It’s for the kids,’” she said.
“I know the classroom is where I’m supposed to be,” she continued. But, she added, “I need time to recover and just put my spirit back together.”
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