Pandemic stress forces some teachers in Colorado to leave classrooms

DENVER (Associated Press) — Diane Santorico was a year shy of completing her third decade as a teacher when a career that gave her so much joy nearly all came close.

She was sick – physically ill – and tired. The first few weeks of school required that she teach in a second-floor class to bake at 95 degrees while wearing a mask and unable to use the school’s water fountains. She often came home at the end of the day crying, exhausted from heat exhaustion and migraines, until she really had no choice but to put herself first.

“I can’t do this myself anymore,” Santorico, 53, realized.

The veteran teacher has distanced herself from school after she applied for medical leave in September. This leave became permanent in December, when Santorico officially resigned from the Brown International Academy within the Denver Public Schools.

She is not alone in wrapping up the book of her teaching career.

Nearly two years after the pandemic that upended the school day and changed the routine on which teachers and students depend, teachers are finding fewer reasons to stay. Between the stressors they already faced long before COVID-19 — including insufficient wages, long hours of grading and lesson planning — and the new pressures to keep students informed regardless of whether they were learning at home or school, some teachers are transitioning from real-time education. Closer than they expected, or at least thinking of their departure.

A recent report on Colorado State Education published by the Colorado Education Association found that 67% of members surveyed by the teachers’ union said they were considering leaving the field in the near future. That’s a 27 percentage point increase from the 40% of members who indicated they were considering leaving when polling last December.

“These teachers often cite massive workload and low wages as reasons to leave and consider career changes and early retirement,” the report stated.

Meanwhile, the mounting losses to the mental health of teachers are being felt across the state.

Last January at Alamosa High School, for example, nearly 90% of teachers who answered a survey of the school said they had noticed an increase in depression or “feelings of helplessness,” according to Mayra Manzanares, president of the Alamosa Education Association. Nearly 70% said their anxiety had gotten worse, and 56% of teachers responded that they had considered leaving the profession more than three times a year, said Manzanares, who summed up the mental health of Alamosa teachers in one word: “Exhausted.”

The results of the second survey submitted to Alamosa educators in November will be available this month.

CEA President Amy Baka Eulert said teachers are overwhelmed and felt the same kind of fatigue in September and October as they normally do at the end of the school year, particularly as they have experienced a sustained response to the crisis since the start of the pandemic.

She is concerned about the “devastating and long-term consequences” that students and the teaching and education industry in general could face if an influx of teachers flee the classroom, citing a potential class size increase as one example.

You know it’s okay to walk away

Like many teachers, Santorico, who left Brown International Academy last month, has been driven by the ability to help students build each other and drive their motivation to learn.

“The excitement of the students when they really understand something for the first time and make connections with something for the first time and that pure excitement in their eyes and the joy of learning” was what she loved most about her days in the classroom.

But Santorico lost much of its relationship with the students because it tried to teach 45 children via a screen, a “very stressful” job as many turned off their cameras or struggled to log in, leaving her worrying for them and their families.

Santorico continued to teach remotely during the last school year, and returned to in-person teaching this school year. She was full of hope when her school set out to narrow its focus on the social and emotional well-being of students at the start of the year, but her optimism faded within three weeks as priorities shifted to test scores and academic rigor the same way they had been. before the epidemic.

“I felt like nothing had changed,” Santorico said, adding that teachers were especially stressed because at times they had to take in more students to help cover teachers who are out due to COVID-19.

As Santorico’s physical and mental health deteriorated due to the weight of classroom expectations and the sweltering heat, I applied for medical leave, believing, “I will not be able to do my best and do what I need to give these children in this situation.”

She faults what she sees as a flawed education system to knock her out of her continuing career, and criticizes schools’ reliance on standardized tests and lessons. The pandemic has amplified the challenges I faced as a teacher when I tried to figure out how to support students who lost grandparents to COVID-19 and forced students to care for a younger sibling while one parent was battling COVID-19 in the hospital and the other worked.

Over time, Santorico accepted that they should move away.

“It’s OK to say, ‘I’m not going to do this to myself anymore, and I’ll take care of myself until I’m at my best,'” she said.

Veronica Bell also quit teaching this year after her mental health hit “rock bottom” in October.

“I was crying constantly,” said Bell, 26. “I was very depressed.”

Bell, who was studying at the independent DPS school, did not spend any time outside of work as she worked 12 hours a day. She struggled to get through the day without any break from mid-morning until the end of her last class. She tried to rearrange her schedule but couldn’t make it work, and she felt isolated from her colleagues amid social distancing.

When Bell reached out to principals with concern, the message she received was, “It’s been a tough year in Education for All.”

“I felt pushed along with my fears,” said Bell, who has taught for five years. She heard her colleagues echo some of her concerns, and at least three employees told her they had thoughts of suicide.

Her exhaustion seemed to take a toll on her physical health. Scalp pain and tension gripped her neck and back as she grappled with tension and anxiety. The pain and fatigue became so bad that Bell sat down while teaching, eventually reaching a point where two days’ weekend wasn’t long enough to recover.

She began to wonder if she could do more harm to her students than help them.

“This year, I saw that I couldn’t attend for them, so part of what really motivated my decision to leave the class was that I wanted a teacher who could be better for them,” she said.

Since moving to a new job at a nonprofit in Denver focused on adult education, Bell has recognized the sacrifices she made to become a teacher. In her new role, she can sit down and eat lunch without any distractions, and take bathroom breaks whenever she wants.

“I didn’t realize how bad some of my working conditions as a teacher were until I moved to a different field,” she said.

– “Accumulation of the important little things”

Recognizing just how stressed teachers can be in the fall of 2020, the University of Colorado School of Medicine has set up a phone support line to give health care workers a space to discuss their concerns.

Within the first week, the support line — 303-724-2500 — received 35 calls, three times the number of calls made over the summer, said Amy Lopez, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

From November 2020 to last June, the support line recorded 214 calls and texts, mostly from K-12 teachers. Many of them felt like they didn’t know what they were doing because they tried to teach online and, in some cases, in person and online at the same time. Lopez said many interpreted their struggles as “personal failures.”

With funding from the Colorado Bureau of Behavioral Health, the legislature, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, and CEA, the school has developed a self-paced online program in which educators can watch videos about depression, anxiety, burnout, and change-play. Lopez said about 350 teachers have chosen this program.

Teachers can also meet with a social worker, nurse practitioner, or psychologist up to five times to talk about their stress. About 80 people have completed nearly 200 sessions, Lopez said.

Lopez stresses how much teachers have had to put up with during the pandemic and how little sympathy they have often received in return.

“We’ve asked a lot of them and then haven’t given them the same blessing that other professions might have in transitioning to distance learning,” she said.

DPS, the state’s largest school district, has some measures in place to support the mental health of teachers, including an employee assistance program that gives all district employees access to free counseling and a crisis recovery team that helps employees after school crises, according to the district spokesperson In the name of Scott Preble. The district also offers a wellness program with classes on mindfulness, nutrition, and exercise and has support groups for some employees, such as those who are Asian Americans and those who are considered part of the LGBTQ community.

Santorico learned of mental health resources for teachers in the area, but chose to find support outside the area through counseling backed by her health insurance. She noted that some district employees are reluctant to take advantage of the district’s services, fearing that they will be “viewed as less than or weaker” and that their work may be jeopardized. Santo Rico is pleased that DPS schools have resources available for teachers but stressed that “it would be much better to address the cause of these problems rather than the symptoms,” including “unrealistic workloads and expectations.”

Luis Murillo, the assistant superintendent of the Alamosa School District, sees how tired teachers are this year, particularly as they come forward to help cover classes amid a chronic shortage of substitute teachers.

“That’s definitely extra pressure that we heard loud and clear,” Murillo said.

The district of about 200 teachers has tried to free up more time for teachers by cutting back on professional development mandates. Every Friday, students are dismissed after lunch, and while teachers were required to attend professional development sessions every Friday afternoon, the district now allocates two afternoons each month for teachers to handle the workload.

“It really gives them a chance to catch their breath,” Murillo said.

The Alamosa School District has also made it easier for its employees to access therapists so they can avoid a month-long wait for new appointments with providers. Murillo said employees can choose a provider from a list of 10 — including some Spanish speakers — posted on the district’s website and can text or email them for a faster response to set up a meeting in person or through telemedicine.

Sheridan School District #2, south of Denver, has coordinated similar services, contracting with a private treatment agency so teachers can talk to a therapist in English or Spanish during planning, lunch or outside office hours, according to Lea Bernstein-Holmes, mental health coordinator. for Sheridan. The district also brought in a mindfulness trainer in professional learning sessions for educators to help them manage stress.

Additional support for teachers in Alamosa comes from the district health coordinator, who emails weekly advice on how teachers are taking care of their mental health, through strategies such as mindfulness, healthy eating, breathing and walking. And at Ortega Middle School, the principal will relieve one teacher half an hour before class ends, and step in to cover the last part of his or her term in an initiative known as “Flee at 3”.

“It’s just an accumulation of the little things that matter when we’re not able to make big systemic changes,” Murillo said.

Manzanares, of the Alamosa Education Association, is encouraged by the district’s attempts to help teachers cope, but she wants to see more work to help them cope with other stressors, such as payment.

“I hope this isn’t where we’re going to end up supporting teachers,” she said.