The tumult that has marked school board meetings around the country this fall came to Portland last week, when a rowdy group of anti-mandate protesters—many opposed in equal measure to both masks and required Covid-19 vaccines for students—shut down the in-person meeting of the Portland Public School Board.
The noise of the protests, and its aftershocks, muted the rest of the evening’s agenda, including testimony from Elizabeth Thiel, the president of the Portland Association of Teachers. And yet, it was what Thiel had to say that night that carries the longest-term implications for the district, its current and future students and their families.
Thiel presented the results of an internal membership survey of 2861 teachers, or 77 percent of the teacher workforce at PPS, suggesting that educator exhaustion and stress levels are at a dangerously high tipping point, with fully half of those surveyed considering either early retirement, a leave of absence, or leaving the profession entirely.
In the short term, that led directly to the school board’s decision on short notice to cancel school on November 12 in favor of a professional development day for teachers; more changes designed to lighten the load are up for discussion, from adding further professional development days to the school calendar and suspending standardized tests, to—though perhaps a long shot for district sign-off—a return to asynchronous Friday lessons.
Portland Monthly talked with Thiel about the survey results, the roots of the issue, and what families should expect for the rest of the school year.
Portland Monthly: What made the Portland Association of Teachers decide to survey its members in the first place?
Thiel: Since delta hit, it's been clear that the school year was going to be difficult. We went into the fall anticipating that COVID safety would be the central issue of the of the school year. And that continues to be a huge issue. But in the last month or so, the number of teachers calling our union office for advice and help resigning, taking leaves of absence, or retiring early has really made it clear that there's more to it than just figuring out COVID logistics. This has to do with the compounding demands that educators are facing that are related to the pandemic in some ways, but are also the very same issues that we've been facing in education for decades, just amplified. So in order to make sure we weren't just hearing from the people who called into our office, but really hearing from everybody, we surveyed all of our members.
Portland Monthly: And what do you want people who might have missed last week’s board meeting to know about those survey results?
Thiel: The results were sobering. We heard from over 2800 educators, which is about 76 percent of those who we sent the survey to. Eighty percent of educators reported that they are not able to get their work done during the day—that their workload is is high or extreme—and 25 percent of members said that they can't get their work done no matter how much time they spend on weekends, and evenings. We also asked about stress. And 70 percent of educators reported having high or severe stress levels this year, and 28 percent said that their stress level was so high that it's impacting their health. We also wanted to find out whether this is normal. We know that education is always a demanding job. Ninety percent of educators said that their workload and stress level is significantly more than a typical year. So then the next question is, what does this mean? Educators endure a lot. Are people hanging in there, is it just a matter of getting through this year and making sure next year is better? But the last piece of data I want to share is that over 1,000 educators reported that they are considering taking a leave or resigning this year due to their stress, or workload level.
Portland Monthly: So what are some of the solutions that the Portland Association of Teachers might put forward?
Thiel: Basically, we're looking at two things: How do we take things off of educators’ plates, so that they have more time to put their attention into best serving students? And how do we make more time so that educators are able to do what they need to do? Typically, we would be looking to add people. That's the ask that we've had for decades, to get more trained, qualified adults in the classrooms and that's still our long-term goal. But right now, there's no more people. We started the year in a staffing crisis. The school district has been working hard to hire and recruit educators, bus drivers, paraeducators, custodians, and administrators (but) we have open positions in every area in the district. And a big part of the workload crisis that we're feeling is that (current staff) are carrying the load of all of those people who aren't there.
Portland Monthly: Practically speaking, what do those staff shortages mean during a typical school day?
Thiel: This year, we have an extreme shortage of substitute educators. That means when an educator is not able to be in the classroom, at the school level, there's a scramble to figure out who is going to be in that classroom. And one common solution to that is that (other) educators will be asked to come in during their planning time and be in the room with those students. That has always happened in an emergency, but right now it is happening every day all over the district. Principals are substituting in the classroom, and so are district level administrators. The strain is compounding, because people aren’t able to perform the essential duties for which they were hired.
Portland Monthly: What exactly are the problems that teachers say they are facing in the classroom, beyond just managing COVID protocols? It is behavior issues? Academic issues?
Thiel: I think it has been experienced pretty universally that students’ academic and social emotional needs are far greater than in a typical year. And that's not a shock or a surprise. We know that this pandemic has been extraordinarily difficult on all of us. In our schools, we serve students who have had every kind of experience that you can imagine in the last year and a half of COVID. And educators are working hard to meet them where they're at. Ideally, we'd be able to meet that need, by increasing the staff that we have to work with students and families individually. But we don't have that increase this year.
Portland Monthly: So how do we make more time for educators to do their jobs well under these circumstances? What are some of the proposals on the table?
Thiel: There are things that are not the biggest priority that we can remove from educators, like staff meetings, (required grade/cluster-level) meetings, trainings that occur during the school day. We absolutely believe that educators need more time to collaborate, but educators have been pretty clear that that time would be most useful if it were not directed.
Portland Monthly: What about the concept of eliminating some of the standardized testing from this school year? Is that something that's come up?
Thiel: That has also come up and it's an area we need to look more into to see if that would help solve a problem and create more relief for educators.
Portland Monthly: Do you think that we’ll see, as the year goes on, more planning and professional days that are also non-instructional days being added to the schedule
Thiel: Professional development days are other ways to create that time (that educators need). There are multiple ways that that need can be met. And we'll have to look carefully about how that need could best be met for educators and how that impacts students.
Portland Monthly: Another idea that I have been told has been put out there is to go to back to some form of asynchronous Fridays, so that becomes a planning day for teachers.
Thiel: Absolutely, we have heard from educators that having a day a week to collaborate with peers and connect with students and families and create instruction that meets individual students’ needs was incredibly helpful to manage last year, and that having something like that could be helpful this year. But we have a lot of work to do, to look into that data and see where that would be helpful.
Portland Monthly: Is there any part of you that thinks that some of this year's stress and strain on teachers could have been avoided if we hadn't been out of school for so long?
Thiel: I will tell you that across the country, we are facing a similar crisis. It is not just Portland, every school district in Oregon is facing a worker shortage right now. And I'm hearing from colleagues across the country about worker shortages in education careers, in every district across the country. So we have a public school system that has been increasingly adding strain to the plates of all of our certified teachers, our education support professionals, our special education teachers, our custodians—everybody has been asked to do more with less for years.