Teachers are ‘blown’
The nation’s teacher shortage has for decades been one of the most persistent and concerning topics in public education. The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted the issue in an article entitled “Schools Are Looking in Unusual Places to Deal With Teacher Shortage” and examining the innovative and diverse ways some districts across the country are recruiting teachers this year. And in a piece named "Nobody Wants to Teach Anymore," Jessica Wildfire illustrated why teachers choose to leave the classroom.
As I reflect on why the shortage has become an ever-increasing issue in education, I have come to one conclusion: Many teachers are what the restaurant industry calls “blown.”
I learned about this concept while listening to Brene Brown's Atlas of the Heart. It dawned on me as she spoke that teachers are no longer merely stressed. They are completely overwhelmed — and there is a big difference between the two. Brown explained that in the restaurant industry, struggling servers rely on two terms: “in the weeds” and “blown.” When a server shares that they are ‘in the weeds’ with co-workers, that server generally gets a 10-minute break to allow time to calm down and cope with that moment of stress.
However, when a server tells coworkers they are “blown,” it means that they’re not simply feeling stressed at that moment. It means they can no longer cope with taking on additional tables, additional customer requests, or additional tasks. Brown notes that the state of feeling “blown” happens infrequently in the restaurant sector. However, for teachers, being “blown” has increasingly become the norm since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Teachers have been asked to teach — and provide social-emotional support, and navigate new learning environments without adequate training, and implement new grading systems and COVID procedures, and incorporate hybrid learning, and tolerate increasing backlash from the community. At the elementary school level, teachers have been expected to be emotionally available not just for their 30+ students but often also for their students’ families — and in high school, it is expected for as many as 200 students and their families. And teachers not only face all the challenges of supporting dozens of others daily but also are compelled to manage their own disappointments and losses, and their own professional learning, all while navigating and balancing the needs and challenges of their private lives and family — with limited to no support from anyone.
I was hopeful that our teaching and working conditions would improve as I embraced a new school year. Yet, I returned to two days of professional “development” that prioritized teacher needs for just an hour or two, then quickly turned to discussions of data for more than a day and a half.
The fact is that most teachers show up in their classrooms before their official start time or even work through the weekend in preparation for their students' Monday arrival. They are “blown” before they even start teaching. They are “blown” by adding one more task, one more meeting, one more new program, one more data point. They are “blown” by reading one more uncompassionate article or hearing one more person expressing what they can and can't teach — all while risking physical assault and/or verbal abuse. It really is no wonder that teachers are leaving the profession in droves.
I am not ready to quit, though. I have spent the last three years advocating for equity, access, and excellence in public education in Nevada. I am honored to do so for my students and my colleagues. I am also working to become certified in trauma-informed practices through Breathe For Change to better support my students' social-emotional learning and well-being. And I have become a Social Emotional Change Agent Fellow with Teach Plus to foster more robust social-emotional support on my campus.
The common denominator in my efforts is the focus on students’ social and emotional well-being, but what is missing is the opportunity to support teachers in these same ways. Every day I fear that some of my most exemplary and effective colleagues will leave the profession because they are not being supported in the ways that would ensure their professional and personal needs are cared for as valued and respected professionals. Yet there are impactful ways to do so.
- Provide improved health care: Some teachers are now facing increases of $250-300 as we enroll in our healthcare options this year. It is one more item to add to the plate that leads to feeling blown. Having great benefits was part of the gig when I first became a teacher, but it has increasingly worsened. We also need a solid mental health support system for teachers and in-house counseling. Who do teachers go to when we have a terrible day or concern or need someone to cover us when we are in the weeds? We need someone to be there for those moments — other than our colleagues.
- Offer universal time off: No more division of personal, sick, or flex days. Let’s have one pool of personal time off (PTO). That way a teacher can take a day off without having to lie, cheat, or "steal" from the system. There should be no badge of honor for working until burnout, and sometimes a mental health day is needed. There should not be a penalty for it.
- Extend higher salaries for longevity: Longevity matters, yet is not valued. Starting teachers should not be the only ones receiving incentives and rewards, nor should we be engaging in salary matching for new teachers moving to Nevada. It is only driving our best teachers out of the profession or elsewhere to teach. We need to start recognizing the highly effective teachers and teachers who have maintained their status in CCSD. Teachers should not have to spend hundreds of additional hours on top of their regular job to get a raise. Nowhere else in the professional world is the employee expected to fill out copious amounts of paperwork to earn a little more or justify a reasonable raise.
- Create Zen dens/rooms: Through Breathe For Change, I’ve learned the power of meditation, chair yoga, and grounding techniques. Providing a space where teachers can have a moment to escape when needed (as someone takes over for even 10 minutes in their day) could quite possibly save the day for that teacher.
If we want teachers to join and stay in the teaching profession, we must begin to take items off teachers’ plates and authentically listen to their needs. Teachers don't need another thing to do. They need things removed from their plates. They need flexibility and trust. They need the meaningful support they deserve, so they are no longer ‘blown’ nor ‘in the weeds’ but happily serving their students and their state.
Laura Jeanne "Jeannie" Penrod is a 2021-2022 Teach Plus Nevada Senior Policy Fellow, Social Emotional Change Agent Fellow with Teach Plus, who is currently in her 17th year of teaching in the Clark County School District. Jeannie teaches English at Southwest Career and Technical Academy and has taught Special Education, ELL, and Freshman Studies.