Iowa teachers are feeling the burn(out)

Randy Richardson reviews six factors pushing educators to leave the profession. -promoted by desmoinesdem

I left the classroom in 1996. I still tell people that teaching was the best job I ever had. But after 20 years in the classroom I had simply had enough of coaching, chaperoning every high school dance, teaching six different preps every day, and dealing with unreasonable parents.

Things have changed a lot in the intervening years, and the job of being a teacher has become even more difficult. Recently more than 180 teachers applied for the early retirement incentive offered by the Des Moines Public Schools. So what does cause perfectly capable teachers to suddenly decide to step away from the classroom?

I recently had the opportunity to visit with several retired and current teachers from across the state and asked them for their thoughts on this. Their responses fell into six categories.

1. Loss of planning time
2. Work Day/Year
3. New initiatives being introduced without anything being taken off of the teacher’s plate
4. Lack of input into staff development and staff meetings
5. Students with extreme needs/discipline issues
6. Morale

Planning Time

While the concept of preparation/planning time was never a mandatory item of collective bargaining, it was widely accepted in schools across the state. Most districts provided at least one individual period (in a seven or eight period day) for teachers to plan or to simply have a break. Some larger districts even provided an additional group planning period each day so groups of teachers could work together to plan for their classes.

Over the years this began to change. As the state and federal government introduced more and more requirements for schools, it became difficult to find time for districts to meet all of the requirements. Administrators quickly realized that “planning” periods were not required and began to a day or two each week to insert requirements into what teachers did with this time. Professional development was occasionally delivered into those time slots and now many of them are used for Professional Learning Communities where teachers meet to discuss data collection, testing, and grading methods.

While this might be useful, it erodes the time when teachers traditionally planned for their classes. In fact, one teacher told me that of the five planning periods they get each week, three are now taken away by grade level meetings. That particular teacher would only have 90 minutes of planning time for an entire week.

Without that planning time, teachers are now forced to work additional hours prior to school or after school. One teacher told me, “Daily I will opt to skip going to the bathroom (right next door to my classroom) so I can take advantage of 1 more minute of getting something done.”

Why is this planning time so important? Consider the requirements we now place on teachers. Here is just a sample of the things teachers need to plan for in a typical week:

• Create rigorous lessons for all students
• Adjust those lessons to meet special needs
• Grade papers
• Enter grades
• Research new teaching methods/strategies
• Prepare materials
• Develop behavior plans
• Contact with parents
• Discuss students with other teachers
• Gather reference materials for upcoming units

Work Day/Year

Anyone who has worked in education has heard the criticism that teachers only work nine months per year. That wasn’t true over 20 years ago when I was in the classroom, and it’s particularly untrue now. Teachers often arrive at school well before students so that they can spend some additional time planning for their day. A number of teachers mentioned that they often arrive up to 30 minutes prior to the start of their contract day and stay as late as 90 minutes after students are dismissed. Many teachers go into school on Saturdays and Sundays so they can spend a few hours alone grading papers or focusing on the upcoming week.

Since many teachers are also parents, they now face a difficult balancing act where they struggle to stay current with school work while also spending quality time with their spouse and children. In our own two-teacher family, my wife and I reached an agreement that one hour each evening would be spent with no homework and no children.

Time off in the summer is virtually non-existent. Most school districts provide staff development during that time. Most teachers also take summer school classes to work on advanced degrees. This is particularly true in western Iowa, where no Regents university exists. Those teachers often drive long distances each day to get to a location where they can pick up a few additional graduate hours.

New Initiatives

A lot of people in the education world believe a magic elixir exists that will turn everyone into outstanding teachers. If we all just drink that kool-aid and follow the instructions, we’ll all receive perfect evaluations. Unfortunately that just isn’t the case.

During the No Child Left Behind era, the Federal Government increased its spending on education. Private vendors saw an opportunity to tap into this funding stream by offering schools the latest and greatest tools for education reform. As a result, the number of new initiatives offered to school districts increased dramatically. When I was a teacher only one new initiative was offered: the Madeline Hunter method (while I remember the name, I remember virtually nothing else about it). Today’s teachers are hit with a new “latest, greatest” technique every few years. Taken alone, that might be doable, but unfortunately many districts don’t take the old initiatives off the table when they offer new initiatives.

For example, the Des Moines Public Schools’ newest offering is something called Schools for Rigor. This program is provided by Learning Services International, based in West Palm Beach, Florida. This initiative was introduced into six school buildings in 2016-17 and was expanded to an additional sixteen buildings this year. The six original buildings (and the teachers in them) will serve as demonstration sites. This requires additional planning for the teachers at those demonstration sites (see above). This plan comes at a significant cost in time and money. The district’s FY2018 Adopted Budget estimates that the cost in time and materials for the plan will be $8.7 million. Eventually every school in Des Moines will use this new concept.

As I mentioned earlier, adopting a new initiative is difficult enough, but consider how much more difficult it will be when you still have old initiatives in place. Teachers in Des Moines told me that they still are dealing with initiatives that brought in Standards Referenced Grading, Multi-tiered Systems of Support, Teacher Leadership, and the Marzano Instructional Framework. That means there are five major initiatives going on at one time in a number of the schools in Des Moines. I don’t intend to pick on Des Moines here because I can probably get similar stories from any number of school districts across the state.

Many initiatives provide at least a few new strategies that will have a positive impact on the classroom. However, teachers have shared that these initiatives are often imposed on staff without any real input from rank and file staff. This loss of control over how you teach greatly increases stress.

Lack of Input into Staff Development/Planning

I moved to Des Moines in 2001 to become the Executive Director of the Des Moines Education Association, and one of the first complaints I heard from my members was that the district refused to allow them to have input into the planning process for staff development. I heard the same theme again and again from teachers across the state. Teachers feel that they are on the front lines and that they know best what types of training they need to face the tasks ahead of them.

Several teachers told me how dramatically staff meetings have changed over the last few years. They mentioned that teachers are often talked down to and are told over and over that they aren’t doing things right and that they need to change. Several teachers told me that they initially liked the Professional Learning Communities process, because they finally had a chance to visit with their peers. But they also mentioned that administrators are increasingly micro-managing those meetings.

The loss of collective bargaining is likely to further erode teacher involvement in planning staff development. A number of local education associations had been able to negotiate language that guaranteed some level of input into the planning process. Those agreements are likely long gone.

Students with Extreme Needs/Discipline Issues

This factor varies wildly from district to district, but where it is an issue, teachers report major problems. As federal and state rules put more and more pressure on districts to educate all students, those school districts are bending over backwards to make sure students are in class regardless of their behavior. Many schools are exploring new methods, including restorative justice, as a way to reduce suspensions and keep students in class. Many teachers have indicated that this decision does not work.

A teacher from a large urban district told me, “Behavior is out of control. When I wasn’t dealing with extreme behavior in my classroom I could hear it in the hallway. We were going into lockdown daily to protect the students as well as the student who was escalated. Even with the door shut you could hear screaming in the hallway. I can’t tell you how many times police had to come to restrain students who were out of control.”

Another teacher said, “Students were acting out all of the time. Students were punching out windows. Students were hitting teachers and shouting obscenities and threats.” In many cases the students are removed from the classroom for a day or two, but show up right back in the classroom now knowing that they can do what they want without any real fear of suspension. Teachers that I spoke with discussed the high level of anxiety this causes. This type of behavior is also a bad example for the other students in the classroom, who now see disruptive students getting away with that behavior and wonder what the point is to behaving properly.

Unfortunately, this type of behavior isn’t new. During my work in Omaha and Des Moines from 2000 to 2004 it wasn’t unusual to handle well over 50 complaints per year dealing with assaults by students against a teacher. Teachers were slapped, punched, bitten and even tackled and beaten. What is new is the fact that many districts are choosing to keep those students in the regular classroom despite the disruption this causes to the educational process.


The morale among teachers has been an issue for some time. However, last year’s action by the state legislature that nearly eliminated collective bargaining was devastating. In many cases the local collective bargaining agreements had been governing the teacher/administration/school board relationship for nearly 40 years. Now with the rules thrown out teachers are at the mercy of the district.

Many places report that the new teacher leadership system is working well, but teachers also say that they are regularly told “they are doing things wrong.” Several veteran teachers told stories of a younger teacher leader implying they needed to make changes, even though the more experienced teacher had been successful using that method. They indicated it was demoralizing to hear this. Several teachers from Des Moines told me a nearly identical story about a central administrator saying a new initiative was brought into the district “to break teachers down so they could then learn a new method.”

Over the last eight years, funding for K-12 schools has been much lower than normal. This has created angst among newer staff not knowing from year to year if their job is secure. Now, with the loss of collective bargaining, it’s the older, more experienced and expensive staff who report stress over the possible loss of their positions.

What can be done about inadequate funding? The actions of federal and state lawmakers are a major contributor. Educators do a decent job of communicating their concerns to legislators, but the general public also needs to step up and voice their displeasure. This is problematic in an older state like Iowa, where some estimates have indicated that less than 30 percent of the population has a school aged child. Educators do need to invite legislators into the classroom on a regular basis so that they can get a better understanding of the issues teachers face. Simply restoring collective bargaining rights would be a huge morale boost to teachers statewide. Lawmakers who dismiss these issues or refuse to visit a classroom need to be held accountable at election time.

At the local level, teachers need to invite parents and school board members into their classrooms. Several teachers indicated that they were concerned about retaliation from school administrators if they visited with parents or school board members about the problems the district is facing. If so, then those administrators should be held accountable for their actions. Most parents want the best for their children, but many simply don’t know what that is or how to get it.

We need to do a better job educating parents and offering them alternatives that they can discuss with school boards and administrators. It’s also important for parents and administrators to let teachers take risks and to let them know when they do a good job. Teachers always talk about the criticism they receive, but they are hard pressed to come up with any praise they recently received.

This isn’t going to be a quick fix. During the recent precinct caucuses I ran into several teachers, and they all asked if I thought districts would continue to offer early retirement incentives. That, as much as anything, indicates just how many experienced teachers are stressed to the maximum and are ready to leave the classroom.

Given this environment I doubt enough current high school and college students will decide on teaching as a profession. A shortage will mean more students in classrooms or, in the worst case, easing of teaching licensure requirements that will allow more unqualified people to enter the profession.

We can’t wait any longer. It’s time to stand up for teachers.

Tags: Education

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