Pandemic stress drives some Colorado teachers from classroom

January 16, 2022 GMT

DENVER (AP) — Diane Santorico was a year shy of completing her third decade as a teacher when the profession that once gave her so much joy nearly stole all of it.

She was sick – physically sick – and tired. The first few weeks of school had demanded that she teach in a second-floor classroom baking at 95 degrees while wearing a mask and not being able to use school water fountains. She often returned home at the end of the day in tears, worn down by heat exhaustion and migraines, until she didn’t really have a choice but to put herself first.

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

The veteran teacher distanced herself from school after filing for a medical leave of absence in September. That leave became permanent in December, when Santorico formally resigned from Brown International Academy within Denver Public Schools.

She’s far from alone in closing the book on her teaching career.

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Close to two years into a pandemic that has upended the school day and switched up the routines that teachers and students rely on, educators are finding fewer reasons to stay. Between stressors they already faced long before COVID-19 — including inadequate pay and long hours of grading and lesson-planning — and new pressures to keep students on pace regardless of whether they’re learning at home or school, some teachers are moving on from education sooner than they anticipated, or at least contemplating their departure.

A recent report on the Colorado State of Education published by the Colorado Education Association found that 67% of members surveyed by the teachers union stated they were thinking about 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 surveyed last December.

“These educators most often point to their overwhelming workload and low pay as the reasons to leave and they are considering career changes and early retirement,” the report stated.

Meanwhile, the mounting toll on educators’ mental health is being felt across the state.

Last January at Alamosa High School, for instance, nearly 90% of teachers responding to a school survey said they had noticed an increase in depression or “feelings of helplessness,” according to Myra Manzanares, president of the Alamosa Education Association. Nearly 70% said their anxiety grew worse and 56% of teachers responded that they had thought about leaving the profession more than three times in a year, said Manzanares, who boiled Alamosa teachers’ mental health down into one word: “fatigued.”

Results from a second survey given to Alamosa teachers in November will be available this month.

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Teachers are burned out and were feeling the same kind of exhaustion in September and October that they typically feel at the end of the school year, said CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert, particularly as they’ve endured a sustained crisis response since the beginning of the pandemic.

She worries about the “devastating and long-term consequences” that students, the teaching field and education overall could face should an influx of teachers flee the classroom, pointing to potential class size increases as one example.

— Learning it’s OK to walk away

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

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

But Santorico lost so much of her connection with students as she tried to teach 45 kids over a screen, a “terribly stressful” undertaking as many kept their cameras off or struggled to log on, leaving her to worry about them and their families.

Santorico continued to teach remotely through the last school year, returning to in-person instruction this school year. She was full of hope as her school set out to narrow its focus on students’ social and emotional wellbeing at the start of the year, but her optimism faded within three weeks as priorities shifted to test scores and academic rigor in the same way they had before the pandemic.

“It felt like nothing had changed,” Santorico said, adding that teachers were feeling especially stretched as they had to sometimes take on more students to help cover for teachers who were out because of COVID-19.

As Santorico’s physical and mental health deteriorated under the weight of classroom expectations and sweltering heat, she filed a medical leave of absence, thinking, “I’m not going to be able to be my best and give what I need to give to these children in this situation.”

She faults what she sees as a flawed education system for pushing her out of her lifelong career, criticizing schools’ dependence on tests and standardized lessons. The pandemic only amplified the challenges she faced as a teacher as she tried to figure out how to support students who lost grandparents to COVID-19 and students forced to care for a younger sibling while one parent battled COVID-19 in the hospital and the other worked.

Over time, Santorico accepted that she had to walk away.

“It’s OK to say, ‘I’m not going to do this to myself anymore, and I’m going to take care of myself so that I can be the best that I can be,’” she said.

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

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

Bell, who taught at a DPS charter school, hardly had any time outside of work as she clocked 12-hour days. She struggled to get through the day without any breaks from mid-morning to the end of her last class. She attempted to rearrange her schedule but couldn’t make it work, and she felt isolated from her colleagues amid social distancing.

When Bell approached administrators with concerns, the message she got was, “it’s been a tough year in education for everybody.”

“I felt really pushed to the side with my concerns,” said Bell, who taught for five years. She heard colleagues echo some of her own concerns, and at least three staff members told her they had had thoughts of suicide.

Her burnout seemed to take a toll on her physical health. Scalp pain and tension in her neck and back took hold as she grappled with stress and anxiety. The pain and exhaustion became so bad that Bell sat down while teaching, and she eventually reached a point when a two-day weekend wasn’t long enough for her to recover.

She started to wonder whether she might be harming her students more than helping them.

“This year, I saw that I could not show up for them, and so part of what really propelled my decision to leave the classroom is that I wanted a teacher who could be better for them,” she said.

Since moving on to a new job at a Denver nonprofit focused on adult education, Bell has realized the sacrifices she made to be a teacher. In her new role, she’s able to sit down and eat lunch without distractions and take bathroom breaks whenever she wants.

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

— “An accumulation of little things that matter”

Recognizing how overwhelmed teachers were in fall 2020, the University of Colorado School of Medicine created a telephone support line to give health care workers a space to discuss their concerns.

Within the first week, the support line — 303-724-2500 — fielded 35 calls, triple the number of calls placed 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 tallied 214 calls and texts, mostly from K-12 teachers. Many of them felt like they didn’t know what they were doing as they attempted to teach online and, in some cases, in-person and online at the same time. Many interpreted their struggles as “a personal failure,” Lopez said.

With funding from Colorado’s Office of Behavioral Health, the legislature, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and CEA, the school developed an online, self-paced program in which educators can watch videos about depression, anxiety, burnout and navigating change. About 350 teachers have opted into that program, Lopez said.

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

Lopez emphasizes how much teachers have had to shoulder during the pandemic and how little compassion they’ve often received in exchange.

“We asked a lot of them and then didn’t give them the same grace that maybe other professions might have had in making the transition to remote learning,” she said.

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

Santorico knew about the district’s mental health resources for teachers but opted to find support outside the district with counseling backed by her health insurance. Some district employees are reluctant to take advantage of the district’s services, fearful they will “be looked at as less than or weaker” and that their employment could be jeopardized, she noted. Santorico is glad DPS has resources in place for teachers but emphasized that “it would be much more valuable to address the cause of these issues rather than the symptoms,” including “the unrealistic workloads and expectations.”

Luis Murillo, assistant superintendent in Alamosa School District, sees how worn out teachers are this year, particularly as they step up to help cover classes amid a chronic substitute teacher shortage.

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

The district of about 200 teachers has tried to clear up more time for educators by scaling back on professional development mandates. Each Friday, students are dismissed after lunch, and whereas teachers used to be required to attend professional development sessions every Friday afternoon, the district now sets aside two of those afternoons a month for teachers to tackle their workload.

“It’s really giving them a chance to catch their breath,” Murillo said.

Alamosa School District has also eased access to therapists for its staff members so that they can avoid a monthlong wait for new appointments with providers. Staff can select a provider from a list of 10 — including some who speak Spanish — posted on the district’s website and can text or email them to receive a faster response to set up a meeting in person or through teletherapy, Murillo said.

Sheridan School District No. 2, located south of Denver, coordinated similar services, contracting with a private therapy agency so that teachers could talk to a therapist in English or Spanish during their planning period, lunch or outside work hours, according to Lea Bernstein-Holmes, Sheridan’s mental health coordinator. The district also brought a mindfulness trainer into professional learning sessions for teachers to help them with stress management.

Additional support for teachers in Alamosa comes from a district wellness coordinator, who emails weekly tips about how teachers can take care of their mental health, through strategies like mindfulness, healthy eating, breathing and walking. And at Ortega Middle School, the principal will relieve one teacher a half hour before school ends, stepping in to cover the last part of their class in an initiative known as “Flee at 3.”

“It’s just an accumulation of little things that matter when we’re unable to do 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 done to help them with other stressors, like pay.

“Hopefully,” she said, “that’s not where we’re going to end in supporting teachers.”