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Teachers share why they left their job during the pandemic

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some are already there, but for many others, this is the big week - school is back in session. But not everybody is going to be there. Later this hour, we will hear how the leader of Los Angeles' school district, the country's second largest, is literally knocking on doors to find out why so many LA students didn't show up on the first day. But first, we're going to ask why another critical group of people decided not to come back to the classroom this year. We're talking about teachers.

Across the country, there is an alarming shortage of teachers and staff - some 300,000, according to the National Education Association. We interviewed a number of teachers from across the country, and among them we found three who are willing to share their experiences and who represented what we heard from others about why they decided not to go back to the classroom.

Megan McKenna is a former high school teacher in Park City, Utah. She quit teaching just a few weeks ago. Megan, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

MEGAN MCKENNA: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Alana Ward is a former middle school and high school teacher. She began teaching in Summerville, S.C., in 2013 and retired in 2021. Alana Ward, thank you so much for joining us, as well.

ALANA WARD: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: And Ryan Haczynski is a former high school teacher. He taught most recently in Dover, Fla., and recently resigned after 20 years in the classroom. Ryan Haczynski, welcome to you, as well.

RYAN HACZYNSKI: Thank you. I appreciate being here.

MARTIN: So, Megan, I want to start with you because, as I understand it, you left your job just a few weeks ago. Was there a eureka moment, or what made you decide?

MCKENNA: It's been building for years. I'm going in my - or would have been going into my 12th year. But this last year was the hardest yet of my career. And after finishing the year just completely drained and demoralized, I felt like there had to be something else out there. I couldn't do another year like that. With COVID, the workload has increased. Each year, the demands from parents, from legislators, from school districts and the lack of trust and respect that we've been given as professionals - I just reached my breaking point.

MARTIN: Alana Ward, what about you? You started teaching in 1996. I think - do I have it right that you took a couple of years off to stay at home with your daughter and then went back to the classroom? Do I have that right?

WARD: That is correct, yes.

MARTIN: And then you - but you decided to retire. So what were the drivers of your decision?

WARD: So, you know, starting in 1996 and then going back to public school in 2013, you can imagine just the difference in the culture of the school, the difference in the behavior of the students, the difference between the interaction between teachers and parents was drastic. Plus, the last two years that I taught were right in the midst of COVID. I believe educators need to be paid like the professionals that they are. COVID actually highlighted the importance of public education and the importance of teachers. But we're not putting our money where our mouth is.

MARTIN: Ryan, what about you?

HACZYNSKI: To piggyback off what Alana was just saying, I think a big part of it is the passive divestment of public education here in Florida. I moved to this state in 1998. And at the time, we were about the middle of the pack, ranking 27th in per-pupil investment and 29th in teacher pay. And now we have fallen all the way down to 44th in public investment and 46th in teacher pay. And it was largely a financial decision, I think, partly because, you know, to work so hard and to be paid so little - I was willing to do it because I love being with the kids. And my wife and I just really kind of looked at each other and decided we have to diversify our income streams because if we continue down this path, especially in such an inflationary environment, we're only continuing to fall further behind.

And, you know, I think also to Alana's point, as well, just the sort of the lack of respect paid to us as professionals. I mean, especially here in Florida, we're caught in this crossfire of a cultural war about things that don't exist. You know, CRT in the classroom - that does not happen at all, and it's just made to be a talking point. And, you know, I mean, any teacher in America will tell you how from 2020, we went from hero to zero. You know, in the spring of 2020, when everybody was, oh, teachers, how do you do it? And then by - it's summer 2020, get back to work. Go in the schools. You know, take care of our kids. And, you know, just the stress of all that, I think, was a big part of it. And at the end of the day, you know, in - as much as I hate to say it, it was a financial choice. And I had to walk away from a job and a career that I love deeply.

MARTIN: I can hear it in your voice. I still feel it - still feels like it's a painful decision for you. But tell me more about the respect issue. Actually, all three of you have mentioned this question of respect. It's not just the compensation, I take it. But what else is it?

MCKENNA: I think a lot of the lack of respect comes from not trusting teachers as professionals to do the job that they were trained to do. I think some of these radical groups and legislators are trying to tell teachers what to do and how to do their job with zero education experience. I think in addition to that, just the lack of inaction, too, whether it's properly funding our schools or responding to the issues of the day, to responding to gun violence in the classroom, listening to teachers' concerns, acting on climate change. I think all of those things feel as a direct lack of respect for us in our profession and the ability for us to do our jobs.

MARTIN: Ryan, could you talk more about something you said. You said that teachers went from hero to zero. And you're right. Like, at the beginning of the pandemic, people were just like, oh, my gosh. This is so much responsibility. How do people stand it? You were teaching in Florida after the Parkland shooting and people - and not just Parkland, but a number of school shootings where people talked about the heroic efforts that teachers have made to protect their students and - most recently in Uvalde - and these terrible stories. Do you have a theory about this? Like, what happened in your - like, to sort turn this tide against teachers? Do you have a theory about that?

HACZYNSKI: I mean, I don't know if this would necessarily be a theory, but I think maybe this is the elephant in the room. Teaching, like nursing, is a female-dominated profession. I feel as if - that there's - certainly I've witnessed it many times in my own career, where a double standard exists for someone like me, because I'm male, versus someone who is female. I think it's - as a whole, teachers make for an easy target. And, you know, when it comes to scapegoating, especially when you think about sort of the political times we're living in with so much extremism on both sides that, you know, again, we're kind of caught in this crossfire.

And to - you know, just about the - what's happening with the violence in the classroom, even if there's not physical violence, which does happen, of course. But, you know - 'cause Megan addressed this, too - there's sort of a emotional and mental violence that happens with our children for just even the kinds of "shooter drills," quote-unquote, that now happen quite frequently to prepare students, you know, for the eventuality that there is going to be a school shooting at - you know, maybe not your school, but there's going to be one. And, I mean, students have confessed this to me over the years and just how it sets them on edge and makes them anxious. And, you know, we don't do anything to address the fundamental problem that ultimately falls on the classroom teacher, including even laying down one's life in the event that there were a shooting.

MARTIN: What would make it better? And I'm just going to ask each of you to just tell me what - just - if you would each just give me one thing that - either one thing that, if people are listening to this conversation, you would like them to think about if their kids are going back to school and when they think about what the teachers who are going to be teaching their kids - what you would want them to be thinking about. Like, what's one thing that would make it better? Maybe - Ryan, we were just with you. Why don't you start?

HACZYNSKI: I would say, especially here in Florida, that the vast majority of teachers are not being political. There seems to be this belief right now that we're all talking politics in front of kids and somehow, you know, indoctrinating them or anything. That does not happen. I mean, teachers are professionals. And just trust us to take care of your children and to give them the education that they need.

MARTIN: Megan, what's the one thing you would want people to be thinking about if they - their kids are going back to school and thinking about the teachers that are in their lives?

MCKENNA: What it ultimately comes down to is us deciding, as a nation, if we value education. And if we do value education in this country, then we need to properly fund it so that educators can do their jobs. And our students need us now more than ever. I'm really worried about young people and their mental health. And with more and more teachers leaving the profession, I worry they don't have that support that they need.

MARTIN: Alana Ward, what about you? I'm going to give you the final word here. You're the OG of the group.

WARD: I would say that there is value in the village. And so we always talk about how it takes a village to raise a child. Well, teachers, schools - we are all a part of that village. We all have to work together in order to make this system work. This is not an adversarial relationship. If we could just kind of drop those preconceived notions and lay aside the misinformation, that's what I would love to see happen going forward. And that's the perspective that I would love for parents and community members to adopt to help make it better.

MARTIN: Alana Ward is a former teacher from Summerville, S.C., Megan McKenna is a former teacher in Park City, Utah, and Ryan Haczynski is a former teacher from Florida. Thank you all so much for talking with us and sharing all of these insights with us. And I know as painful as it has been, but thank you for your work. Thank you for your service for all those years. And thank you for talking with us today.

MCKENNA: Thank you so much, Michel.

HACZYNSKI: Thank you, all. It was a pleasure to be here.

WARD: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACO BEATS AND JIONY'S "AVES DEL SUR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.