Keonaka Brown Elementary School Master Teacher, Lancaster, TX Osley Cook High School Music Teacher, Dallas, TX Tracy Ginsburg Executive Director, Texas Association of School Business Officials, Austin, TX Ron Grosinger High School STEM Teacher, West New York, NJ Miesha Medford Elementary School Assistant Principal, Lancaster, TX Kurt Russell High School History Teacher and 2022 National Teacher of the Year, Oberlin, Ohio Cherish Pipkins Elementary School Principal, Lancaster, TX Damon Pitt High School Principal, Detroit, MI Melissa Wendorf Elementary School Teacher, Los Angeles, CA
Kurt Russell loves his job. A history teacher and basketball coach at Oberlin High School in Oberlin, Ohio, Russell’s passion for education—and for making a lasting impact on the lives of his students—has remained vibrant through a 25-year classroom career that recently saw him named the 2022 National Teacher of the Year.
“I always wanted to be a teacher,” Russell says. “It’s not a job for me, per se—it’s a lifestyle that I have, really wanting to do the best I can for students.”
In recent years, however, that goal has become more challenging to meet. Like many educators across the country, Russell has dealt with the unprecedented disruption of the coronavirus pandemic, a more contentious environment around classrooms and curriculums, and nationwide staff shortages that have left already busy school employees juggling additional tasks and responsibilities.
“There have been some difficult times,” Russell says. “There’s been some times where I felt frustrated—times I felt that I’m not being a great teacher. But each day, when I walk into that classroom, just seeing the bright eyes of young people eager to learn pulls me through.”
To better understand the challenges frontline educators are currently facing—and how they’re adapting to meet them—we spoke to nine from across the country:
Question One How have you been helping students with pandemic-related learning loss?
Studies have found that school closures, remote learning, and other disruptions related to COVID-19
negatively impacted students’ learning—and that academic losses persisted well past the initial building shutdowns of spring 2020. That would be the number one challenge on my list. We had students who basically missed the whole school year of academics. When you’re working with fifth graders who are really at an education level between third and fourth grade, it changes your mindset. As an educator, you must do a lot of scaffolding to close academic gaps. Miesha Medford One of the things I really noticed is that the students who already were struggling before COVID ended up even more behind academically. And now they’re angry and lashing out and getting into trouble on the school yard because they don’t feel confident in the classroom. It’s a challenge, because if all of my attention is on that problem child who is acting out in class all the time, then what happens to that sweet student who is a perfect angel all year? The hardest thing is making sure you give your time equally to everybody in class, instead of managing just a couple of students. Melissa Wendorf The pandemic learning loss created such a disparity. I just looked at our data the other day, and you can see the gaps, especially for students who already were behind. And if you’re seeing it now, you’re going to continue to see it in the future. Damon Pitt With the students who are missing that foundation, we’ve had success with small group instruction. There are some skills a teacher doesn’t need to teach to 20 students. She only needs those four who are behind. So, the teacher pulls them into an intimate lesson where she is intentionally targeting the skills they need to move forward. When students are that far behind, the question isn’t always, ‘can I get them to grade level?’ It’s, ‘can I grow them? Can I at least close some of the academic gap?’ We’ve been able to close significant gaps. Our focus now is on continuing closing gaps and growing student success and achievement. Miesha Medford
Question Two How have you been helping students with pandemic-related mental and emotional health issues?
The pandemic was also
hard on students’ mental health, as social isolation, family illness and instability, and other traumatic experiences have fueled ongoing emotional and behavioral problems. We had almost two years of being antisocial. “Don’t touch anybody. Make sure you have your mask on.” It wasn’t purposeful—but that’s what happened. And you can see the effect. Whereas children used to walk down the hall and talk and play and have conversations, way more students than ever are walking down the hall with headphones on, listening to music, or playing a video game or watching TikTok. They’re just more self-enclosed, and I think that came from the pandemic, where they had all this extra alone time on their hands. Osley Cook We’re seeing a lot of social-emotional trauma. It can be something as simple as a kid rejecting an assignment, rejecting an activity, pulling themselves away from other students. We've also seen defiance: “I refuse to do what you asked me to do. I refuse to follow the rules. I'm going hit. I'm going to lash out, or just persistently misbehave.” We've seen it all. Cherish Pipkins We knew kids were going to have challenges. Some of them experienced loved ones passing away because of COVID. Some experienced parents losing their jobs. Some experienced a lack of resources. At home, many of them may not have told anybody about how they felt about the pandemic, about school work, about anything. We knew they would have challenges with articulating how they felt, with being able to physically sit at a table and working in groups, and with being able to collaborate. At home, most weren’t doing any of this or doing it from a virtual breakroom. Miesha Medford Principals, teachers, we do education well. We can take your son or daughter and show them how to read, how to do math. But when you’re talking about emotional well-being, that’s not what we’re been trained in. We’re leading that charge, we’re empathetic, our hearts are in the right place, but we’re not gifted in building students back from trauma. We probably need social workers in our schools, people who can really repair the harm that our students went through. Damon Pitt One thing we’ve been doing in our district is a social-emotional learning program called “Move This World.” The first 10-15 minute of every morning, in every classroom, we have the kids checking in with their emotions, interacting, talking about how they can support each other in the classroom. Cherish Pipkins We also had a program called “Excellent Eight,” pretty much some guidelines of what we expected from our students. Everything from coming to school ready to learn to being respectful in your responses to adults and each other—“yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” instead of “yeah” and “no,” and having friendly conversations instead of telling someone that their idea is dumb. Every six weeks, our teachers chose two students from each of their classes who best demonstrated those Excellent Eight rules. We celebrated them and gave them awards and snack bags for being model students and showing others how to behave. We put their selfies on the school bulletin board. Elementary students get excited about everything, and they were very excited about having their name called in front of their peers. It made a difference! Miesha Medford
Question Three How are educators dealing with stress and burnout?
Students aren’t the only ones suffering. Educators across the country are struggling with
low morale, brought on by high levels of job stress, disappointment, and burnout. The pandemic just exposed everything that teachers already were feeling. People were already stressed, already out of alignment with work and life, already dealing with a lot of responsibilities. Then you add COVID, and not going if you’re going to stay healthy. It took a toll on a profession that was already stretched thin. Cherish Pipkins I read somewhere that teachers make more decisions in a day than doctors who are in surgery do. I can relate. My fiancé used to ask me what I wanted for dinner every night—but now he knows not to, because at the end of the day I’m too tired to make a decision about what I’m going to eat. The biggest struggle for me, last year, was dealing with students getting sick or testing positive for COVID. You’d have to make a week or 10 days worth of work for each kid, and that takes an hour to an hour and a half to do—so if you all of the sudden have four kids out, that’s over four hours of extra work. And you usually find out in the morning, right before class, so it’s cutting into you preparing for whatever you planned to do in class that day. Then, while those kids are gone, you may or may not be keeping up with the pace in the classroom, so now you have to figure out how to reintegrate. Melissa Wendorf It has been a very difficult time for teachers. Anxiety, burnout, frustration, being angry—all those emotions have really been at the forefront the past couple of years. And it’s stemmed from so many things, from a lack of respect to the frustration of not seeing your kids on a daily basis. So there has to be a focus on teacher wellbeing in our school communities. Instead of dumping more responsibilities on teachers, let’s see if there are ways to alleviate asking them to also be counselors, social workers, and in some districts security guards. From a parent standpoint, it would be nice for them to volunteer more into the schools if they are able. Kurt Russell We keep telling our students that growth is the goal—and we have to constantly remind our teachers of that, too. Push forward. Persevere forward. When they left for the summer, we told them: get some rest. Don’t think about anything related to work or school. It’s hard for a teacher to not think about work during the summertime! But we encourage it. And a lot of our teachers went on vacations, started exercising, and shifted into healthier lifestyles. They took the advice. Miesha Medford
Question Four Have you had to deal with staff shortages at your school?
Across the nation, school districts are experiencing a significant and disruptive
teacher shortage, one that has led some districts to adopt four-day school weeks and others to recruit people with minimal to no teaching background to step into classrooms. We talk a lot about the mental health needs of our students, but we also need to remember that our educators, our support personnel, have mental health needs of their own. Because of the stress of the unknown, we lost people. Our retirements are up. Our resignations are up. We need to work on ways to provide options for a fulfilling workplace with a bright future. Tracy Ginsburg I’m noticing that in my school district. What happens is that teachers then take on the responsibility to be study hall monitors, cafeteria monitors, and other roles because we are experiencing a shortage of workers. Kurt Russell There are some major challenges. Last year, I had to teach the band class and the art class. And then our journalism teacher was out for about three months. So I had both of those classes in my room at the same time as my band class. I didn’t have enough chairs. I had groups of kids sitting on the floor against the wall. It was the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done in my entire career. And I felt for the kids. If I really loved art and you put me in a band class that I didn’t want to be in, then I’m angry. Osley Cook The shortage makes it difficult. It means that sometimes we have more kids in a classroom than we are comfortable with—or that sometimes, I’m in a classroom, helping out, making sure that our kids get lessons. I remember a time when we would have a job fair, and people would be lined up outside the building waiting to get in. It’s just so different, now. So we’ve had to get creative with hiring, too, bringing in some candidates that we might not have hired before—knowing that they weren’t ready, but trying to coach them up so they can produce for our kids. When I’m looking at resumes and doing interviews, I’m really trying to get to the heart of that person. We can teach you pedagogy. We can teach you how to teach. But I’m trying to see: do you really love children? Do you have a heart for this work? This profession is so important. You can’t just get a warm body. Cherish Pipkins
Question Five What kind of financial pressures do educators face?
A surge in inflation, student loan and other debt, and
comparatively low pay for their level of education and experience are among the factors placing additional financial pressure on educators and their families. The financial part has been a really big challenge for educators for years. You’re not getting a huge paycheck. Our pay never matches what we do. In some districts with a lack of resources, you’re paying out of your pocket to make sure your students have what you need them to have in your classroom. Miesha Medford I think financial pressure goes hand-in-hand with teacher retention and this shortage. At the moment, teaching is not an attractive profession. You don’t have a lot of individuals knocking at the door trying to be an educator. And I think the major reason for that is pay. It saddens me where you have some educators who have to take second jobs in order to make ends meet. Kurt Russell I don’t know how a first-year teacher even survives. I advanced up the ranks because of pay – ‘oh, this is what you are paying principals? Hey, let’s go get it.’ Because what I wanted to do in life, I couldn’t afford as a teacher. And then if you add a family to that, it’s too much financial pressure. Damon Pitt I don’t know one teacher who doesn’t have a side job. What happens is, when you first get the job teaching, it’s a big bump in pay from whatever you were doing before—they make the entry level pay attractive to someone who’s in their early 20s. But then once you’re trying to buy a house or support a family or have other financial burdens, you’re like, “oh, this salary isn’t that much.” So you’re thinking to yourself, “well, I could leave teaching—or I could get a side gig.’” Ron Grosinger Our district recently approved a pay increase for everybody—teachers and staff. Our superintendent has been very intentional about what they can do to retain our teachers and show them we appreciate them. Another thing that came out of those conversations is providing pre-K childcare for all of our employees. That’s an issue! Cherish Pipkins Another thing you hear stories about all the time is teachers retiring and still having to go get a job because they don’t have enough income to retire on. As educators, we need to have proper training or seminars on money management and investing—how to invest, how to pick the right savings plans, so that when we put money away, it’s actually growing. And what would it look like if we could partner with banks that have special programs and financing options for educators? Let’s give educators the resources to learn how to do other things with our money, so that we don’t feel like we’re just living paycheck to paycheck. Miesha Medford We really should invest more in teachers. Because if you have a teacher who is happy, financially successful, a person who invests in their career, they’re going to spread all of that to their students. Anything you do for one teacher, if they have 20 kids in their class, that’s a 20-times effect. Most teachers carry about five classes, so that’s 100 kids. If you have one happy teacher, you have 100 happy kids. Ron Grosinger
Question Six To what extent do educators feel respected and appreciated by the rest of us?
recent national survey of educators found that less than half believe that the general public respects and views them as professionals—down from 77 percent in a comparable 2011 survey. I don’t think the general population understands everything that educators do. I had a friend of mine say, “don’t you just leave work at 4:00?” I was like, “Absolutely not! Are you crazy?” People have this image, almost like a cartoon, that teachers sit at their desks, there’s an apple, you smile at kids from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and then you go home. But it’s so much more than that. For one 45-minute lesson, an educator probably puts in three hours of prep time. Cherish Pipkins One hundred percent. I feel it. I see it. I would say it’s one of the things that makes us want to leave teaching. As a teacher, your reward is supposed to be helping all these students. And that is rewarding. But at what cost? If I'm staying up until 10 o'clock at night constantly working and I'm never relaxing, and I make such little pay for that, and people are telling you, “oh, don’t worry, you get summers off,” then sometimes it makes you feel like, “what’s the point?” Melissa Wendorf I’ve seen those board meetings where parents and community members are getting mad at teachers. I always tell people, “until you walk a day in an educator’s shoes, from the time we enter the building to the time we leave, you’ll never truly understand what we go through.” When teachers don’t feel appreciated, then they go through the motions of just coming to work. That’s when you start seeing the declines in student growth, student achievement, and school culture. You start seeing a lot of stuff that negatively impacts school success. And you start losing great teachers. But when teachers feel appreciated, when staff members feel appreciated, they’ll put the work in to ensure students achieve. They’ll love coming to work every day. They’ll put the hours in to ensure students are successful. Kurt Russell People need to be informed. They need to clearly understand what issues schools are facing, what’s happening in their local districts. By and large, schools are doing great things in your community. It used to be that educators would hit retirement age and they would work more years because they weren’t ready to retire. Now, people are retiring early. Or they’re leaving the profession. The impact of the negativity towards education and the educators who serve our children is having a tremendous impact. We need to implement solutions now to help future generations of educators. Tracy Ginsburg I’ve had parents come to me and call me everything but a child of God. Everything you can think of, I’ve been called. Because they’re angry at me for telling their child they can’t miss band practice, that they can’t miss a performance, that they have to be dedicated. But I’ve also felt very respected. When I was an elementary school teacher, I had parents and grandparents bringing me food, bringing me slices of cake that they baked. At the previous high school I worked at, there’s a group of alumni who are trying to name the new band hall after me. They saw me getting to school at six o’clock in the morning and leaving at eight o’clock at night. They saw the interactions I had with their children and grandchildren. They saw us winning competitions, and how badly my students wanted to participate. Osley Cook
Question Seven Many educators are leaving the profession. What keeps you coming back despite its challenges?
Between February 2020 and May 2022,
roughly 300,000 public school teachers and other staff left the profession. However, a recent national survey found that while educators largely were dissatisfied with their current working conditions, they also were very satisfied with their jobs. I’ve seen so many teachers leave, and it seems like they’re doing well. So I’ve flirted with it. But I really love teaching. I can see the impact I’m having on the community. I can see students going from, “I don’t even know if I want to be here” to “man, oh, what are we going to do this week?” I see students getting involved and excited, telling me what songs they want to do, telling me what competitions they want to enter, wondering where we might be going. I’ve taken groups to Grambling State University, the University of Arkansas, to Washington, D.C. to perform in the Memorial Day parade. All this great stuff. We’ll be sitting there with my music writing program, writing out the song as we’re listening to it, deciding who’s going to get parts and how it will be arranged, and they’ll telling me, “Mr. Cook, let me sit down at the computer and see if I can put the notes in.” And it’s cool. I would really miss it. I really would. Osley Cook Educators are passionate about what they do. It’s kind of like when you’re in a relationship and you’re like, ‘I really want to leave this person. I really know I need to leave this person. But I can't leave this person, because I love this person too much.’ You just kind of do whatever needs to be done in order to make it work. Keonaka Brown My family is a big part of what I do. I’m able to talk about work with them, share some of the successes we have, and share those hard times. My daughters will ask me, “what happened at school today?” Faith is also a big part of the work I do. Prayer is huge. It gives me hope. I know things are going to get better. Even in the thick of the pandemic, when your kids were in masks and most weren’t even in the building, I knew we would push through. I knew we would be okay. Cherish Pipkins Being born and raised in the city of Detroit, I just really believe in our city. And I believe that if I don’t do this, who else is going to? In urban education, we have kids who are three or four or even five grade levels behind in our high school. That’s a problem. I just want them to be able to survive, and get to the point where they have an opportunity to succeed. Every day, that brings me back here. Damon Pitt I had a student who graduated and then went to college for engineering. He was working on an electric car, had a deadline, and needed a welder really fast. But his group couldn’t afford it, and the kids didn’t know how to weld. So he asked me to do it. They were young adults starting out. They didn’t know what they were doing. So I brought my welder. It was like a five-hour job. I was just wrecked afterward. I did it as a favor, as an investment in that kid’s career. But that same kid, he took me to lunch one day. He said I should buy stock in a now-famous electric car company. I didn’t know what this company was. But I looked into it. I bought one share, then two, then I started paying attention and bought a whole bunch–right before the price went up 10 times. And that’s how it is for teachers. Everything you give a kid, everything you give the next generation, you are going to get back ten times. Are there times that I would probably rather go to the beach than go the extra mile? Yeah, probably. But then I would miss out on all this cool stuff. Ron Grosinger
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