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Two years into pandemic, how are teachers holding up?

Local union leaders reflect on stresses, challenges and rewards

Multiple districts – As she wraps up her 28th year at Kenowa Hills Middle School this week, Jayne VanderKlok considers what she might say to someone considering a career in teaching but worried about the daunting challenges of classrooms today. 

“It’s just incredibly rewarding, the job is,” said VanderKlok, who teaches language arts to students who are learning-disabled and in the Pathways alternative high school. “It’s been a nice job to raise a family (with). … I also think there are more options for how we deliver education, and that’s going to continue to change.” 

But as head of the Kenowa Hills Education Association for 10 years, VanderKlok is concerned that not enough people are coming up through the teacher pipeline to replace those who are retiring or leaving for other jobs – and that too many young teachers are leaving the profession due to the pandemic and other stresses of the job. 

“We have a lot of people retiring but we also have new staff members that aren’t staying,” VanderKlok said of Kenowa, where 12 teachers have retired or resigned this spring and 13 have been hired for the fall, including five new positions. “I’m concerned about meeting their needs.”

Two years after the COVID pandemic turned education on its head, many teachers say not enough needs are being met or incentives offered to prospective hires. 

In a Michigan Education Association survey earlier this year, 91% of educators polled said they were extremely or very concerned about the educator shortage, while about one-third of teachers said they plan to leave for another career or retire in the next two to three years. The survey shows teachers and other public-school employees “are at a breaking point,” MEA President Paula Herbart said. 

How is that playing out locally? As most Kent County school districts end their school year this week, School News Network asked union leaders of three districts what their members’ greatest needs and concerns are. 

‘How to Balance Both Worlds’ 

Jayne VanderKlok knows the stresses of pandemic teaching all too well. She was out with COVID for five days earlier this year but continued teaching virtually from home. The ongoing threat of the virus for both teachers and students has bred anxiety and uncertainty over the past two years, she said. 

“We learned a lot of new tricks with the pandemic,” VanderKlok reflected. “It’s been a lot trying to figure out how to balance both worlds.

“We still have individuals who test positive every day,” she added. “You have times where you’re not only teaching your class but still living in that virtual world of teaching class online.”

Virtual teaching has shown some advantages, such as students who learn better at home than they would at school, she noted. Still, the challenges of pivoting with technology have added another layer of stress for many teachers, she said. 

So have students’ increasing mental-health problems and behavior issues, which 88% of MEA survey respondents said was a major concern. 

“All the teachers agree that is needed but it does add something extra to our plate,” VanderKlok said of addressing mental-health issues. 

Added to that is the ability of students and parents to contact teachers at all hours of the day. During virtual teaching last year, she said, “I would get texts from students at 2 in the morning. Our teaching day definitely bleeds into our non-work time.” 

‘You have times where you’re not only teaching your class but still living in that virtual world of teaching class online.’

– Jayne VanderKlok, Kenowa Hills Middle School

Staff illnesses due to COVID combined with a shortage of substitute teachers means teachers often have to cover one another’s classes, adding to their workload, VanderKlok noted. 

All of that adds to other concerns, such as low starting pay, that have contributed to a long-term shortage of new teachers. Students enrolled in Michigan teacher-prep programs declined by more than 30% between 2014 and 2018, reports Bridge Michigan. 

VanderKlok has seen another wrinkle produced by the pandemic: people leaving for other jobs after getting used to teaching from their home offices. 

“The ones that are choosing not to return are doing so more because they have younger kids at home, and they really have enjoyed these past two years having the opportunity to work from home. “

Suzy Clements, Rockford High School

‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’ 

Suzy Clements is a Rockford High School Spanish teacher who’s also in her 28th year, all of them in Rockford. Teaching is in her blood; both her parents were teachers. As vice president of the Rockford Education Association representing close to 500 teachers, she too is concerned about more people leaving the teaching ranks than are coming in. 

But with major K-12 funding increases proposed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for next school year and a committed Rockford Public Schools administrative team, she’s seeing promising improvements for students and teachers alike. 

“I do see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Clements said. “If we were having this conversation a year ago, I would say everyone is absolutely at the bottom, like if they could retire they would be retiring. But I think now people are starting to see that, ‘Oh, there is a commitment to helping students with mental health, there is a commitment to attracting and retaining good colleagues.’”

Rockford did not see a mass exodus of teachers last year, she said, but a good number are approaching the 30-year mark that entitles them to full retirement benefits. Encouraging for both veterans and younger teachers was that REA recently renegotiated its three-year contract to raise its pay scale by 4.5% next school year.  

‘I think now people are starting to see that, ‘Oh, there is a commitment to helping students with mental health, there is a commitment to attracting and retaining good colleagues.’

– Suzy Clements, Rockford High School

Still, students’ mental-health struggles and learning delays have taken a toll on teachers during the pandemic, she said, adding it has been hard to catch them up both academically and developmentally. 

“What we’re seeing is all of our students are about two years’ less mature than we’re used to them being,” she said, chalking up some behavior problems to that lack of maturity. “Even as seniors, they aren’t really seniors (emotionally). We want them to graduate as 18-year-olds: How do we get them there?”

While there’s still a lot of attraction for landing a teaching job in Rockford, Clements said, teachers need to be relieved of non-teaching duties like cleaning classrooms or doing paperwork.  

“I love teaching. I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. If we could take more things off our plate so I don’t have quite as many people popping in saying ‘I’m exhausted, I need to do this too now?’ We need to focus on teaching students.”

Dawn Sobleskey, Godwin Heights Middle School

‘There Has to be Incentive’

Dawn Sobleskey worked her way into teaching the hard way, working as a third-shift waitress at Aquinas College while earning her bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s at Grand Valley State University. The hard work paid off. She’s finishing up her 25th year of teaching, all but one of them in Godwin Heights. 

The seventh-grade social studies teacher would like to see more people go into the hard but gratifying work of teaching. 

“I love teaching,” Sobleskey said. “I just want it to get better. I would love to see more young people coming into this and wanting to stay. There has to be incentive.”

But as the outgoing president of the Kent County Education Association, representing teachers’ unions throughout Kent ISD, Sobleskey fears there aren’t enough incentives for young people to either enter teaching or stay. The pensions that she and other veterans enjoy are now more like annuities for younger teachers, who are also burdened with huge college loans, she said. Pay in many districts is not competitive with similarly skilled jobs in the business world, she added.

‘We always want our kids to learn. We want what’s best for them. We always put the kids first.’

– Dawn Sobleskey, Godwin Heights Middle School

“I’m hopeful it’s going to get better, because I’ve seen some improvement over the last few months,” said Sobleskey, who still owes on her student loans. “But I hear mostly (among) younger people, ‘You know, I’ve had enough.’”

Student behavior problems and the learning gap that happened during the pandemic is another disincentive, Sobleskey said, especially when about 40% of teacher evaluation is based on standardized test scores. 

“Just trying to play catch-up and try to get them to where they need to be has been a real struggle. Students are having to learn how to re-socialize while they also have to learn how to learn again. When you put it all together in the basket, it makes it a lot more difficult.

“We always want our kids to learn. We want what’s best for them. We always put the kids first.” 

Yet despite all the added stressors brought by the pandemic, Sobleskey still loves teaching and helping students. She warmly recalled cheering the senior class as they walked through school buildings before graduating, and recognizing her former middle-school students.

“It was like, ‘Oh, look at my babies!’ And to get the big hugs from them — this is why I do my job,” she said. “That fills my soul. So proud, my heart was just beaming. When you get those moments, that gives you a push to keep going.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio

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