Let’s help Minnesota teachers hang on in 2022 and beyond

26 January 2022

Both 2020 and 2021 were brutal for public schools in Minnesota, but 2022 is shaping up to be worse.

As we struggle through the havoc unleashed by the omicron surge, there’s a related issue putting schools, communities and families at longer-term risk: Teachers are lining up at the exits.

As a mother of two children in St. Paul public schools, the thought of the Great Resignation hitting my kids’ schools is chilling. Worse, as an educational researcher, I’m seeing early evidence that it’s our expert teachers who are rushing for the doors.

Colleagues and I have been following area teachers’ experiences throughout the pandemic. We’ve watched it go from bad to worse in hundreds of surveys, focus groups and interviews over the past 22 months. This fall, a survey of nearly 400 Minnesota teachers revealed a startling finding: Teachers who report the highest levels of confidence are the very same teachers reporting the highest levels of overwhelm.

Teachers in Minnesota are contending with ongoing COVID-19 waves, political polarization, reckonings with racism, anxieties over learning loss, school violence, acute staffing shortages, widening opportunity gaps, mask melees, curriculum kerfuffles and social media scandals, all in addition to everyday work of teaching students, many of whom are struggling.

Confident, veteran teachers tell us how these compounding challenges result in situations like nothing they’ve ever experienced. From an angry parent threatening the seasoned kindergarten teacher with violence, to the veteran fifth-grade teacher trying to manage teaching nine different levels of math at once, even expert educators — our research suggests especially expert educators — are being pushed to the brink.

These experienced teachers already have all the knowledge, strategies and dedication to meet student needs. Yet the burgeoning needs of exhausted and traumatized students and families — combined with the stretched-thin, worn-out resources of the third pandemic-affected academic year — now far exceed what any one person, no matter how skilled, can realistically meet.

Laura Wangsness Willemsen

Joining those in healthcare and other service professions, expert teachers are demoralized. Droves of highly skilled, veteran teachers are making plans to leave the profession in 2022. Their resignations would decimate Minnesota’s public schools, harm kids and families, and put our state’s long-term recovery at risk.

Thankfully parents aren’t stuck on the sidelines. Although we are overwhelmed and exhausted ourselves, there are still small but impactful ways we can partner with teachers without even entering a classroom.

Here are four simple things parents can do right now to support teachers and steady Minnesota’s public schools.

Acknowledge, with empathy, how hard this is

Let your children and their teachers know you understand how tumultuous a time this is. Listen wholeheartedly when they express their frustrations, and empathize by telling them how you see them doing their best even when it’s exhausting.

Express appreciation

Take time to thank your child’s teachers. Recently, a teacher tearfully recounted how close she was to quitting when a thank you note from a parent appeared in her inbox, lighting a spark of hope that kept her going to winter break. This gesture took mere moments for the parent, but had an outsized impact for everyone.

Maintain perspective and patience

Most things are topsy turvy now. When things don’t go well, pause and ask yourself how much an issue will matter in the long term. Consider your whole child now, and remind yourself how they are so much more than any single test score or assignment. Keep in mind the expanding needs and severe shortages schools are contending with when considering how urgent an issue is. While the late bus or missed homework grade is frustrating, it’s likely unintentional, temporary and already causing stress.

Build on the positive

Notice and emphasize whatever good you can. When days are tough, express confidence that they will get better — then celebrate when they do. Our children are watching how we respond to this chaos, and they depend on us to muster any hopeful positivity we can. Teachers, even expert teachers, need this as well.

If Minnesota’s kids are going to weather ongoing uncertainty and thrive in the days and years ahead, we need confident, skilled educators staying in our classrooms. It is these teachers who, alongside parents, play the critical societal role of being caring adults in children’s daily lives.

We need their expertise now more than ever. It’s time for parents — and all Minnesotans — to step in with empathy, appreciation, perspective and positivity to help Minnesota teachers hang on in 2022 and beyond.

Laura Wangsness Willemsen is an associate professor of education at Concordia University in St. Paul.

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