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Teachers speak from the brink of burnout

Person highting on paper
Audrina Farrar, a Central Virginia kindergarten teacher, preps her lessons. (Photo courtesy of Lucas Krost).

For a deeper look at this report, watch a television feature on teacher burnout in Virginia tonight, Mar. 17 at 8:00 p.m., on VPM News Focal Point .

A special-education administrator of Virginia's third-largest school district is resigning, citing concern for student safety and education equity in Loudoun County Public Schools. Last week, a group representing Virginia's school superintendents condemned Gov. Glenn Youngkin for rescinding school equity initiatives. And last month, Montgomery County's school board chair stormed out of a heated meeting as parents protested mask mandates. Meanwhile, e vidence of significant student learning loss nationwide due to the pandemic is still emerging.  

Teachers’ voices sometimes seem lost in the noise of these roiling debates, despite spending the most time with students. Some teachers feel caught in the crosshairs of frequently changing school policies due to COVID, scrutiny from lawmakers and parents and public opinion.

“A lot of the times when people get upset about these policies, we’re the … forefront, we’re the face of … what they are upset about,” says Audrina Farrar, a Central Virginia kindergarten teacher now in the seventh year of her career as a public-school educator. 

Farrar loved to play school as a youngster. “I always had to be the teacher, of course,” she says through a smile. But it wasn’t just her natural penchant for teaching that inspired her to pursue a career in the classroom. Farrar says her first-grade teacher, a Black woman she knew as Miss Barksdale, embodied the power of representation. 

“I was just so thrilled to have someone that looked like me to teach me,” Farrar says. “It made me feel like ‘hey … this is something that you can do.’” University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education researchers recently found evidence that “having a Black teacher has positive effects — higher educational attainment and lower rates of discipline — for Black students.”

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we were heroes,” Farrar says of how the public perceived educators. Two years on, as schools statewide grapple with the ongoing uncertainty of learning during the pandemic, Farrar says many educators are exhausted.

“I know a lot of teachers, before the pandemic, that … transitioned out [and] have gone to other careers. And this was burnout before the pandemic,” Farrar says. And now we've added in all these other things, and then just going through a traumatic event, [has] really sent a lot of people over the tipping point” into a state of burnout.

“Burnout is basically chronic, unmitigated stress in the workplace,” explains Mary Beth Walsh director of programs at National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia, a mental-health education and advocacy nonprofit based in Richmond. “Stress is normal, we all experience stress. The issue with burnout is that it's stress that has been going on for some time and hasn't been checked,” Walsh says.

A 2021 National Education Association survey found 32% of teachers responded that the pandemic will prompt them to leave the profession earlier than they’d planned.  

“And then the pay does not help,” Farrar continues. “We're just not being compensated for the work that we're doing.” A year before the pandemic, thousands of Virginia teachers rallied for higher pay at the state Capitol. VPM News reported in 2021 that in Virginia, the “average pay of full-time, year-round employees was $73,890 - 29% higher than the average teacher salary.” At the time, it was the largest such discrepancy in the nation. For the 2021-2022 school year, teachers received a 5% pay hike; Farrar fears it’s not enough to keep younger educators in the classroom amid mounting challenges.

“I'm seeing a lot of [teachers] my age, you know, saying, ‘This is not worth it. I can go find something else to do,’” Farrar says. “We don't even have the teachers to replace the ones that are leaving. It's just not enough people that are interested in doing the job.”

There are more than 105,000 educators currently teaching in Virginia, but there are also thousands of educator vacancies. For the 2021-2022 school year, across 132 divisions, the Virginia Department of Education reports that the highest teacher shortages are in special education, elementary and middle school education.

“Education is in a crisis across the commonwealth and across the United States,” states Ryan Burgess, an 18-year veteran of the classroom who recently retired from her role as a high school history teacher in Henrico County. Burgess, who comes from a family of educators, says that after more than a year of teaching through the pandemic, burnout forced her to walk away from her career and life’s calling.

At the outset of COVID-19, throughout the school closures and a hurried transition to virtual learning, “I was doing okay, rolling … with the pandemic. It was difficult for sure,” Burgess says. When students and staff returned to full-time in-person learning, however, she witnessed first-hand how students suffered from the extended public health emergency.

“Our students have been under enormous pressure,” Burgess says. “We saw a lot of our students really struggling with dysregulated behaviors in the classroom and not having enough support.”

Additionally, COIVD mitigation procedures piled more work onto teachers’ already full plates, Burgess says.

“We're asked to be parents, to be nurses, to be social workers, to be teachers, [to be] education professionals, and over time, it becomes too much,” Burgess says. 

Farrar perceives the politicization of education as a big challenge for teachers as well as parents and communities. 

“All of the hard things are all the initiatives coming down,” she says, referencing controversial education plans Youngkin championed during his campaign and enacted at the start of his term. Youngkin’s first executive order banned critical race theory from classrooms in the commonwealth, despite the total absence of the course of study about systemic racism and bias in Virginia’s K-12 public schools. The order, and the tip line the governor’s office established for the public to report instances of ‘critical race theory’ and ‘divisive practices’ in schools, unleashed a cascade of criticism nationwide and left local teachers uneasy, questioning how to educate students about Black history, racism and equity. 

Like Farrar, Burgess is concerned that unless the issues feeding teacher burnout in Virginia are addressed, more educators will head for the exit. 

“Unfortunately, I think my experience is not unique at all,” says Burgess, who is now exploring her next steps after her education career ended. Burgess and Farrar are two of the moderators of HCPS Back to School Safely, a virtual group founded last year as a space for teachers and parents to advocate for robust return-to-learn safety measures in Henrico schools. They say their group of about 3,000 members has evolved into an online source of support and community for teachers and their advocates.

“It's a place [where] teachers are talking about things that may be going on in their school, sharing different instructional practices or things to help during this time,” Farrar says. “And also, you know, some advocacy work and trying to stand up for ourselves and have a voice.”

Burgess encourages any teachers on the brink of burnout to “utilize the resources that may be available to you.” In addition to tools that may be available through their school district, teachers may also find resources from groups such as the Virginia Education Association, which offers teacher burnout advice here

Walsh says burnout may manifest in physical ways, such as headaches and insomnia, or in psychological ways, such as a lack of productivity and disinterest in one’s personal or professional affairs. Teachers, or anyone, suffering burnout symptoms, Walsh says, should reach out to a licensed mental health provider for help. 

“Stress can happen for any reason, so get to the root of the problem,” Walsh says. “And then the provider can really help to determine what those next steps might be.” 

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the special-education administrator in Loudoun County had resigned. Loudoun has multiple of such administrators, and the resignation won't take effect until June. We have updated the article and apologize for the error.

Samantha Willis is an editorial producer at VPM, Virginia's Home for Public Media, and a journalist whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans a decade.
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