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'Teachers are drowning' as they deal with students acting out, low staff and COVID

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Teachers are drowning. That is how one of our next guests, Michael Reinholdt, describes the layers upon layers of stress that educators in this country are facing right now. Reinholdt is a teacher coach in Davenport, Iowa, and he's talking about the challenges of in-person teaching, like students acting out, staffing shortages and, of course, a coming wave of omicron-driven infections. Mike joins us now from Iowa, along with two other teachers - Suzen Polk-Hoffses, a pre-K teacher in Milbridge, Maine, and Amber Wilson, a 10th and 12th-grade English teacher in Denver, Colo. Welcome to all three of you.

MICHAEL REINHOLDT: Thank you.

SUZEN POLK-HOFFSES: Thank you.

AMBER WILSON: Thank you.

CHANG: So, Mike, I started off by quoting you. You taught inside the classroom last year, and now you're coaching teachers. Can you just tell us, what are you hearing from those teachers right now, the ones that you're working with?

REINHOLDT: Sure. Right now, teachers, like I said before, they're drowning. They feel like they can't keep their heads above water. They're responsible for not only the standards that they have in the classroom for this year, but they're also responsible for all of the lost learning for the last 18 months. They feel like they simply can't keep up.

CHANG: Well, Suzen, I mean, we are nearly two years into this pandemic. We're facing down another intense wave of infections, which will, no doubt, complicate how you do your job. Did you even think that you would still be here today?

POLK-HOFFSES: Never. Definitely this year we thought, oh, everything's going to go well. But I will tell you that the teachers I've spoken to in my district and throughout the state have just shared that this has been the worst teaching year of their life. We thought that once everybody got vaccinated or we started wearing masks, that this would end. And this has become a nightmare where teachers here in the state of Maine are saying, I'm done. I've got to get out. It's horrendous. It truly is.

CHANG: Well, Amber, you teach older kids than Suzen does. How are you doing personally?

WILSON: You know, I'm doing OK. It's still difficult, though, even at the high school level. The kids are back in person, and that matters a lot, and seeing their faces is really important. But they've come back with a whole host of other kinds of issues. A lot of what we're seeing is that trauma that has, you know, sort of come out in ways that high school kids act out, so some discipline-type issues, just their attentiveness in class, trying to divorce them from their cellphone that they had unfettered access to all last year. So it's the normal high school things. It just feels like it's, you know, exponentially more.

CHANG: Amber, you mentioned that you have seen just more acting out by some of the students that you are teaching. I'm just curious if you could talk more about that and how does that acting out affect your own morale personally as a teacher?

WILSON: A lot of times at the high school, what we're seeing is what a lot of us would deem middle school behaviors at the high school level. We don't usually see them anymore, but these kids didn't really get to be in middle school. If you think about this year's ninth-graders, the last time they had real school was sometime in seventh grade. As much as middle school is already a difficult place to be, there's a lot of important things that happen with kids and milestones of maturing and learning how to act appropriately in schools.

CHANG: So what do you mean exactly by middle school behavior that you're seeing at the high school level?

WILSON: So, like, keeping them in their seats. They're having a hard time using the restroom appropriately. It's like, get up, you know, go to the bathroom, be back in a few minutes. They're taking 10 minutes or longer in the bathroom. They're vandalizing the bathrooms, and they are participating in this TikTok challenge that, every month, asks students to do different things at their schools. It started with vandalize your bathroom. One of them was even go hit a teacher.

CHANG: Wow.

WILSON: Fortunately, nobody at my school did that, but they sure took the vandalize the bathroom to heart.

CHANG: Mike, what have you been hearing from the teachers you're working with? I mean, are you hearing a lot of what Amber's saying about these behavioral problems?

REINHOLDT: Yeah. I mean, there are certainly behaviors, and those TikTok challenges extend all the way down to elementary school. But, you know, the teachers are - they're just feeling overwhelmed. I work with the most passionate, dedicated professionals that you would hope to have your child in their classroom, and they are feeling overwhelmed by this - the amount of responsibilities, the stresses that are put on them, both in the professional hemisphere and also in their personal lives here. And they're breaking down underneath it. I find people crying in the bathroom. I just was talking to a teacher the other day, and they were - they said, this is the first day I haven't cried in a week. These people are just breaking down under the pressures here because of how much responsibility they're expected to handle. And then, simply, they're just not given enough time to deal with all of the things that they have to do.

CHANG: Meanwhile, I mean, we're all a little apprehensive right now - right? - about this wave of omicron infections. How do you think omicron is going to further complicate the jobs of teachers - Suzen?

POLK-HOFFSES: I think more people are going to get sick. There are no subs. So we'll show up, and they will pull people - our resource people, who are supposed to be helping with math and with reading. Oh, you can't do that with these group of students. You have to go sub. We're asking for the support, and we're basically told, there is no support. You, teacher, you're going to have to do the best you can. We're trying to do the best we can, but we are imploding within. Never in a million years - I've been doing this for 21 years - on my 21st year, I never thought I'd be imploding. I thought I'd be, wow, this is great. You know, let me start mentoring people. Mentoring? Are you kidding? I can barely keep it together myself. So there are problems within education, and this has just compounded it. It's put a magnifying glass, and we're like ants. And we're all getting burned up, and they're just saying, do the best you can.

CHANG: Well, before I let you all go, I have to ask, have the past - what? - almost two years now - have - has the pandemic made any of you reconsider sticking with your profession, with your careers?

POLK-HOFFSES: No. I truly believe that education is a game changer for students, and it helped me. And absolutely not, I'm not going to let this virus kick me. I'm going to stay here, virus. You're not going to kick me out of my classroom.

WILSON: I would agree. I think it's even more important now to have passionate people in front of kids to help them see that there is a way through this. And that's what I want to do. Now, do I browse the internet and look at beautiful islands I could retire on someday? Absolutely.

CHANG: (Laughter).

WILSON: Sooner, getting closer - but not today. Not today.

CHANG: And Mike?

REINHOLDT: And I agree. I'm not going anywhere, but I'm going to be honest. I know a lot of people that are very passionate teachers that are losing that passion. They are struggling. They need help. And I'll tell you what - there's not enough money in this job to keep people here for that. They have to be passionate, and if they lose that, they're out. And that's only going to make this crisis worse.

CHANG: That is Mike Reinholdt of Davenport, Iowa, Amber Wilson of Denver, Colo., and Suzen Polk-Hoffses of Milbridge, Maine. Thank you to all three of you for this conversation and for what you do every single day.

REINHOLDT: Thank you.

WILSON: Thank you.

POLK-HOFFSES: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "HALO HEADS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.