By Sam P.K. Collins
It’s still so early in the school year that many buildings still have paint that hasn’t fully dried or students who have yet to find the best way to their classrooms.
Nonetheless, some teachers in the public and public charter sectors said they anticipate another stressful year, due mostly to staff shortages and bureaucratic hurdles like what they’ve experienced in previous years.
One charter school teacher from Southeast who requested anonymity recounted breaking up a handful of fights during the first week of classes, injuring themselves in the process. For them, that situation, in part, hinted at the school’s failure to place elective courses, like the one they teach, in higher regard.
More than a year after the full return to in-person learning, the teacher continues to see remnants of the pre-COVID world they said made teaching cumbersome. That’s why after more than a decade in the profession, they have decided to make this school year their last.
“Administrators didn’t take COVID as an opportunity to change,” the teacher said. “I struggle with the amount of stress that school puts on us. Maybe we need more time off. Maybe we need shorter days. The burnout is serious. It’s early September and it feels like June.”
When students returned to school in late August, many schools across the District still experienced teacher vacancies. Teachers reported overcrowded classrooms while school leaders called in substitute teachers and staff members to address gaps.
Meanwhile, newly-released PARCC scores highlighted what administrators described as COVID-related learning loss. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education, in conjunction with DC Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Dr. Lewis D. Ferebee and DC Public Charter School Board Executive Director Dr. Michelle J. Walker-Davis, have since touted curricular changes intended to increase students’ academic standing.
However, many DCPS teachers have expressed anxiety about the onus placed on them this year and how that would affect conditions in the classroom.
While D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) continues to say differences over teachers’ pay have stalled contract negotiations with the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU), some teachers, like Chrystal Puryear, said they’ve had qualms about PARCC testing, IMPACT evaluations and most important, teacher planning time.
Puryear, a teacher of 21 years, said DCPS has replaced individual planning time, where teachers analyze data and craft future lessons with professional development and learning together to Advance our Practice (LEAP) meetings, much to the detriment of teachers and their students.
“If we don’t have planning time during the school day, we’re doing it at home,” said Puryear, a PK-3 teacher at Thomas Elementary School in Northeast.
“Our work day already doesn’t end at 3:30 p.m.,” she said. “We’re working until 9 and 10 at night. That’s less time that we have with our own children. That’s one of the hangups with the contract. The city says it’s about money but it’s about us continuing to have our workers’ rights.”
Months ago, District public school teachers and substitute instructors converged on Freedom Plaza to demand a finalized contract. District officials still had not been able to secure one with the WTU for three years. In an act of civil disobedience, teachers stormed the chambers of the D.C. Council.
While District officials have focused on compensation increases in the current negotiations, WTU President Jacqueline Pogue Lyons said the conversation must be widened to include other aspects of the teacher experience, particularly planning time and work-life balance.
“The time that we were asking for wouldn’t have interrupted instruction,” Pogue-Lyons said.
“We also asked for more time for special education teachers and providers who have a tremendous amount of paperwork,” she added. “[The District] didn’t want to give us time. What happens is teachers have to cover classes. What if class sizes are too large? What’s the fallback? All the things we asked for are tied to student outcomes.”