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School's in session, and teachers need help

caption: Seattle School for Boys students walk together before the first day of school on Monday, September 13, 2021, along 28th Avenue South in Seattle.
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Seattle School for Boys students walk together before the first day of school on Monday, September 13, 2021, along 28th Avenue South in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

It’s August. The hottest, longest-feeling stretch of summer stands before us. It’s hard to imagine going back to school.

But in just about a month, students will be returning to the classroom for a new year of learning.

And so will their teachers.

Last year was rough for a lot of educators.

A poll taken in January by the National Education Association found that 90% of members were feeling burnt out. According to the poll, 55% of NEA members plan to leave the field of education earlier than planned.

Those numbers were even higher among Black and Latino teachers, who are already under-represented in schools.

Brooke Brown, the 2021 Washington State Teacher of the Year who serves as the instructional equity specialist for the Franklin Pierce School District, said the poll results aren't surprising.

"I have heard from a lot of educators and just really feeling that our system is burning out our best and brightest educators and the folks that are leaving are leaving a really big hole for our young people," Brown said. "And it's not something that we can stick a Band-Aid on."

Jerad Koepp, the 2022 Washington Teacher of the Year, said he agrees that the pandemic exacerbated a lot of pressure points within the school system.

"Most districts wanted to start like nothing happened," Koepp said, "without the sort of emotional and psychological support necessary to be in place, and to realize that we all went through a very difficult experience together as communities. But once we go back into the workplace, we're all siloed, right? Everyone needs to stay in their lane."

Koepp is the Native student program specialist for North Thurston Public Schools. He’s also a member of the Wukchumni tribe.

"We teachers get into the profession, because we're passionate about serving our communities," he said. "We're passionate about education, and making sure we're contributing to future amazing human beings. But if that hope wanes, because we want to act like these things don't happen, or that we're not willing to shift priorities, then we start to lose hope. And then we have to start thinking about, well, where can I share my love and my efforts to keep up with that mission?"

For Amy Campbell, the 2020 Washington Teacher of the Year, the answer is finding community.

"I think during the pandemic, we became very isolated from each other. And what we find is collective, is communities," said Campbell, who works as a special education teacher in the Camas School District in southwest Washington. "Communities that work together have a stronger sense of resilience. They have the tools and the supports that they need built into their community to sustain them through really heavy lifts, which is what we're going to be continuing to see in education — a heavy lift."

Brown agreed, and said it's also about respect.

"I think we have to return to understand that teaching is a professional career," Brown said, "that teachers have studied the craft of teaching, that it's great to learn a topic; it's really hard to teach it. And so I think really respecting and understanding the new teachers for what they can bring."

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