February 11, 2022
“I fear that we could lose some great educators from the district and from the profession,” said Brad Harris, president of the Pickerington teachers’ union, Pickerington Education Association (PEA). “There are serious concerns with burnout from teachers and students, and I think we need to focus on these concerns immediately.”
At the school board meeting on January 24, Harris addressed district leaders to “bring attention to the difficulties and frustration that teachers are currently experiencing, and try to create a dialogue with the school board and within the community. We have a lot of great educators in this district, and I want to make sure that their voices are heard and considered in decision making.”
Harris said that the PEA had conducted a poll of its members, and while only 160 of the union’s 700 members had responded by the time of the school board meeting, 79 percent of those who had completed the survey said that they were “exhausted or burned out”, 80 percent said that they “did not feel supported by the administration”, and 88 percent said that they “did not feel supported by the school board”. Sixteen percent said that they were considering leaving the district, and 18 percent said they were considering leaving the profession altogether.
The PEA has since completed the survey, having received responses from 75 percent of the district’s educators. While the PEA would not publicly divulge the final results until after they have discussed their findings with the board and administration, Harris said that “the numbers have only moved a few percentage points since I shared the survey information with the school board.”
Superintendent Chris Briggs questioned the wording of the survey.
“I’d be curious how you defined ‘supported’ because I think that’s a loaded question, and it’s not fair in how you word that question,” Briggs said. “The board of education, the district staff and the principals all have different roles when it comes to supporting teachers. If I just generically went out and said, ‘do I feel supported by something?’, what do you think the response is going to be?”
Harris responded that he “would hope that if you ask my students how ‘supported’ they feel by me, that the overwhelming response – regardless of how you word the question – would be ‘extremely high’,” Harris said. “The big thing that I’m trying to relay here is the concerns that the teachers have, the stress load that they are feeling, and the perception that they have.”
Briggs said that the survey should have also included wording that would have enabled the respondents to reflect upon the district’s successes.
“What positive question did you ask them?” Briggs said.
Harris responded that he does try to “sell the wins” for the PLSD but that his focus is to help those who are struggling.
“I think that right now there are a lot of teachers that just feel like they are drowning, and we need to get together and come up with some creative solutions to alleviate that,” Harris said. “I know we are grateful for those PD (Professional Development) days and different things like that, but I still think there’s a lot going on and I do think it’s impacting our kids negatively.”
Board member Keith Kristoff said that stress levels are currently high in most industries, and teachers nationwide are under pressure.
“I’m trying to figure out what you are trying to say is unique to Pickerington?” Kristoff said.
Harris agreed that teachers across the country are struggling, but there are issues unique to Pickerington. In other districts, administrators encourage teacher input in decisions that will affect their classrooms. Furthermore, other districts do not ask educators to forgo their planning and lunch periods.
“I just want to stress to you the frustrations that teachers are having,” Harris said. “The overwhelming response is they do feel more overworked, they do have less time to get things done, and they do feel there’s a lot of responsibilities that take away from what they should be doing in the classroom.”
Briggs cautioned Harris that “sometimes a small majority controls the message, and I think that’s not fair to paint that picture. I’m not trying to say, ‘you’re wrong.’ I’m not trying to say, ‘it’s not real’. I’m just saying that we are doing a lot of great things in this school district.
People are coming to our school district because of our teachers, and that’s because of our principals and it’s because of our board of education and it’s because of our administrators. So I don’t want you to paint this picture that they’re not supported at the district office or by the board.”
Harris replied that he has traveled to each building and spoken with hundreds of teachers.
“It’s not just a few select that we’re dealing with. We need to not minimize those concerns,” Harris said.
Board member Cathy Olshefski said that she wanted to meet with PEA representatives to discuss the results of the survey once completed.
“Nobody likes their job right now – it doesn’t matter the industry,” Olshefski said. “We still have overriding issues to work through, whether it’s called COVID or anger or politics or money or whatever. I’m not dismissing the results of the survey, but I do think we have to acknowledge that there’s a big ole black cloud that’s been hanging over all of us for two-plus years.”
Since his presentation, Harris now believes that the board and district administrators will be more open to including teachers in planning processes.
“I do feel that we have made recent progress in the district on some issues, and it seems there is a willingness to work on our concerns from the district office,” Harris said. “I am hopeful and optimistic that with input from multiple perspectives, we can solve these problems together.”
In an official statement, the PEA wrote, “Following the board meeting on January 24, 365 more Pickerington Education Association (PEA) members responded to our survey, bringing the total responses to more than 75 percent of the district’s educators. Those results provide a fuller picture of the situation in our district and overwhelmingly supported what the smaller, but significant, sample of members had told us earlier in the survey process: Pickerington’s teachers are burned out, exhausted, and crying out for more support from the district administration and the board of education.
PEA has been pleased to see Superintendent Briggs take these concerns to heart and appreciates that he recently launched a listening tour to better understand the concerns of our members. PEA looks forward to working productively and collaboratively with the administration and the Board of Education in the future to ensure Pickerington’s educators have the support and resources they need to provide the best education possible for the students of our district.”
Educators Fear Backlash
Several teachers have contacted Pickerington Online but wished to remain anonymous.
“Employees are afraid to speak up,” said Teacher A. “Especially those of us who have kids in the district – we are afraid of losing our jobs if we speak up or talk with anyone outside of the building. We are also afraid of what repercussions that could have on our kids if we speak up.
Sometimes we feel like we’re being gaslighted. If we do say something, we are sometimes told repeatedly that it’s ‘not that bad’, or we are told that we are interpreting things the wrong way. Building administrators don’t have much to say either because they are told what to do and say by district office administration, and they will deny that there are problems with everything. Because image is their goal.”
Harris said that if teachers follow the district’s code of conduct, there should be no repercussions.
“The contract that has been negotiated offers teachers due process if there is a discipline issue,” Harris said. “I do think we can have some honest conversations, and I hope that is welcome from all sides.”
Behavior Problems at a High Point
At the city of Pickerington Safety Committee meeting on February 2, Police Chief Tod Cheney said that “this year is just a bad time” for juvenile disturbances, including a “record number of fights and vandalism”.
“This year is awful for so many reasons. I’ve been asked to “develop relationships” with students,” said Teacher C. “Students who are understandably upset that their world has been turned upside down for 18 months, and school is pretending that everything is back to normal and going full speed ahead.
Kids yelling and cussing at me and at each other, kids flat out refusing to follow directions and telling me that what I teach doesn’t matter, et cetera. I love teaching, but I’m not doing that right now. I’m babysitting and just going through the motions each day. I am actively looking for a career switch, which breaks my heart and soul after almost two decades of teaching. I am dreading tomorrow already and it’s ruining my day so far today.”
Teacher B agreed.
“It makes me sick, seeing how many times kids have been in a fight, and they are right back in the classroom with absolutely no consequence,” Teacher B said. “We are teaching kids that when you get upset, it is ok to lash out.
I was surprised to hear how many teachers say they have to be on anxiety meds because of teaching. I am one of them. Otherwise, I would cry most days. I am also now on a sleep aid because I cannot sleep with all the dreaming I am having. I dream about work and then get up and work. It’s like I never leave. This is not ok.”
Teachers Losing Planning and Lunch Periods
“In-person learning definitely has its advantages and is a better option for most students, which is of course with the assumption that teaching is able to be adequately performed when we have massive staff and student absences,” Harris said. “The equation starts to change due to the spike in COVID cases and the lack of adequate staffing. We’ve recently had schools that have had up to a few hundred students just hanging out in the gym being supervised by duty aids.”
Teachers have been forfeiting their planning time, which is typically used for grading and lesson preparation, to cover other classes.
“This loss is happening for weeks at a time in some buildings,” Harris said. “Inevitably, this loss of time at work turns into hours that teachers have to work at home on top of the work that teachers already routinely have to take home.”
When there is a shortage of duty aids, teachers forgo a portion of their 30-minute lunch period to cover recess.
“We currently have the longest teacher workday and the longest number of calendar days compared to any central Ohio school district,” Harris said. “One of the original rationales when this was implemented many years ago was to focus on things such as collaboration, training, and receiving professional development. What has ended up happening over time is teachers have had more time of required instruction while getting less time for planning and collaboration.
I’ve had numerous teachers express concerns that they have so many things to complete each day that they are incapable of doing any of it as well as they would like, and they are just trying to survive.”
Teachers Covering Larger Classes
“There are incidents of teachers combining their class with another class, giving them over 50 students at a time,” Harris said. “This is a violation of the contract, which the district is aware of, but teachers still do it because they believe that is what’s best for the students, and they will not leave students unsupervised.”
The schools have also been rotating teachers every 30 minutes to ensure that there is always an adult in each room to supervise students.
“It’s very difficult to have any type of quality instruction in these situations,” Harris said.
Special Education Teachers Challenged to Meet Requirements
“Based on our current policy, when special ed teachers and RTI (Response to Intervention) teachers are absent, their subs are pulled to cover classrooms,” Harris said. “This means that students that most need in-person learning and teacher attention are not getting it.”
By law, special education instructors must meet with each of their students a minimum number of hours as dictated by Individual Education Plans (IEPs).
“I agree that we need to get classrooms covered, but we are losing essential services in order to make this happen,” Harris said.
Teachers Want Input in District’s Proposals
“PEA members believe it was a good strategy for the district to offer the virtual meetings with teachers and parents in order to introduce Flexible Learning 3.0 (FL3),” Harris said. “Teachers, however, are frustrated with the fact that no teachers or principals were consulted in the development of the plan. There is a lot of knowledge and unique perspective that was left out by not including educators.”
Three days after administrators introduced the FL3 to the teachers, the district implemented it for the first time.
“There was confusion related to the specific logistics, but Pickerington educators do what they always do – they worked with the principals to make the plan productive for all students,” Harris said. “There were not enough subs in some of the K-6 buildings to provide coverage for all the teachers, and the classroom teachers did not receive any structured planning time for that day.”
Harris believes the decision of whether the district should go to virtual instruction, hybrid or in-person is complicated, and that the teachers and principals need to be involved.
“I don’t know that anyone knows what the best answer is, and there are a lot of moving parts,” Harris said, “but I believe that the people that are in front of the kids every day, working with them, interacting with them, educating them, and caring for them, should have some input in these decisions.
Every time I speak with a group of teachers, I am amazed at the amount of knowledge that teachers collectively have. They offer insight and perspective that I know I would have never thought of by myself.”
The district did include union members in the calendar and teacher advisory committees. Harris believed both of these were productive because of the collaboration between administrators, principals and teachers.
“Progress was made on these issues because the people involved went in with an open mind, listened to each other, and multiple perspectives were shared. There was a great dialogue and willingness from all parties to find productive solutions. All these positives are things that may be implemented in the future. None of us can fix any of these issues alone. When we get together and work through things and there’s an honest discussion, we can get a lot of things done.”