Low Teacher Morale Raises Concerns for the Community

From left to right, English teachers Elizabeth Kirsch, Dana Vinger, Elisa Wong, and Scott Aronson sit together during lunch. In face of low morale, community among teachers is especially important. The Post collected information on morale from 13 FHS teachers and 4 other teachers. Many chose to stay anonymous. While there are limits to this survey given the nature of anonymous comments and small sample sizes, the responses do offer individual perspectives from some current and former educators. Photo by Kaley Seeberger

“I truly consider [teaching] my calling,” an anonymous Franklin teacher writes. “But what do you do when following your calling means feeling panic, grief, depression, and anger every day? I haven’t figured that out yet.”

When asked what three adjectives they would use to describe teacher morale at Franklin, the results, while mixed, were largely negative (see image at left). On the flipside, the same teacher that describes morale as “beaten down,” also mentions that they feel hopeful from their students. Art teacher Carrie Berning says, “Overall, I’ve felt very supported at Franklin—I feel like our administration has given me the support and funds to run my program.” However, she admits morale and experiences are “varied.”

When asked for specifics, many teachers complain that the new building is disappointing and has created a wave of new issues without fixing the old ones. As AP Biology and Physics teacher Matt Stewart explains, between adapting to new Franklin and the feelings that as a nation, education is “under prioritized,” it can be difficult for teachers to avoid feeling apathetic or frustrated. However, he believes that the overall national morale is “hopeful…the arc of history is long but bends towards justice.”

Franklin Principal Juanita Valder cites the importance of focusing on students. “I’m glad the kids feel respected, and that’s what we have to work for every day,” Valder says. “So yeah, morale might be a little low, but we’ll get through this like we’ve done everything else…there’s hope, there’s got to be hope.”

One anonymous teacher voices that while they understand that the administration shares feelings of “powerlessness,” they don’t believe administrators are doing enough to listen to teachers or to defend them against the district. Instead, the teacher adds, they are, “react[ing] unprofessionally and with blame when we try to bring problems to them.”
According to Valder, many problems being raised are outside of administrative control. “It might be harsh to hear, in the sense that—get over it—because we need to do our job, but in some parts of your brain, you’re saying, okay what is it we can solve?” Valder asks. “Let’s talk about it, get past it, because we got a job to do and that’s kind of the mindset I have to stay in to be able to be ahead of the game…so I can’t dwell too long on, ‘so I have to share my room’ or ‘I have to do this,’ those are things I can’t control. Bring me something I can control and I will help you.”

“The Franklin administration needs to stop what they are doing and listen to their staff,” urges another anonymous teacher. “I know they are overwhelmed, but leadership is not spinning in circles trying to put out today’s fires. Leadership is looking around, seeing that everything in the building is combustible, and figuring out what the biggest problems, as well as the lowest hanging fruit is, so that everything doesn’t blow up again tomorrow.”

However, as Vice Principal Emily Mather explains, administrators share the frustrations as well as the drive for change. “In many ways, we’re in the trenches right beside the teachers, though it doesn’t always feel that way.” She notes that administrators act as the “messenger” or the “face of the district” at Franklin. This can be challenging when she may not agree with every decision that’s being made, and yet she’s forced to be the voice of said decisions. Witnessing low teaching morale is “disheartening” for this reason, as administrators may feel constrained by district-level decisions and unable to meet teacher needs, Mather explains.

“I think that one of my frustrations is that the nature of this job is very ‘a mile wide and an inch deep,’” clarifies Mather, as problems faced by teachers and students “are not inch deep problems, but we give them inch deep attention because otherwise we’d never go home… the scope is really big.” Coming from a background of teaching, Mather initially sought to be an administrator in order to make the changes she wished to see, so she recognizes the legitimacy of teacher struggles and urges educators to communicate about the changes they want to see, and specifically, how she, with the “limitations” on her own capabilities, can help.

Retired PPS teacher Mary Lou Oberson says that throughout her 35 years of teaching, she observed that “morale can be strong if groups of teachers support each other inside and out of the classroom.”

Margo Horgan-Harms, who worked at PPS for 34 years before her current retirement, echoes this sentiment. “I wish I had all the answers as to how to make this incredible profession more inviting and supportive,” she says. “Under our current administration in Washington, D.C., teachers are going to continue to be road-blocked and impotent. More teacher input and leadership needs to be part of the equation for sure. Sadly, the important conversations will continue to take place in the teacher’s lounges, at the happy hours and on planning days when administrators vanish. At the very least, teachers will grow and carry on with the input of their creative and motivated colleagues.”

Unfortunately, nine of the thirteen Franklin teachers who chose to respond to the poll say that they had or are considering leaving the profession. While this may only represent a minority of voices, even losing these nine educators would be detrimental to the Franklin community, and it perhaps testifies to the urgency of addressing morale. With the risk of losing crucial members of the Franklin community, it seems important for students, parents, and administration alike to push for change in the conditions they face. Public school teachers are in many ways the cornerstone to functioning society.

The issues faced by Franklin teachers are not exclusive to the community, instead perhaps only mirroring a “serious disconnect” on a national level according to one survey response. With the nomination of Betsy DeVos as the US Secretary of Education despite her having no experience in public schools and legislative cuts, teachers describe feeling “frightened” for what the future might hold.

Mather agrees: “I’m in this business, specifically and especially, to support students whose education is impacted by poverty, or institutionalized racism, and so the election of Donald Trump, for me at least, has been frightening, and disconcerting for the kids who I’ve really devoted my career to supporting. Depending on the day, I think it’s made emboldening in terms of, you want to fight harder than ever, and it’s also discouraging; it’s very sad to talk to a kid who you care about and are maybe working to support who’s talking about possibly facing deportation… I’d say I’d really just look at it from the perspective of some of our most vulnerable kids having additional stress and hardship placed upon them because of the political environment of the country, which, in turn, makes giving them access to a meaningful and rich education that much more challenging.”

Inequity throughout education is based on a variety of things, including race, class, immigration status and disability. This myriad of factors leaves those working to support their most vulnerable students on a daily basis at the whims of federal, state, and district administrations which control or influence many of the issues possibly contributing to student struggles. In addition, teachers expressed that low pay, overbearing workloads, dissatisfying resources and an overall lack of support leave many faced with the difficult decision over whether or not they should continue teaching.

“Corporations like College Board and Pearson treat children like a commodity,” says one anonymous teacher. Several others echo this sentiment, expressing concern over who controls public education, with one teacher asserting that the national privatization of education leads to it being “treated as a business and students as consumers instead of people with a legal right to learn.”

Tacoma Public high school teacher Catherine Peterson says that while she’s always loved her job, this past year has altered her perspective. “I have less patience, empathy and understanding for students because I feel like my feelings, mental health and well-being is not considered by students, staff or admin.” As to changes that can be made, Peterson advocates for a better mentor and training program to support teachers coming into the profession within their first five years.

Teachers also list increased visitation of classrooms (beyond evaluations), more collaborative time, and fewer “unnecessary” meetings as specific ways administration can help teachers within the building. As a community, they outline a need for respect and trust from students and administrators alike; as a nation, they call for better funding, more support for teachers’ unions, and political action. “We must check our privilege at the door and pay our taxes for those who cannot pay taxes,” one Franklin teacher urges.
Increased awareness of this low morale can act as a call to action for the Franklin community, as individuals and as members under one society. When teachers have the support and resources to do their job, students are more likely to thrive. “We need to take a fearless personal and national inventory about what is important to us, and start paying for it,” one teacher writes. “I pray it is our children.”

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