Think Out Loud

Portland teachers are at a breaking point, say the results of a recent survey

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Nov. 15, 2021 5:25 p.m. Updated: Nov. 15, 2021 9:31 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, Nov. 15

A school bus outside a school building.

A school bus drops students off at Kellogg Middle School in southeast Portland on September 1, 2021.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB


Teachers in Portland are so overwhelmed and exhausted that half are considering retiring early, taking a leave of absence or quitting. That’s according to a survey by the Portland Association of Teachers. Elizabeth Thiel, PAT president, says there’s already a shortage of teachers, and schools — and kids — cannot afford to lose any more. The union is asking Portland Public Schools to take immediate action to lighten workloads and relieve some pressure on teachers. Thiel joins us to share more about the survey results and what might be done to bring down the stress to support teachers better and keep them teaching.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: You’re listening to think out loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. We end today with the results of a striking survey of teachers in Portland’s public schools. The teachers union conducted the survey, the majority of its members took part. More than two thirds of respondents said that they can’t get their work done during their regular work day, and that their stress levels are high or severe. About 30% said that stress is affecting their physical health. What’s more, over 1,000 PPS educators, meaning almost a quarter of the district’s total workforce, reported that they are considering taking leave of absence or resigning this year.

Elizabeth Thiel has been a PPS English and Social Studies teacher since 2003. She is currently the president of the PPS Teachers Union. She joins us now to talk about what is behind this survey. Elizabeth Thiel, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Elizabeth Thiel: Hi, thanks for having me.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. What prompted you to create this survey?

Thiel: Well, this school year we started off with really high expectations. I think students, families, and teachers did. Teachers have been so excited and relieved to be with students in person. But pretty quickly into the spring, at our PAT union office, we started hearing from an alarming number of members asking for help resigning or taking leaves of absence. So we developed this survey to really dig into how widespread these feelings were, and start developing some solutions to make things better.

Miller: What do you see as the most important findings from the survey?

Thiel: Well, teaching, being an educator, whether that means you’re a counselor or a social worker or a school psychologist or a classroom educator, has always been very demanding work, with a high workload and one of the highest stress levels of any job, it frequently polls that way. So teachers are used to working hard and having stress.

This year has really felt different to people. And so in digging into what’s going on, it seems to me like there’s three main causes. There are increased demands related to COVID . That’s those safety protocols, trying to make classrooms run with a very different set of rules about how students can interact with each other, having masks on, all those things are difficult. We’ve seen a real increase in student need this year. Emotional need, behavioral, and academic. And at the same time, we are dealing with a staffing shortage that’s been persistent since the beginning of the school year, and maybe getting worse.

Miller: I’m curious about the social, emotional, and academic needs. Can you give us a sense for how that affects both a teacher’s workload? How the social and emotional needs and the academic needs are piling up and adding to a particular teacher’s workload?


Thiel: This year, it is not a surprise that students are coming back to us live and in person with a wide range of needs, due to some really traumatic experiences we’ve all been through in the last year and a half. And so that may mean that within a given classroom, students are at very different levels academically.

Students have been used to managing their own time and behavior in a way that is very different than when being in school. We’re hearing teachers say that students get fatigued simply from being asked to sit still and in chairs for seven hours a day, when they’re used to being able to sit how they like, move as they like, eat when they like. And our classrooms are just as crowded as they’ve ever been. So trying to keep students three feet apart, wearing masks in small classrooms, it’s a level of management that… I guess we’ll see if students will be able to re-acclimate to that, or if we just really need to make some changes into what we expect of students in the day. So for a teacher, that means readjusting constantly with the curriculum is, trying to create a classroom system that supports kids with hugely varying needs, connecting with families and students and support services to try to address those needs.

All of those things are demands that educators always have had. They have really just been amplified with this COVID crisis.

Miller: In terms of the workload, the specific numbers are worth reiterating and there’s one more I didn’t mention earlier. So about 80% of teachers in your survey said they can’t get their work done during the regular work day, and 20% said they can’t get it done no matter how much extra time they spend on nights or weekends. I mean, that makes it seem that it’s just not physically possible for a lot of teachers to do what has been given to them, what is now their job. What does that mean for students?

Thiel: Well, I think educators do really the impossible every day to try to shield students from the lack of resources that our schools have. A lot of the stress and strain that we’re hearing from teachers is in trying every day, feeling compelled, feeling responsible for doing the impossible and providing an experience for kids that we’re not staffed to be able to give. And so, another aspect of this that I want to make sure to highlight is that we have a staffing shortage, and then part of that is a shortage in substitute educators. And those problems compound each other. So in a school that has a counselor, that counselor might, instead of being utilized to give specific supports to students who need counseling, that counselor may be asked to be subbing in classrooms where there is not an educator. So that student then doesn’t get those needs, and it falls on the classroom teacher to try to make up for the difference. It means that classroom educators, instead of having a planning time every day as they need to to be able to be ready for kids, to give them feedback, meet their needs, connect with their parents, those educators are frequently being asked to substitute in classrooms during their planning time because there has to be an adult with kids.

So everybody is really scrambling to do the basics of keeping kids safe and supervised, and it means that everything that we offer the kids, we are stressing and straining every day to cover the basics.

Miller: Not that we can put this in numbers, the overall severity here, but is it fair to say that at Portland Public Schools, and perhaps statewide or nationwide, what you’re seeing is a truly urgent crisis, that public education is now at a kind of breaking point?

Thiel: I think that we are in a crisis unlike any that I’ve seen in my almost 20 years in public education. Like I said, teachers and educators are used to working with stress, are used to working way beyond their contract hours, and doing it with joy because it’s to serve kids. This year, things are different. It truly feels unsustainable. And hearing about educators who have dedicated their life to serving students saying “I don’t think I can do this anymore” is very scary.

Miller: I noted that close to a quarter, not just of the respondents, and you got something like three quarters of the educator workforce that’s the members of the union to take part in this, but even more than that, it was about a quarter of the total educator workforce said they’re either considering a leave of absence or retiring early. You noted at the beginning that one of the reasons you did this to begin with, put the survey out, is because a lot of teachers had been coming to you talking about just that. Can you give us a sense for the numbers? It’s one thing for teachers to be talking about or considering taking time away or actually leaving the profession, but how many are actually doing it right now?

Thiel: Well, I’m doing everything I can to try to change the course here. We can’t afford to lose any more educators. Like I said, we’re already in a staffing shortage, we’re already strained just to do the bare minimums of keeping all of our classrooms supervised by a licensed adult. I don’t have numbers right now. I can say it’s been an inordinate number of people who have reached out to our office looking for help. But what I’m focusing on is what solutions we can put forward this year to make this year manageable, so that dedicated professional educators who want to dedicate their life’s work to our public schools can stay in the game, and we can work to make things better in the long run.

Miller: Let’s turn to that. What do you think we could do to reduce teacher workload or stress without sacrificing students’ educations?

Thiel: Yeah. So again, the best answer is we need way more staff in our schools. We need more paraeducators, we need more counselors, We need more classroom teachers. We need more social workers. We also need more custodians and paraeducators. It’s not just licensed educators. Our schools are short, all the kinds of staff. We’re short bus drivers, as parents know. Given that there doesn’t seem to be an immediate solution to that problem, we need to be working on making these jobs in our public schools, the kinds of jobs that people seek rather than flee. And the number one thing that educators are asking for now is the same thing that they’ve been asking for for decades, which is more time to plan, to work together, and to be able to provide students the services that they deserve.

Miller: Is that another way of saying less time in the classroom with kids? Because I mean if the workload is the issue and if they’re gonna have more time to plan and be together and talk to each other and strategize, it has to come from somewhere. Should that come from classroom time?

Thiel: Well, in an ideal situation, we’re able to provide all of that without making any changes to a full week of school for kids. And that is absolutely everybody’s first choice. If there is not a way to give educators time to do their work without thinking about some modifications to the school week, I think that’s an important thing to figure out. What we’re hearing from educators is that every day they’re going in feeling like they have not had time to prepare. That staffs haven’t even gotten together to be able to talk about how to readjust.

This summer, when we have planning time together before the students arrive, all of that time, which is usually devoted to creating school wide systems, making sure that educators are on the same page with how things work in the school. All that time this year went to planning for COVID safety. Which it had to, it’s urgent. But we desperately need time for the adults who work in our schools to be able to create the safe environments that our kids deserve, to be able to modify what we’re doing to meet students’ needs right now, and to acknowledge that things are different. I know a lot of us hoped that things would go back to normal or better than normal. But the reality is that we have to readjust. We’re still learning what kids need as this pandemic goes on.

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