With school out, teachers talk about burnoutby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
MINNEAPOLIS — On a sunny and bustling patio at a northeast Minneapolis bar, half a dozen teachers from Southwest High School recently gave Michael Kennedy a send off.
"It's just a friendly thing that they're doing," said Kennedy, 63, "It's very kind."
Kennedy is retiring after 35 years with the Minneapolis School District. His colleagues are sad to see him go, particularly because the experienced educator is leaving at the end of what teachers say was a very challenging year.
June brings a mix of emotions for teachers: relief over making it through another year and a sense of accomplishment after helping students learn. But for many teachers struggle this time of year, feeling completely burned out.
A survey earlier this year found job satisfaction for teachers across the country is at its lowest point in two decades.
"I'm tired," said Megan Marsnik, who teaches English at Southwest High School. "I still haven't recovered from the year."
Marsnick said she's proud to work with a talented group of teachers at one of the best high schools in the state. Teachers remain committed to helping students, she said, but the recent drumbeat of anti-teacher sentiment among legislators and some in the public is getting them down.
"Morale is down," Marsnick said. "But I can't say and I won't say that teaching is worse."
Casey Briskin, another English teacher at Southwest High, said teachers can't help but notice the sometimes harsh rhetoric directed against them. "It's true we feel that we're not respected," she said.
For the most part, Briskin said, teachers generally block out negative comments from the public or lawmakers during the school year, and concentrate on teaching students.
But that became harder this year when the Legislature passed a bill allowing schools to consider performance and not just seniority, in deciding layoffs.
During debate over the so-called "Last In, First Out" bill at the Capitol and on newspaper editorial pages, advocates of the move called some tenured teachers lazy, saying they couldn't be fired for anything but the most egregious of offenses, like showing up drunk or hitting a student.
"Comments like that just hit us in the gut," Briskin said. "We feel if people would come and teach at least for a week they would know how difficult of a job this is."
In the end, Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, vetoed the bill. He called the measure premature because the state is still trying to figure out how best to evaluate teachers.
Similar debates around the country seem to have sapped some of teachers' enthusiasm.
A recent survey of American teachers by the Met Life insurance company found less than half of teachers are "very satisfied" with their jobs, down 15 points from two years before.
Teachers say their workload, heated political rhetoric over education policy and increasing criticism causes low morale.
Leaders of the state's teachers union, Education Minnesota, are concerned that low morale will keep promising teachers out of the profession.
Dan Douglas, who teaches middle school and high school math in the Montevideo School District, advised his son against becoming a teacher. Douglas himself comes from a long line of teachers, but when his son expressed interest in teaching, he recommended otherwise, citing changing attitudes toward the profession.
"If he does have another interest, if there's something else that he's really passionate as well, I would kind of encourage him to that direction," Douglas said.
Concerned that low teacher morale could affect students in the classroom, school district officials have turned to consultants for help.
Among them Nathan Eklund, a former teacher from Golden Valley, Minn., who works part-time with principals, superintendents and teachers to help them better communicate. He hopes that improves teachers' outlook.
"This is not about cheering people up," Eklund said. "It's about having an effect on the daily reality of teaching. That's a long, muddy, slow process."
Eklund is also encouraging college administrators to better train future teachers. He said they do a good job teaching classroom skills, but often don't prepare educators to handle everything else.
"The X factors that we don't train teachers for, we don't really evaluate well enough, is their colleagues -- their boss, the policies and procedures under which they'll be teaching," he said. "That's the unforeseen elements of their career."
Eklund said all teachers could use continuing education on similar topics -- and that a one-day workshop now and then just isn't enough.
- Morning Edition, 06/14/2012, 7:20 a.m.