This interview was hosted by Scott Simon of Alabama Public Radio on November 13, 2021.
Many students and teachers recently got a four-day weekend. Several large school districts from Seattle to Wake County, N.C., decided to cancel classes yesterday, the Friday after Veteran’s Day. Well, districts gave different reasons. Many reported widespread burnout among teachers. And educators say that they are overwhelmed. There is a critical shortage of substitute teachers to cover their classes.
Sobia Sheikh teaches math at the Mariner High School in the Mukilteo School District in Washington state and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.
SOBIA SHEIKH: Of course – thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.
SIMON: I understand, Ms. Sheikh, that your school did not cancel classes, but many teachers and students were out. And you yourself had to stay home. Help us understand what the shortage is like.
SHEIKH: To be honest, I feel like we’ve always had this shortage of staffing and sub shortages. This is a systemic issue that the pandemic has exacerbated. Many of us right now – we’re in survival mode from last year. We’re fighting to make it through the year, through the month, through the week – some of us, even through the day. In the mornings. I get to school, I spend at least 10 minutes in my car. And then I debate, like, I don’t want to go in today. I don’t want to go in today.
It’s because many of us are struggling. We’re burnt out. The extra pressure starts as soon as we walk into our classrooms. We get emails every day to cover classes. And honestly, we do – we want to cover in classes. We want to help out our colleagues. But we’re emotionally unable to do so.
SIMON: Are there no substitute teachers? Are there fewer substitute teachers than there used to be?
SHEIKH: We have some substitute teachers, but we don’t have enough. And the root of the issue is recruiting and retaining educators, and that includes substitutes. In some states, our substitutes – they’re not paid really well. A lot of substitutes are not coming back due to the lack of pay. My district just increased their Friday pay by $50. But we need to figure out how to bring in more substitutes in our building. We need to figure out, how do we increase their quality of their workday and give them the respect that they need?
SIMON: But it certainly can add up to burnout when the day is booked from one end to the other, and you just go from one lesson to another.
SHEIKH: Absolutely. You got a 30-minute lunch break. You’re covering classes. You’re covering your own. You’re also covering your colleagues’ classes, lesson-planning, grading, responding to emails, contacting parents, contacting students who are gone on COVID leave – just added burnout.
SIMON: I cannot imagine, either, that all the stress is helpful for your students, is it?
SHEIKH: No. I know our students are struggling with their own mental health. We’ve had students gone for COVID leave. I had students email me today. And they’re like, hey, I’m going to take a mental health day. Please let me know what I’ve missed. Or, hey, I’m trying to catch up on my college apps, which I haven’t gotten to. Please let me know what I’ve missed.
SIMON: Ms. Sheikh, I have to ask, have you ever thought about leaving?
SHEIKH: I did. And ever since I was a kid, I had always wanted to be a teacher. And now members of my own community have discouraged me to now go into teaching. And seven years later, now I’m questioning whether I should leave. I have thought about leaving after this year. Or I even wonder if I’m going to make it to the end of the year. And I’m afraid because I don’t know what I’m going to do. That scares me, leaving the thought of teaching (ph), leaving students and the relationships that I have built with students. I have former students contact me, and they’re like, hey, you remember me? I’m so-and-so. I’m doing this now. And it’s always great to hear from those students.
SIMON: Are there ways that occur to you that you think your school district can help?
SHEIKH: Districts should be focusing on, how do we give our educators more time to plan and collaborate with other teachers? How can we work more with our students to build those relationships and remove those extra added responsibilities, like assessments and committee work? And they need to be reconsidered so we have more time to connect with our students.
We need more counselors and therapists and social workers. Last thing is we should be focusing on how to retain educators. We can’t invite educators out of thin air. We know that teacher prep programs have seen a decrease. And really, now is the time that districts should be competing to see who can retain and support the most educators through multiple models of support and making self-care really a priority. Otherwise, our students lose out.
SIMON: Sobia Sheikh is a high school math teacher in the Mukilteo School District of Washington state. Thank you so much for being with us.
SHEIKH: Thank you for having me.