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Fixing the problem of teacher burnout won't be simple

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CREATIVE COMMONS

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham this week signed education bills that will increase salaries of school workers, and increase benefits for teachers.These are efforts to address severe staffing shortages at schools amid burnout that has accelerated in the pandemic. However, fixing the issues will require many different solutions.

Albuquerque Public Schools is facing a lot of burnout among employees. The state’s largest school district has 617 vacancies for both teachers and staff.

Larry Fortess is director of the student and staff supports department for APS and he said his office tries to teach self-care.

"It’s exercise, hobbies, going outside on a lunch break and taking a walk. Eating right is really important and often teachers are so busy they don’t even get a chance to eat lunch. So it’s kind of common sense things" Fortess said.

But Gwen Perea Warniment said that doesn’t necessarily address the root causes of burnout, which she said mostly stems from pay inequity. Warniment is deputy cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Public Education Department.

"It’s hard to tell someone attend to self-care when the environment and the system is not going to change. That’s essentially telling the person just cope with this inequity and that is irresponsible and not transformational," said Warniment.

Warniment said PED is looking at how it can support educators through professional development, advocating for maximum compensation, and salary increases.

"They do an amazing amount of work to attend to the growth and development of the students that they work with. And yet, they’re also worried about their own families, meeting their needs in terms of paying for their mortgage or their paying for their bills because they aren’t paid enough," Warniment said.

"Burnout is when you have given everything you can give and you just don’t have anything to give anymore," said Billie Helean, President of Rio Rancho School Employees Union and first grade teacher.

She said that while raises are very much appreciated, teachers face other huge challenges including increased safety concerns.

"Teaching through a pandemic is really tricky just by itself because kids are coming into the classroom with really severe behavioral and emotional issues," Helean said.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham last month announced a plan to help with staffing shortages, the Supporting Teachers and Families (STAF). National Guard members would become licensed substitutes.

However, Helean said this plan is problematic.

"There are students who have really severe trauma around people in uniform. And not to diss people in uniform, that’s not my intent there" Helean said.

Rather, Helean suggested the state make the licensing process easier. It takes months for anyone to get licensed and that impacts the hiring process for educators from outside New Mexico.

But Superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools Hilario “Larry” Chavez said his district has over 120 vacancies and another 120 average daily absences. Chavez said the national guard can help fill gaps.

"Maybe manning internet hubs, helping student nutrition, someone has to see the out driving some bus routes, helping just keeping our schools clean" Chavez said.

Santa Fe Public School has also launched the Take a Break Initiative to help with burnout.

"We as district staff went into our schools and did all the recess duty and gave the teachers a break, gave them some time to take some self care. So, for us even trying to get child care in place for our employees could be a benefit and could help recruit and retain educators" said Chavez.

However, Ellen Bernstein President of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation said that it took a global pandemic for people to realize how problems like broken heating and cooling systems have also contributed to teacher burnout.

"It’s about the way in which we don’t have enough resources to do our work, we don’t have the professional autonomy to do our work the way that we feel is best for teaching and learning" Bernstein said.

Local and state unions have created a campaign called the 3 R’s: Respect, recruit, and retain. Bernstein said, while salary is a big part of the burnout problem, it's not the only part.

"If I’m treated like a professional and I’m paid like a professional, I stay. If I’m not, then you’ve got this constant churn out of the classroom" said Bernstein.

As schools grapple with shifts in the pandemic, including changing mask rules and pivoting between virtual and in-person, Bernstein says that respect piece is more crucial than ever.

Support for KUNM’s public health coverage comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and from listeners like you.

Taylor is a reporter with our Poverty and Public Health project. She is a lover of books and a proud dog mom. She's been published in Albuquerque The Magazine several times and enjoys writing about politics and travel.
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