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‘I’m never going back.’ Philly teachers on why there’s a surge in midyear resignations.

Philadelphia Inquirer logo Philadelphia Inquirer 3/4/2022 Kristen A. Graham, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Cheryl McFadden had planned to teach for three more years, but will leave before the end of the school year. The Randolph Technical High School English teacher says teaching has become too difficult. © The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Cheryl McFadden had planned to teach for three more years, but will leave before the end of the school year. The Randolph Technical High School English teacher says teaching has become too difficult.

The kindergarten teacher loved her students: the ones whose hands shot up to answer questions, and the ones who struggled with sitting in their seats. She relished the off-the-cuff lessons, the spontaneous laughter that comes from being in a room of 5-year-olds.

But the new teacher quit after winter break, when her job in a Philadelphia public school became too much, when the heart palpitations, anxiety, and nightmares made her say enough. She was tired of working nearly every waking moment, tired from working a job without the necessary tools to survive circumstances that would make even a veteran teacher shudder.

“I knew it would be tough, but this was impossible,” the kindergarten teacher, who asked not to be identified, said of being a Philadelphia educator in a pandemic. “I would come to work and cry.”

Her frustration is reflected in the large exodus of Philadelphia educators quitting midyear: Between Dec. 1 and Feb. 15, 169 of 9,000 school district teachers resigned, a 200% increase in resignations from the same time period the prior year, when teachers were still working from home, and a 93% increase compared to 2019-20, the last pre-COVID school year. In addition, there’s also been a 20% turnover in the district’s central office, meaning fewer people on hand to support schools.

The Philadelphia School District has seen a rise in mid-year teacher departures. © The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS The Philadelphia School District has seen a rise in mid-year teacher departures.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. acknowledged the rise in departures Wednesday, saying it’s been “an extremely tough year” after two already challenging school years.

The school system, Hite said, has taken steps to stem the tide going forward, including offering retention bonuses and early hiring for some hard-to-staff schools. It is also trying to hold off on a new instructional management system that would have required teachers to be out of their classrooms more and master yet new challenges.

“What we’re trying to do is acknowledge and support and respect educators as best we can,” Hite said.

An employees’ market and pandemic challenges are certainly at play. But that’s not the whole story. To contextualize the sharp rise in departures, The Inquirer spoke to four teachers who recently resigned. Many asked not to be named because they are looking for new jobs or fear retribution.

‘The number alone was overwhelming’

There was no one factor that caused the kindergarten teacher to leave, but at the top of her list was class size: She had 30 students to manage, many of whom had never been to preschool and who had missed developmental milestones because of the pandemic. Philadelphia’s maximum class size is 30 in grades K through 2, and 33 in grades 3 through 12.

“The number alone was overwhelming,” said the educator, who began her teaching career just before the pandemic started. “Even on the best days, you had nothing left at the end of the day because of the amount of students. And their needs at that age — they need you to tie their shoes, to open things. They need you to teach them how to be in school, how to follow directions.”

A paraprofessional assisted the teacher in her class, but not all day. Some parents were warm and supportive, but others were combative.

It felt impossible to keep up with what she was supposed to teach, given kids’ social and emotional needs and their varying readiness levels. She also felt hemmed in by the testing she had to administer, and by the minutiae of requirements given her larger worries.

“I was thinking, ‘Are you seriously worried about my bulletin boards when I have so many problems? Can we focus on how to make my classroom manageable?’” said the teacher.

She felt ready to quit in October, but pressed on. Then, over winter break, she had a revelation: She felt like herself for the first time in months. She quit soon after, and wasn’t the only teacher at her school to leave before the end of the year. She worried about abandoning her students, but ultimately had to prioritize her health.

It won’t be hard to find work. She’s already had interviews, and plans on substitute teaching for the rest of the school year. She’s finally feels healthy again, feels happy.

“I’m not giving up on teaching,” she said. “I’m just going to see if it’s a little bit better in another district.”

‘I’m never going back to teaching’

Cheryl McFadden is good at her job. She came to teaching 20 years ago, a second career after working in sales and as a housing counselor. She had planned to teach for three more years before retiring, but now plans to leave her ninth grade English classroom at Randolph Technical High School before the end of the school year.

What did her in was the pandemic, plus district directives that felt nonsensical and punitive, McFadden said. There’s too much testing and too much micromanaging, she said. Administrative observations feel performative and disciplinary.

Though classes are large and most of her students are struggling readers, she used to regularly assign novels to inspire children to find at least one book that moved them. Her students didn’t read novels this year, because administrators told her she was no longer allowed to have children read aloud for reasons they never explained, McFadden said.

Her new students — whose last uninterrupted school year came when they were seventh graders — were behind. So many students were not engaged last year, when school happened on a computer screen.

“Last year, we had to pass all those students who didn’t come in or didn’t turn in work,” said McFadden. “We passed a group of struggling kids to continue struggling. That was a disservice.”

McFadden’s classes are large, in a windowless room that is perpetually 80 degrees. Students use Chromebooks in class and write in Google documents, but many of her pupils have been unprepared for the kind of typing they’re asked to do.

“We’ve got them on a computer all day, they’re staring at their screens or they’re staring at their phones,” said McFadden, who prided herself on being the kind of teacher who cared about students, called parents, ushered kids to class when they lingered in the hallways too long. “The phones win, I quit.”

She will work again, but “I’m never going back to teaching,” McFadden said. “I wish I had more success stories than survival stories.”

‘Nothing caught on’

Things were rocky for months, but the height of the crescendo hit this music teacher’s school year when he was assaulted and chased out of the school building by a student. He never returned to work; he didn’t feel safe, and his administration could not guarantee that the student would be removed from the school. There was no plan to help restore relationships with the students.

“They just expected me to come out there like a soldier and continue into battle, and I was assaulted,” said the teacher, who worked in an elementary school. “A lot of the students were struggling with their mental health. They weren’t all throwing tantrums every day, but in subtle ways, the mental health of the students was really weighing on the school and on the teachers.”

The music teacher, a second-year educator, had an academic coach, but that person “didn’t have a lot of concrete advice for me in terms of classroom management, or ideas for ways that I could make me or the learning environment safer.” The school’s administration, kind people but also fairly new, offered support, he said, but at some point stopped answering emails and requests for help.

“It seemed like every week there was some new behavior management protocol, or new rules — we’re going to lock the bathrooms from this hour to this hour, and then no one’s locking the bathrooms after three days,” the music teacher said. “Nothing caught on.”

There were endless behavior-tracking spreadsheets, many parent phone calls. Because of a nationwide substitute teaching crisis that’s hit Philadelphia particularly hard — just 42% of substitute jobs get filled, district officials said last week — the music teacher often lost his preparation period, and his schedule was changed partway through the year to spend less time teaching content and more time covering others’ classes.

“It was really tough; I’m still in therapy,” the music teacher said. “I had a lot of nightmares.”

He wanted to transfer to another district school, but was forbidden from doing so. He thinks he’ll teach at a charter or private school next year; it’s a good time of year to be looking for a job.

“I’m sad it didn’t work out,” he said. “In theory, I would love to teach for the Philadelphia public school system, even after all the trauma. But the whole system is set up so poorly, and it’s basically my personal safety and wellness in the long run.”

‘A lot of bureaucratic ways to preoccupy us’

The high school teacher gets emotional when describing their students: brilliant, dedicated, funny.

“They are made of magic,” the high school teacher said. And their work colleagues are tremendous.

But the high school teacher, who didn’t want their gender revealed, has put in their notice and will leave before the end of the year for a teaching job elsewhere.

“Mainly, it comes down to neither our administration nor our district trusts us at all to do our jobs,” said the high school teacher, who has multiple years of experience. “Instead, they find a lot of bureaucratic ways to preoccupy us. We do endless progress monitoring, endless standardized testing, endless paperwork, endless meetings. We have nothing but busy work to force upon the students.”

Students know something’s wrong, the teacher said.

“They know they’re not being treated well. They don’t know how good it could be, but they know something’s wrong. I have kids that say at least once a week, ‘I hate it here,’” the teacher said.

Some days, the teacher would come to class shaking. The stress caused chest pains that lasted for four days. They found another job, but cry when thinking about telling the students they’re leaving. The teacher said they hate that they have a choice but their students don’t.

“The system is by design inequitable,” the high school teacher said. “And we’re always working, and we’re always being treated poorly. It becomes this unsustainable life.”

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