THE EDUCATION EXODUS
Wisconsin educators speak up about why they’re leaving the classroom
by Perri Moran
The day starts for teacher Sally Watson before the sun comes up. In the dark winters of Wisconsin, it can be hard to rise before the sun, but this is something that Sally’s been doing for 24 years. She’s used to it. She arrives at the high school more than an hour before students in order to get organized for her day.
Watson teaches five classes a day. The remaining hours of her time at school are spent adjusting lesson plans, in meetings and calling parents whose kids are struggling. By the end of the school day, she’s tired from wrangling ninth graders, who she often thinks act more like elementary schoolers than high schoolers.
She leaves school around 4 p.m. and spends the next two hours working from home: planning lessons, grading, reading and responding to emails. She spends from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. with her young children, and once they’re in bed, she spends about two more hours working.
The next morning, the cycle repeats.
She’s thinking about quitting.
Watson, who asked for anonymity because she’s not allowed to speak publicly about her role, is not alone. Teachers across Wisconsin are in difficult positions and are faced with hard decisions — they’re trying to endure and persist in the profession, but each day, the challenges seem harder to withstand. Many have already left their careers in education behind, contributing to the growing teacher shortage.
Teachers support students, who supports teachers?
Teachers were once highly valued community members, appreciated for their important role of educating the next generation of the workforce. Today, their roles have vastly expanded, but the respect and support that was once provided by their communities has all but vanished.
Thomas Burkhalter, superintendent of Viroqua Area Schools in western Wisconsin, has seen this trend over his time in education. At one point, teachers were revered in their communities and thanked often for their work, Burkhalter says. Now, he says things have completely shifted.
Many parents and other community members feel emboldened to criticize teachers and teaching methods not just online, but also in person. Public school board meetings often give a platform to parents and community members who are angry with teachers.
“Some of the other things that are said at those meetings are just hurtful,” says Amy Menzel, who was an English teacher at Waukesha West High School. Menzel, along with many colleagues, left Waukesha public schools after the 2021-2022 school year. “They say that they demand respect in those [meetings], but I don’t see enforcement of that,” Menzel says.
Even when parents want to be supportive, they often lack the ability or knowledge about how to do so.
“Parents are like, ‘I hear you, thank you for calling me,’ but nothing changes,” Watson says. This is a stark contrast to how parents responded when she first started teaching more than 24 years ago, when she felt like she had a lot of family support.
Many politicians haven’t been supportive, either. For several weeks in February 2011, thousands of teachers protested the budget repair bill at the state Capitol building in Madison, yet Act 10 became law not long after the protests. When Act 10 was passed, teachers and other public sector employees lost much of their ability to collectively bargain. Teachers are still affected by it today.
Additionally, gerrymandering in the state has made change nearly impossible when it comes to electing politicians who prioritize school funding, according to Watson. “We have not properly funded public education,” Watson says. “We’ve kept things static even though inflation has gone up.”
Teachers, Counselors and Babysitters, Oh My!
With lack of funding for education comes lack of resources in schools. Teachers are often left to pick up the slack.
At Vel Phillips Memorial High School in Madison, school psychologist Debra Conway frequently sees student needs that require more resources than the school has to offer. To her, that’s the biggest challenge of working in a comprehensive urban high school.
“It can be a mental health need, it can be an academic need, it can be a social-emotional need, it could be a feeding need, it could be a housing need, it could be a clothing need,” Conway says. “We’re expected to provide for those needs and it can be overwhelming and hard to do.”
The lack of resources doesn’t stop teachers from trying, though. It can be exhausting, but many teachers really care — enough to take work home and continue trying to meet student needs. Watson does this almost daily.
“That’s what I’ve been doing for two years,” Watson says, “and that’s becoming unsustainable.”
Conway agrees. “It’s hard because you want to be the be-all-end-all for everybody, but you can’t,” she says.
Teachers, like students, are experiencing their own mental health crises. Working more than 40 hours a week in an environment where teenagers are screaming at you and throwing things — yes, really, ask Watson — is draining, and no one is allowing teachers the time to recharge.
In fact, teachers say they have less time than ever these days. The time they don’t spend with students is also monopolized by administrative tasks, such as filling out forms or creating online versions of their lessons for class websites.
Menzel remembers how different things were when she first started teaching and there wasn’t an online system to provide materials.
In her final years at Waukesha West High School, Menzel and other teachers were expected to design their Blackboard sites so that all stakeholders would be able to easily navigate and follow the curriculum.
“I found it challenging and time consuming to design my courses in Blackboard in such a way that anyone might be able to follow, even if they were not in my regularly scheduled classes,” Menzel says. “I think we’re greatly underestimating how much time it takes to do that kind of stuff,” Menzel says.
The problem for Menzel is not that she is expected to make her class site transparent for students and parents. The problem is that the administrative duties continue to grow, but the number of hours in a day remains the same.
“My struggle with it is that it’s always a little more, a little more, a little more,” Menzel says. “And now I think we’re at the point that it’s overwhelming.”
The Autonomy Paradox
While teachers are being given more responsibilities in their classrooms, at the same they are being stripped of their autonomy. Not only are books being pulled from the curriculum and libraries, but some districts have gone as far as to require teachers to take down any signage in their classrooms that could be deemed “political.”
At Menzel’s former school, staff were told to remove pride flags from their walls. According to Menzel, many teachers took issue with that request, including herself.
The damage from this mandate was immediate. “I think it emboldened students to say things that were hateful,” Menzel says. “It put a lot of students’ safety in jeopardy, perceived or otherwise.”
Even in more progressive districts like the one in which Watson works, teachers are seeing a trend of identity being politicized.
“Books and things being pulled are often books that deal with issues of equity, whether it’s LGBTQ+ identity or racial identity or religious questioning,” Watson says. What people don’t realize is that denying information is denying access to critical thinking, according to Watson.
“If we lose access to information and to difference and to diversity, I think we’re in trouble,” Watson says.
Angry parents and community members continue to speak up about what they perceive as the indoctrination of their children while teachers continue to try to teach critical thinking. What perhaps neither party has considered is that maybe they want the same things.
At the May 2022 Waukesha Board of Education meeting, a father of two boys in the district spoke in front of the board to address his numerous concerns about classroom rhetoric.
In his statement, the father said, “I want [my children] to learn how to think, not what to think,” which sounds quite similar to what Watson says of how she teaches her students:
“I tell the kids all the time, ‘My job isn’t to tell you what to think, but it’s to tell you how to get information to think,’” she says.
In some schools today, it is almost impossible for teachers to teach about inherently political topics. At the same time, the politicization of topics that are not political make it nearly impossible for teachers to teach about, well, anything real.
Kids are already having these conversations about race and gender, and Menzel says it’s her job to help them do it in more effective ways so that they feel seen and heard.
“I don’t think we get better at talking about tough subjects by not talking about tough subjects,” Menzel says.
What does a community, or in this case, an entire society do when teachers are leaving en masse? The consensus is simple: trust teachers again.
It can be hard to trust even a qualified individual when everyone feels like they’re an expert. And when it comes to public education, lots of unqualified people do feel like experts. Burkhalter has seen it.
“I think we’re one of the most unique fields because everybody went to school, so everybody thinks they know how it should be done,” Burkhalter says. “They all feel they’re experts because everybody went through it.”
Teaching is unique in that way — it’s one of the only fields that has been scrutinized so heavily by people outside the profession in a way they don’t to engineers, dentists or electricians. What the criticism of teachers is doing, Burkhalter says, is downplaying the amount of training, effort and time that professionals in schools have gone through.
“Districts don’t trust teachers,” Watson says. “School boards, families, voters don’t trust teachers.”
Menzel spoke similarly about trust. “There’s a lack of trust in what [teachers] have dedicated their lives for,” Menzel says.
Even Conway, who is a school psychologist, spoke about the distrust of teachers: “It’s hard, and it’s real. It’s hard not to take it personally.”
Featured photo by Perri Moran.