Teachers Call for Extra Vacation, Mental Health Resources to Combat Burnout : NPR

Scott Simon talks to Northwestern Washington state math teacher Sobia Sheikh about teacher burnout.


Many students and teachers have recently secured a four-day weekend. Several large school districts from Seattle to Wake County, North Carolina, decided to cancel classes yesterday, the Friday after Veterans Day. Well, the districts gave different reasons. Many reported widespread burnout among teachers. And educators say they are overwhelmed. There is a critical shortage of substitute teachers to cover their classes.

Sobia Sheikh teaches math at Mariner High School in the Mukilteo School District in Washington State and is now joining us. Thank you very much for being with us.

SOBIA SHEIKH: Of course – thank you for inviting me. It’s a pleasure.

SIMON: I understand, Ms. Sheikh, that your school did not cancel classes, but many teachers and students were absent. And you yourself had to stay home. Help us understand what the shortage looks like.

SHEIKH: To be honest, I feel like we’ve always had this understaffing and understaffing. This is a systemic problem that the pandemic has exacerbated. A lot of us right now – we’ve been in survival mode for the past year. We fight to get through the whole year, the whole month, the whole week – some of us, even the whole day. Mornings. I arrive at school, I spend at least 10 minutes in my car. And then I debate, like, I don’t want to come in today. I don’t want to come in today.

This is because many of us struggle. We are exhausted. The added pressure begins as soon as we enter our classrooms. We receive emails every day to cover courses. And honestly, we do – we want to cover in progress. We want to help our colleagues. But we are emotionally unable to do so.

SIMON: Are there no substitute teachers? Are there fewer substitute teachers than before?

SHEIK: We have some substitute teachers, but we don’t have enough. And the root of the problem is recruiting and retaining educators, and that includes replacements. In some states, our replacements – they’re not paid very well. Many substitutes do not return due to lack of salary. My district just increased its Friday pay by $50. But we have to find a way to introduce more substitutes into our building. We need to figure out how to increase the quality of their working day and give them the respect they need?

SIMON: But that can definitely add to the exhaustion when the day is booked through and through and you just go from lesson to lesson.

SHEIKH: Absolutely. You have a 30 minute lunch break. You cover the courses. You cover yours. You also cover your colleagues’ lessons, lesson planning, grading, responding to emails, contacting parents, contacting students who have gone on COVID leave – just added burnout.

SIMON: I can’t imagine all the stress being helpful for your students either, can I?

SHEIKH: No. I know our students have mental health issues. We have had students leave for COVID leave. Some students emailed me today. And they’re like, hey, I’m going to take a sanity day. Please let me know what i missed. Or, hey, I’m trying to catch up on my college apps, which I don’t have access to. Please let me know what i missed.

SIMON: Ms. Sheikh, I have to ask you, have you ever thought about leaving?

SHEIK: I did. And since I was a child, I always wanted to be a teacher. And now, members of my own community have discouraged me from going into teaching now. And seven years later, now I wonder if I should leave. I thought about leaving after this year. Or I even wonder if I will go until the end of the year. And I’m scared because I don’t know what I’m going to do. It scares me, leaving the thought of teaching (ph), leaving the students and the relationships I have built with the students. I have former students contacting me, and they’re like, hey, remember me? I am such. I do this now. And it’s always nice to hear from these students.

SIMON: Are there any ways that come to mind that you think your school district can help?

SHEIK: Districts should focus on how 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 added extra responsibilities, like assessments and committee work? And they need to be reconsidered so that we have more time to connect with our students.

We need more counsellors, therapists and social workers. The last thing is that we should focus on how to retain educators. We cannot invite educators out of thin air. We know teacher preparation programs have been on the decline. And truly, now is the time for districts to compete to see who can retain and support the most educators through multiple support models and make self-care a priority. Otherwise, our students are losers.

SIMON: Sobia Sheikh is a high school math teacher in the Mukilteo School District in Washington State. Thank you very much for being with us.

SHEIK: Thank you for having me.

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