By SARAH ATWOOD
Capital News Service
LANSING – Pandemic-stressed teachers in the Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District draw for prizes each month to boost their morale.
“Teachers donate a little money each month, maybe to be able to wear jeans on Friday,” said Joe Sbar, a school psychologist for the district. “This money is pooled, and used to buy prizes, like a gift card that is then raffled off.”
At Meridian Public Schools in Sanford, schools show teacher appreciation in tough times with gifts to celebrate birthdays or big life milestones, said Stephanie Catterfeld, a school psychologist in the district near Midland.
“My dad passed at the beginning of the school year,” Catterfeld said. “Teachers, staff and students made me a gift basket, with fuzzy socks and handmade decorations and a bouquet of flowers. It really made me feel loved.”
Meridian Public Schools staff meet monthly to discuss how teachers and staff are doing and what can be done for them, Catterfeld said. These “cultural committees” have improved bonds between staff members.
It helps, but school officials say much more is needed to help members of a profession in deep distress.
The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated stresses that had existed for a while.
The CDC Foundation, a nonprofit that fosters collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other organizations, surveyed 643 teachers about their mental health in March 2021. In that survey, 27% of teachers self-reported symptoms of depression and 37% reported symptoms of anxiety.
This stems from added pressures from the pandemic, Sbar said. Teachers have faced extreme pressure from parents and school administrators to keep children on track in a situation that no one was prepared for and that was not conducive to teaching young children.
“Teachers are taking on a lot more responsibility than ever before,” Sbar said. “But they’re not getting fairly compensated for it.”
Paula Herbart, the president of the Michigan Education Association, agrees. Teachers are not only teachers, they often take on the role of parent and counselor. The MEA is the state’s largest union of teachers and other school personnel,
“Teachers do not just work bell-to-bell, and they do not get paid for this,” Herbart said. “What they’re taking on is a lot more than what they are paid for.”
Financial bonuses might be an incentive for teachers to continue in their professions, but that is not feasible for a lot of schools right now, Sbar said.
“Although we are getting consistent raises, they are not equal with inflation,” Sbar said.
There’s also a shortage of substitute teachers, according to Catterfeld, so teachers are not able to take as much time off.
Being forced to work while experiencing burnout and without days off has made it so teachers are pushed to the brink of exhaustion faster than in school years before the pandemic, Catterfeld said.
The CDC says that 53% of teachers are thinking of leaving the profession, a large increase from before the pandemic.
“Teachers used to be able to self-motivate,” Sbar said. “They loved their jobs and they loved their kids. But now, that’s not enough to keep people in the profession. Teachers are trying to support each other, but without government support it’s like being in the trenches.”
Until teachers are more fairly compensated for their work, they might choose to work at another job, even one that is lower-paying, according to Sbar.
“In rural areas, teachers stayed in the profession even when they didn’t want to,” Sbar said. “There’s not a lot of other options that paid as much. But now they’ll take those jobs, or just move away.”
Two-thirds of Michigan schools suffer from teacher shortages, according to an MEA report.
But Catterfeld said that the community support for teachers has increased in the wake of the pandemic, and this has alleviated some of the pressure.
“We received big boxes of school supplies from a local company,” Catterfeld said. “This was really uplifting for the teachers, to know that people do care.”