In some schools, dread over the new year: 'We're scared to teach'
After two years, Tyler Johnson had seen enough.
Fights had been starting more frequently at the Maryland school where he taught special-education social studies, and students were having verbal outbursts over what seemed like minor misunderstandings. Once, when breaking up a brawl between two teens, Johnson said he took a punch in the face.
On more than one occasion, he was called an anti-gay slur. "Besides dealing with blatant racism and blatant homophobia, I did not feel valued and I did not feel appreciated," Johnson said. He resolved to find a more supportive environment and landed at Friendship Tech Prep, a charter school in Southeast Washington.
"I think students and parents forget that teachers have feelings as well," Johnson said.
Across the country, teachers are reporting to their unions and principals what they describe as a list of accruing traumas from their classrooms. From disruptions to hallway melees to pushy parents to anxieties around censorship and the increasingly political nature of their jobs, many educators say they are starting this school year on edge.
The concerns differ, in kind and degree, from district to district. But the growing disrespect some teachers feel is a unifying theme.
In D.C., the Washington Teachers' Union says its members noticed an uptick in physical violence last school year, both between students and against staff. That reality is making it harder to teach in schools nationwide, educators said, because they are spending more time calming disruptive children and less helping students work through the academic material.
It is also forcing some educators out of their schools - and sometimes into different professions - as schools combat an ongoing teacher shortage and as students work to recoup the academic ground they lost during the coronavirus pandemic.
"We're scared to teach. We're scared to do our job," said a veteran teacher in D.C. public schools who was attacked by one of her student's aunt in front of her classroom of young children last school year. She spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the ongoing investigation surrounding her assault.
"I was greeting my students as they came in," the teacher remembers about the morning of the attack. As she closed the door to the classroom, the alleged assailant - whose family had been confrontational with staff, according to the teacher - "grabbed the door and pulled it back open," according to a police report filed after the incident. The teacher tried shutting the door, but the adult "with a closed fist began to strike," the report says.
The educator still doesn't know why she was targeted. After more than two decades in education, she is used to dealing with disgruntled moms and dads. "The parents are becoming more and more verbally and physically abusive," she said. But it had never gotten physical. "I've been a teacher for 24 years, and I've never had that happen."
At another D.C. school, a different longtime teacher said a student stabbed him with a sharp object from the classroom. The attack happened after the teacher reprimanded the student for telling his classmates, "'Y'all better do your f---ing work' or something like that" during class, the teacher recalled. He added the student appeared to be joking at first, but his response was inappropriate.
"I've taught for over two decades, and it has never happened. I'm one of the more popular teachers, I don't have outstanding issues with students," said the teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation from the school district. He later found out that problems at home were possibly causing the teen to act out.
The child attends another school district now, the teacher said. "My concern is, you have a really angry child out there and he's not getting the help that he so desperately needs."
Officials from D.C. Public Schools said they are reviewing the concerns the teachers' union raised about safety and planning for improvements - including more incident response training for staff, updates to the district's visitor policies and conflict resolution support for students.
"As the first day of school approaches, we are working diligently with our partners throughout District government to ensure that educators and students can experience joyful learning in safe environments across the city," said Kera Tyler, a spokeswoman.
The problems in D.C. mirror troubling trends across the country. Teachers elsewhere are also reporting more attacks between students compared with previous school years, as well as bullying, rowdiness and threats. Both charter and traditional public school teachers told the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools that "student behavior and discipline issues" were their top challenge - above the more frequently discussed issues of pay, retention and politicization.
A survey from the Rand Corp. revealed that 26 percent of teachers are afraid for their physical safety, with their top reasons being student misbehavior, verbal altercations and news of school shootings.
Most teachers acknowledge that much of the outrage they see in their classrooms have manifested from a years-long mental health crisis that predates - but worsened during - the pandemic. More than 8 in 10 public schools have noticed "stunted behavioral and socioemotional development" in students since the start of the public health emergency, according to a survey from the National Center for Education Statistics.
"Mental health has been declining, suicide rates have been increasing over the last 10, 15 years in our young people," said Amanda B. Nickerson, a professor of school psychology and director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo. "Covid-19 absolutely exacerbated some of these issues . . . We know that there was more violence in the homes during that time."
Ongoing racial trauma, heightened by the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the protests that followed, has also played a role, Nickerson added. "I think it's a lot of different factors that converged and stressed an already tenuous mental health picture for our youth." A growing body of research tracks the relationship between racism and stress - and suggests that coping with that kind of adversity early in life can disrupt a child's brain development, according to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.
Districts across the country have been trying to respond, expanding trauma-informed teaching practices and social-emotional learning - a framework designed to teach students social skills such as managing their emotions and making decisions. Many schools poured federal pandemic aid dollars into hiring more mental health professionals.
Still, some teachers feel unequipped to deal with the magnitude of the problem and blame lax discipline policies and inattentive parents. "A lot of people think that teachers, we're supposed to raise kids," said Johnson, the D.C. charter school teacher. "I am teaching students American government, and then I will go on to teach them D.C. history. I am not teaching students - I do because I know how to - regulate their emotions, how to respectfully state how they feel when they get upset ... That is what your parents do."
Others note that children are often coming to school and just copying whatever they see at home.
"There are some students who are troubled, and this is the lifestyle they see," said Nathaniel Dunn III, a third-grade teacher at i3 Academy in Birmingham, Ala. He added that elementary school-age students have been caught touting weapons, such as rocks, to school because they are afraid of being bullied.
"A lot of the things that we see and our children see, to be honest, are things that they should not see," Dunn said. "I think the difficult part is, how do we help our parents and our neighborhoods become more of a safe space for all of us?"
Although violence is becoming more common in schools, educators nationwide report improved well-being this year, compared with 2022 and 2021, according to the Rand Corp. survey. Data shows that teachers continue to report worse well-being than other working adults, but most said job-related stress had returned to pre-pandemic levels.
More than three-quarters of teachers also indicated they were unlikely to leave their jobs last school year, and were motivated to stay because they have the ability to improve students' lives.
The D.C. teacher who was attacked by his former student, for example, said he thinks often about all the young people who have written him letters over the years, who call him from their college campuses and tell him, "You're the father I never had."
"I try to put it in the context of, 'This is one student out of thousands that I've taught,'" he said about the attack.
Meanwhile, in other parts of the county, educators' anxieties extend beyond concerns about their physical safety. Teachers are also up against efforts to restrict and censor what they discuss in their classrooms - from outright bans on topics related to gender and sexuality to a Florida law that says students cannot be made to feel "guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress" because they were forced to consider acts committed by members of their race.
While these types of laws affect a minority of school districts nationwide, experts worry about a chilling effect that could make every teacher rethink how - and if - they discuss certain topics.
"The real evil of the bans is that they're ambiguous," said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor and education historian at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. "I think it, in a strange way, makes for even more anxiety among teachers because no one knows" what the laws mean.
Supporters said these laws are designed to protect students from indoctrination and divisiveness in schools. "No one should be instructed to feel as if they are not equal or shamed because of their race," Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said when he signed the law. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) said a law that bars lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation before sixth grade - among other education-related measures - "puts parents in the driver's seat."
A book ban last year in Machesney Park, Ill., made high school librarian Leah Krippner think differently about the way she stocks her shelves. Her district's school board last year voted to remove "Gender Queer" by Maia Kobabe in part due to sexually explicit content, officials said at the time. The book is an autobiography about the author's experiences with gender and asexuality.
"I would be lying if I said I didn't look at every book purchase maybe a little more closely than I have in the past," Krippner said. "It's just that slight hesitation when you list it on the purchase order. Is this the one that's going to send someone over the edge?"
A recently passed Illinois law threatens to withhold state funding from public libraries that restrict or ban materials, but Krippner still anticipates more challenges. Some of the people who supported the book ban are running for school board and local offices, she said.
"They are very much trying to grab the reins of power and effect change in that way, and that's a little bit frightening," Krippner added. "Because at the end of the day, I'm a public employee and I certainly haven't ingratiated myself with that group. If they are now my employer, I'm in a very different situation."
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