Fairfax County Teachers: 'I Can't Sustain This'
In town hall meeting with school board members Monday, teachers ask for solutions to workload and morale issues that, after half a decade, are as "worse as they've ever been."
Dan Hale has been a teacher in Fairfax County Public Schools for 20 years, but he’s never felt or seen his colleagues as overwhelmed as they are today.
He used to know his students as readers and as writers, he says; now he only knows them as bits of data or ECART scores; pacing points and percentages.
And after spending far more than eight hours at school, he leaves (with work in tow) thinking ‘What am I doing tomorrow?’ — planning time in the context of the school day, he says, is nearly nonexistent.
The story was one of many shared by a few hundred teachers Monday night at a town hall sponsored by one of the county’s largest teachers unions, an effort to better connect school board members with teachers and workload issues that have persisted for at least half a decade, the union says.
For years, both the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, which sponsored Monday’s event, and the Fairfax Education Association have asked school board members for help in reducing some of their requirements and responsibilities and the shrinking amount of time in which they have to do it.
This year, teachers said Monday, has been the worst year yet.
And morale is low.
“I used to get up in the morning and go, ‘I love my job,’” one longtime teacher told school board members Monday. “That’s not the case anymore and that’s sad.”
School Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield), one of 10 members who fielded teacher concerns in a ballroom at the Fairview Park Marriot in Falls Church, said it was time for a solution.
“This has been brewing for quite some time,” Schultz said after the event. “We need to fix it.”
The board is planning on a work session on the issue in April.
Growing Responsibilities, but No Extra Time
Along with keeping pace with the state of Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests and a new teacher evaluation system, teachers are also dealing with new elementary school report cards that make grading take three times as long as it used to, assessment tools that require more data and analysis and the rollout of online textbooks, among other technology tools.
Yet no responsibilities have been taken away, nor has more time been given to accommodate them, teachers say. Pay also been more or less “stagnant for years,” they say
One teacher said he once had two and a half hours of planning time each week; now, it’s about an hour and 20 minutes.
Tasks have “been piling up like one rock after another on our chest while [we’re] being told ‘you better do well or else,’” one teacher said.
Since the beginning of this school year, Lynn Schmauder, a math teacher who has 130 students this year at Woodson High School, has spent at least 36 hours giving after-school help, nearly 20 in parent-teacher conferences, 37 hours replying to parent emails — and what amounts to 41 days, on top of her day to day responsibilities, grading papers.
The number of weekends she’s been able to put the work away: 0.
Schmauder, who is in her third year of teaching after 15 years with the Department of Defense, said she either needs more help or less students. Neither is an option about which she is optimistic, given the system’s budget forecast.
“What I know is that I can’t sustain this,” said Schmauder, who said she feels like she is missing out on her children’s lives.
Outlook and Solutions
The system’s proposed budget includes a 1 percent market rate adjustment for all teachers — but the modest increase isn’t enough to keep up with teacher workload, they say.
Administrators have also said they’re worried it isn’t enough to keep the system competitive with other jurisdictions, either.
Teachers called on administrators — from the superintendent to the leadership team to the leaders of each of the system’s clusters — to spend more time in schools, shadowing teachers to get a better understanding of what their day is like.
When teachers do give leadership feedback about best practices or pilots, it’s often not reflected in what is handed back to them, teachers said Monday, pointing to the recent widely-criticized rollout of an online math textbook program.
Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said Monday it seemed “the feedback that comes from the front lines doesn’t always come back effectively at the top.”
What’s more, teachers said, students are suffering, too. There’s no time left to host colonial days, or work math into a lesson on cooking — the kind of hands-on activities that bring concepts full circle and keep school experiences from being a string of “factoids,” teachers said.
Schultz said the board is in a better position than in years past to act on some of the issues outlined because “the tenor of the board has changed,” she said.
There are more people willing to ask difficult questions and have “actual engagement,” she said.
“The reason we ask difficult questions is because our decisions have consequences, and this is the bad side of those consequences,” she said. “We need to have actual engagement. We need to listen to the public.”
FCFT President Steve Greenburg and school board members said Monday was not the end of the dialogue — it was the beginning of a path that would hopefully lead at last to some solutions.
“We all want our kids to succeed,” board member Patty Reed (Providence) said, offering her support to a better classroom environment. “Let’s not forget that.”
This article has been updated.