Two Michigan teachers on why they made career changes during COVID
The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the nature of work for many Americans. Michigan Radio’s series “How We Work” is exploring some of those changes through the eyes of a variety of workers.
In this installment, we hear from teachers. Since the start of this school year, schools all over Michigan and the U.S. have struggled with unprecedented staffing shortages. Some have had to cancel classes or go virtual, because they can’t find enough teachers to fill classrooms.
This has been coming for years: fewer people are going into teaching, and COVID-19 has sped up retirements and led to more resignations. But many teachers who left say they only did it after years of frustration and increasing burnout.
Michigan Radio’s Sarah Cwiek talked with two teachers about this. One of them was Sean McCarroll, who taught business and social studies at Grosse Pointe North High School for nine years.
Sean McCarroll: “We need to…listen to and value the people who are in classrooms”
McCarroll resigned last April during a speech to the Grosse Pointe board of education. He blasted board members and district administrators for their handling of the pandemic—and over other issues he said have been festering for years. A video of his speech ended up taking the internet by storm.
“I never in a million years anticipated that it would have the reaction that it did,” McCarroll recalled, laughing. “I never expected that something was going to go viral or anything like that. That was never the goal.”
McCarroll said that despite the unique challenges of the 2020-21 school year, “nothing [that happened] was necessarily unique. But I think the way in which those decisions were made, and the way in which the community responded—how different groups within the community responded, and the groups of people who were left out of the decision- making process—all of those things were issues that existed well before COVID.”
McCarroll said that even within the past nine years, he’s seen a “relatively large shift” in how teachers are viewed, and the weight their input is given in making educational decisions. “And unfortunately, I've seen that their role and their input has decreased,” he said. “They're kind of expected to shut up and put up and just make it work, when it's not always possible to make things work.”
“Every decision [Grosse Pointe Public Schools] made last year was incorrect: not only not good for teachers or kids, but it was in direct opposition to what teachers were saying. Like ‘hey, we're the ones seeing this happen and we need to take a step back, and we need to reevaluate because our kids are suffering.’ But they weren't interested in hearing that.”
Since resigning his teaching job last spring, McCarroll has been working in construction. He’d been doing occasional construction jobs on his own for a few years before that, despite having no formal training or education in the trade. He said despite that, he’s found people readily respect his expertise and opinions much more than they did when he was a teacher with a master’s degree.
“I think that was the truly eye-opening part for me,” McCarroll said. “[And] I thought ‘you know what, at the end of the day, I'm still getting satisfaction doing something else, and I'm getting paid more, and people trust me and they value me there. So I'm just going to do that instead.’”
McCarroll said he still values his time and experiences as a teacher immensely, and hopes that people “will start to pay more attention and listen to and value the people who are in classrooms.”
“We need to do whatever we can to keep them, and to make them feel valued and to make them feel loved,” he said. “So that way they stay here and don't go somewhere else, whether it's another district or another career.”
Laurie O’Dell: “We’re just not allowed the space to be professionals anymore”
Teachers leaving in droves is obviously bad news for schools—but in some ways, it’s good for the remaining teachers. Being in such high demand gives them more leverage in the employment marketplace than ever before.
Some teachers are taking advantage of this. Instead of leaving teaching altogether, they’re job-hopping. Sometimes they’re looking for better pay, better working conditions, or simply more respect—sometimes all three.
Laurie O’Dell is one of them. She’s in her twenty-seventh year of teaching in Michigan. Just after the start of this school year, she left Hamtramck Public Schools, where she was a Title One teacher. Title One is a federal designation that gives additional funding to under-resourced schools. She now teaches in Royal Oak.
O’Dell was hired in Hamtramck as a Title One reading specialist, “which I just loved doing,” she said. “Small group time with the kids, getting to know them on a one-on-one basis in these small groups, and really helping them improve their reading.”
But O’Dell said there were chronic problems in the district that made her job harder. Especially one thing—if a teacher was absent, school leaders went to specialist teachers like O’Dell to staff those classrooms.
“This year, when the beginning of the school year came around, we were missing six classroom teachers just in our building alone,” O’Dell recalled. “So they called on the Title teachers and the ESL teachers to take a half day in one of these classrooms, and I was assigned to a fifth-grade classroom for the afternoons.”
O’Dell said she had never taught fifth grade before, and she to spend much of her time prepping for that instead of focusing on her reading students. Just weeks into the school year, she decided she’d had enough. “I did manage to get my [reading] class tested,” she said. “I evaluated the data, and handed it over to the woman who took my position as I was walking out the door for a new position in Royal Oak.”
Like many teachers, O’Dell laments the fact that despite being highly-educated and skilled professionals, teachers are increasingly stripped of their autonomy to make classroom decisions. “We’re constantly being told that on this day you're going to be on Page 16 of your math book, or in this part of the science lesson,” she said. “And it doesn't matter if you wanted to slow down and investigate why this child was struggling.”
“It just seems like we're piled onto, the government tells us how we have to do our jobs, and we're just not allowed the space to be professionals anymore.”
O’Dell is now teaching Spanish to elementary schools students in Royal Oak Public Schools, and "I'm having fun again,” she said.
But O'Dell thinks there’s a real problem with how some of the American public views and treats teachers. “While there are parents out there that truly appreciate what we are doing, I would say there's probably an equal amount of the public--parents or not--that really vilify teachers,” she said.
“Teacher burnout is real. There are people who’ve left the profession, and I don’t blame them.”