Podcast | The mental health crisis afflicting students and their teachers

Rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and behavioral crises have risen during the pandemic. Are schools equipped for the needs they now face?

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Joan King

Joan King, a student recovery specialist at Green River College, poses for a portrait at her home in Covington, Wash., on Friday, March 11, 2022. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

Even before the pandemic, the mental health of young people was a growing concern. By 2018, for instance, suicide had become the second leading cause of death among people age 10 to 24. And in 2019, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

The pandemic only made things worse. According to a recent U.S. Surgeon General report, depression and anxiety symptoms have doubled among youth across the world. Emergency room visits in the U.S. for suspected suicide attempts among adolescent girls are up more than 50%. And there is a documented spike in suicides among children of color.

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That mental health strain appears to be manifesting at school in a number of ways. Reports of behavioral issues and violence are rising, student achievement and attendance are flagging and the demand for professional help is overwhelming the systems set up to care for young people. Meanwhile, the adults tasked with providing support to students at school — the guidance counselors and teachers — are struggling, too.

For this episode of This Changes Everything, we talk with educators and professionals about what the pandemic is doing to the mental health of our students and teachers, what is being done to address the need and whether it’s enough. 

Mental health resources

If you or someone you know needs support for mental health, here’s where to find help.

Crisis Connections: Covers King County and surrounding areas with five programs focused on serving the emotional and physical needs of people across Washington state. Call 866-427-4747.

Washington 211: Free referral and informational help line that connects people to health and human services, available 24/7. Call 211.

Washington Recovery Helpline: 24-hour crisis intervention and referral assistance for substance abuse, mental health and gambling. Call 866-789-1511.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: National network of local crisis centers that provide free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 800-273-8255.

National Alliance on Mental Illness: The nation’s largest grassroots mental-health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.

Keep listening

Episode 1: How 'grace' became the word for some WA educators

Episode 3: Where online learning is actually working

Episode 4: The toll that 'normal' school takes on students of color

Episode 5: Meet the students pushing for more equity in public schools

Episode 6: What the shutdowns taught some WA parents about special education


Host/Producer: Sara Bernard

Reporters: Venice Buhain, Claudia Rowe

Editorial assistant: Brooklyn Jamerson-Flowers

Consulting editor: Donna Blankinship

Executive producer/story editor: Mark Baumgarten

Audio support: Jonah Cohen


Transcripts for This Changes Everything are the product of a third-party service. The audio stands as the official record for the reporting in this series.

[00:00:00] Anonymous speaker: This episode of This Changes Everything is presented by WGU Washington.

[00:00:07] Sara Bernard: A few months ago, I spent an afternoon chatting with a handful of students at an afterschool program in Kenmore, just north of Seattle. There were kids of all ages there from elementary school to high school. And so, I just wanted to know from whoever would talk to me, how did it feel to be back at school in person?

And what were the past couple of school years? Among the kids I spoke with was a fourth grader named Isabella.

[00:00:46] Isabella: Hi, my name's Isabella. I'm in fourth grade

[00:00:50] Sara Bernard: And like most kids, Isabella told me she was really happy to be back in the school building.

[00:00:55] Isabella: So my thoughts on it is I don't really like online. It's just a little confusing and hard for me, and in real life, it's more easier and I can do more stuff and have fun with my friends.

[00:01:13] Sara Bernard: I mean, overall, are you happy that you're back in person?

[00:01:18] Isabella: Yes. I'm very happy. Yeah. You can meet new friends that weren't in the school before, before the pandemic. You're like just more happier like that. I just feel like that.

[00:01:30] Sara Bernard: For sure. That makes sense. A lot of kids feel like that, but there's something else Isabella said that struck me and it's really stuck with me ever since. I asked her sort of spontaneously, just as a way to get her to express how she was feeling about school, what goals she had for the year. At first she listed some academic goals.

[00:01:51] Isabella: The goal for my school year is try to learn my multiplication facts easier, so it's fluent and my teachers has been helping us with that. And try to make a story. And try to do my own small business. That's, uh, like try to help kids that don't have friends and something like that.

[00:02:14] Sara Bernard: She said she wanted to start her own small business to help other kids who don't have friends.

[00:02:19] Sara Bernard (in the field): Wow. Your own small business. Wow. Can you tell me more about that, the small business?

[00:02:26] Isabella: It's basically like giving out some positive thoughts, some like writings of it, like, "You're good. You're gonna do great in this school year. You're gonna be so amazing." So something like that. Like a lot of posters and some clothing. I'm trying to do a whole community. My friends are gonna join. I'm trying to have some of my other friends join that don't come to my school. So I'm just a little bit of a head start from my age.

[00:03:02] Sara Bernard: You can say that again.

[00:03:03] Sara Bernard (in the field): Just curious, like where, where did that idea come from for you?

[00:03:07] Isabella: Uh, it came from, I think I got it by myself, but my mom's been helping me. She's been spreading positive thoughts through me. So I just feel like I could do that to other people. So, yeah.

[00:03:22] Sara Bernard (in the field): That's great. I mean, this is a hard question, but do you think that if you hadn't had the last couple of years where people felt kind of alone and stuff, would you still have started this business?

[00:03:34] Isabella: I would, yeah, because I've been there too. So if I've been there, other people are gonna be there obviously. Cause our world is the same sometimes. We were happy one time, we were sad one time, we're depressed sometimes. And so I just wanna help kids and parents sometimes that are sad and depressed about stuff.

[00:04:07] Sara Bernard: I didn't meet Isabella's mom that day. So of course, I don't really know the full scope of how and why this positive affirmation poster and clothing line came to be. And she says she would've launched it anyway, but I don't know. I'm just gonna venture a guess that this idea comes as a response to the world that Isabella is experiencing right now, a world that she, as a 9 or 10 year old, has been experiencing for nearly a quarter of her life. A world's still stumbling through a pandemic and the ramifications of all of its tragedy and disruption, a world that's full of so much depression and isolation and anxiety. It is so present, so constant and so acute even, and especially in young people.

I'm Sara Bernard and this is This Changes Everything, a podcast from Crosscut about the new normal. So there's a lot of evidence for it now; the kids are not all right. And neither are a lot of the adults who serve them. And this is a huge part of what's going on in public education today. You'll hear it from time to time throughout this season, it informs everything really.

So we thought we'd focus on it for a moment. These alarming rates of depression and anxiety of suicidal ideation and behavioral crisis. What is the pandemic doing to the mental health of our students and our teachers and what can be done about it? It seems two years of tumult has indeed brought the world into the classroom and schools are struggling to keep up. Stay with us.

So, at the tail end of 2021, I sat down with Claudia Rowe. As a journalist who's covered education for decades, including a significant chunk of time in Washington state and, I should note, for Crosscut, Claudia has been helping me navigate some of the nuances of what's happening in schools right now, which if you're someone who pays even a little bit of attention to this stuff, you know, is extremely complicated.

[00:08:03] Claudia Rowe: Education as a coverage area is vast and it is everything.

[00:08:09] Sara Bernard: It's also extreme. Depending on who you talk to, and when, there seems to be either unbridled optimism or abject despair, and although we are spending some significant time with the optimism in this series, we're also definitely seeing the despair.

I think even early on in the pandemic, we were seeing those surveys, right. That, um, kids are isolated, they're at home. They're not doing too well, right? None of us were doing too well. You can kind of understand why that would be. But it's like we have more and more evidence now, the pandemic has dragged on and on. And so it seems like, you know, it's getting worse and worse.

So Claudia spent a lot of time helping me look into this awful new reality, that an unprecedented number of kids are really struggling right now. They're back in the school building, more or less, but that hasn't made things normal. Again. More than anything for some educators, it seemed to showcase just how big of a crisis this has been and still is for everyone.

And like so many major societal crises do, it's playing out in the schools.

[00:09:28] Joan King: I think most people would be alarmed if they saw some of the behavior that I've seen coming from a 14 year old, nonetheless. And they're acting in ways that you'd imagine like an elementary student to behave.

[00:09:40] Sara Bernard: This is Joan King. When the pandemic first hit, she was teaching ninth grade English in Kent. Like so many people Claudia and I spoke to and all kinds of media coverage and research and evidence from across the country, Joan says many students seem behind academically. And in terms of social development, which given the past couple of years kind of makes sense, but in a lot of ways, they all also seem like they're just flailing.

[00:10:04] Joan King: Students are struggling because students are contracting COVID and they are in and out of the classroom. Not all of them obviously, but a good number of them. That means weeks of missed school instruction. And so they're falling behind. Students are incredibly stressed out because they are not used to being in a building after being online for a year and a half.

So they're struggling with adjusting and having to have, you know, rigorous expectations of when you're supposed to have assignments done. They're falling more and more behind, which is compacting their stress. I have students who suffer from depression. I have students who have literally lost loved ones this year and they have to deal with that.

[00:10:44] Carinna Tarvin: I think this maybe was already happening before, or, and I just didn't know, but just like finding kids in tears in the corner and another kid having a fight. And like, I just like run into things more often.

[00:10:56] Sara Bernard: And this is Carinna Tarvin, the middle school librarian and former AP U.S. history teacher in Tacoma who you met in the last episode.

[00:11:02] Carinna Tarvin: I also, maybe because I'm a librarian or maybe it's because it's middle school, but so many kids are divulging, like, extreme trauma to me without even knowing me, which is like flattering kind of, but like it would take high schoolers until. Late in the year to, to get that trust. And I don't know if it's because they're just like so glad to be out of the home, away from whatever the mess is there, or I don't know what's going on, but there was a week where I heard the most like troubling stories probably of my career. Like, back to back to back.

[00:11:39] Sara Bernard: We can't share details of these stories for privacy and legal reasons. But suffice it to say some school staffers like Carinna are dealing with stories of sexual abuse, illicit drug use, incarceration and weapons. And maybe that was always the case, but as with everything else in this season, I don't know that this moment is as much about how everything has changed as it's about how so many things have intensified.

[00:12:03] Claudia Rowe: And what about counseling, um, in your school? Is there a school counselor?

[00:12:07] Carinna Tarvin: Yeah, we have two school counselors. They are maxed out all the time. There's always kids in there. They have crises like, just, it's rough. But I don't know. I mean, it was like that before too, but I talked to the school counselor, we were at happy hour and she said, we all saw that this was gonna happen.

[00:12:28] Megan Reibel: Every day is being filled with that immediate need of something. And that doesn't necessarily mean that every day there's a suicidal crisis, right, in a school counseling office. But every day there are students and teachers who are showing up who have a need that needs to be met.

[00:12:45] Sara Bernard: This is Megan Reibel, a former high school counselor, now the secondary education manager at forefront, a suicide prevention organization based at the University of Washington. The group used to be focused exclusively on higher education, but recently it partnered with the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, or OSPI, to coordinate suicide prevention training in K12 schools across the state.

[00:13:07] Megan Reibel: I think kids really thrive, I mean, we all thrive in some ways when things are predictable and known and we have a sense of what to expect, and this pandemic has been unknown after unknown after unknown. So everyone is grasping at straws around like, what the heck is next.

[00:13:33] Claudia Rowe: And how is it manifesting in schools? What are you hearing about behavior?

[00:13:40] Megan Reibel: Our educators are exhausted. My friends that remain in school buildings, my former colleagues, I think I hear from many of them, like this is the most wacky school year I have ever been a part of.

[00:13:56] Claudia Rowe: Megan was telling me very much the same things that other educators have, and that we're all beginning to see in media, which is a clear increase in, I think what some people would call maladaptive behaviors, right? Kids acting out in ways that they don't even intentionally realize that they are acting out, which is often lots more fights, fights on the playground, fights in the hallways.

[00:14:38] Megan Reibel: I have been hearing things from like schools that are having fights that have never had fights before. And not just like, you know, like the scuffle or push, but like big fights, like knock 'em dead drag 'em fights.

[00:14:56] Sara Bernard: There isn't a lot of official data on this, but the anecdotal evidence is through the roof. Just dig around a little and you'll hear that behavioral issues and violence at school are on the rise all over the place.

For instance, from August to October 2021, the National Association of School Resource Officers reported that the number of gun related incidents at school had more than tripled since that same time period in 2019 and Denver Public Schools reported that school fights were up 21% in the fall of 2021 compared to the pre-pandemic fall of 2019.

[00:15:32] Claudia Rowe: The smartest thing that I ever heard from any teacher in all my years of education reporting was actually from a Seattle Public School teacher who said, behavior is a language. Kids cannot always articulate in a common, thoughtful manner what is going on. They don't have those words and they mostly have such a different level of sort of impulse control. I think that is real. I think this is kids talking to us, you know, no kid goes wailing on some other kid because they feel happy and good in their life.

[00:16:11] Joan King: I think a lot of what I'm seeing. Is acting out and it's that very elementary idea of not being able to distinguish between good attention and bad attention. Attention is attention. I'm a parent to an eight year old. That's like one of the first things I learned when my kid was young. It's just like, they can't distinguish it. So, like, throwing something, like chucking something across the room, is a cry for attention. And like, I think that's what I'm seeing a lot of, is like, they desperately want my attention, which is on some level, pretty normal for kids and teens.

[00:16:49] Sara Bernard: But some of this need for attention is a cry for help. And some of these cries for help are alarming.

[00:16:55] Claudia Rowe: Now we're starting see this rash of social media threats to schools, which I don't necessarily attribute entirely to kind of a mental health problem, but certainly a proportion, some portion of those threats are being triggered by tremendous rage or sadness. So we're seeing these threats, we're seeing kids act out through fights.

There's also a palpable sense of what my own middle schooler called, uh, kids just seem down. He was describing to me, normally the hallways of his middle school are rambunctious and noisy and kids high fiving, and everyone's shouting and it's not like that now. It's just sort of head down trudging to class, just really subdued.

The U.S. Surgeon General actually issued a really rare national advisory, this huge report on youth mental health, specifically right now, to say, let's talk about young people and how they're doing.

Yeah, I've never in all my years of reporting on not just education, but on young people, I've never really seen anything like that,

[00:18:50] Sara Bernard: But it's happening across the country and right here in Washington state all over the place, it seems there's this troubling, unusual behavior, but also a steep rise and demand for professional help. For instance, according to the Children's Hospital Association, mental health visits to emergency rooms in its network across the country jumped nearly 40% in 2021, compared with the same time period in 2020.

And Claudia reached out to David Downing, executive director of Youth Eastside Services, a youth mental health and substance use support center that serves east king county. And yeah, he and his colleagues are overwhelmed.

[00:19:26] Claudia Rowe: He says that, just this fall, there are well over a hundred brand new referrals. He says that not only is the frequency markedly increased, but the acuity, the intensity of the needs of young people who are coming to his organization is much sharper, much higher than he has ever seen. Um, and it is echoed by Megan at Forefront who says every day Forefront is getting calls from schools and school districts saying, can you help us? Can you provide training? They are unable to meet the need.

[00:20:09] Sara Bernard: Claudia also spoke with Chris Cochran, mental health coordinator for the Bellingham School District, like a number of schools and districts, Bellingham schools have been trying to step up their response to a rising need. The district hired two mental health specialists during remote learning. And Chris says, same thing, they're so busy. They have more kids asking for more help than ever with more severe problems than in the past. And those problems, he says, look different at different age levels; in elementary school, it might show up as more fighting on the playground; in middle school, increased isolation; with older teens, suicidal ideation.

To some degree, this isn't new. According to the Surgeon General's December report suicide had already become the second leading cause of death for children age 10 to 24 by 2018. But of course the pandemic only made things worse Depression and anxiety symptoms for youth across the world have doubled, emergency department visits in the U.S. for suspected suicide attempts among adolescent girls are up more than 50%. And there is a documented spike in suicides among children of color.

Some people have begun to take all of this very seriously. In addition to the report from the surgeon general, last fall the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children's Hospital Association all declared a national state of emergency in children's mental health.

The crisis has even spurred the Washington State Legislature to make some moves. One piece of legislation that became law in 2021 was SB 5030, which requires all districts develop a best practices, aligned school counseling plan by fall 2022. These plans are supposed to help address students mental health, as well as academic needs. 5030 also provides funding for an additional halftime school counselor at high poverty, K-12 schools.

And there's been some other legislation, written by students.

[00:22:30] Kellen Hoard: We helped pass eight different pieces of legislation last year, including the one we wrote.

[00:22:34] Sara Bernard: This is Kellen Hoard. He spoke with Crosscut staff reporter Venice Buhain last fall.

[00:22:38] Kellen Hoard: My name is Kellen Hoard, I am 17 years old and I am a senior at Inglemore High School in Kenmore, Washington.

[00:22:45] Sara Bernard: Last school year, Kellen chaired the Legislative Youth Advisory Council, a nonpartisan statewide committee made up of teenagers aged 14 to 18. It's co-administered by the lieutenant governor's office.

[00:22:56] Kellen Hoard: It's entirely student run, though. And so the students from the previous year's council helped select the new members. And I was selected to my sophomore year as a new member and there's 22 selected from all around the state and then I was selected as chair in this last junior year.

[00:23:10] Venice Buhain: So you were involved, was it the 2020 session and the 2021 session?

[00:23:14] Kellen Hoard: Correct.

[00:23:15] Venice Buhain: What became important in 2021 that maybe they didn't think of in 2020?

[00:23:22] Kellen Hoard: Well, a really a really big thing was mental health. I mean, from every policy maker we heard and talked to, they're like, yeah, we're hearing from our constituents, mental health is a priority, for not just youth, but for adults as well.

[00:23:36] Sara Bernard: In November, 2020 Kellen helped launch a youth survey of about 1400 students throughout the state of Washington.

[00:23:41] Kellen Hoard: We asked students how their mental health was doing, better, worse, or the same than January 2020. So January to November. And I believe like 66% of students said worse. And so that really, that really struck us.

[00:23:53] Sara Bernard: And so Kellen and his colleagues got to work.

[00:23:56] Kellen Hoard: So what we realized is that a lot of students didn't have access to resources that could help with their mental health and the resources exist to assist with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, all these behavioral health issues. And the government has funded some of them, some of them are nonprofits and, but the students didn't really know about them. And so our job was to try and connect those two. And so even though it doesn't solve necessarily the root problem, it'll help on the back end. So what we did is the legislation basically has schools, at every public school in the state on the homepage of their website now has to list mental health resources in a variety of categories.

When we pitched it to policymakers, they generally were big fans. It passed the House and Senate in hugely bipartisan, there are only a couple no votes all through the process and almost no amendments.

[00:24:48] Sara Bernard: It was a simple idea, but it made a lot of sense. Still Kellen says he thinks the reason it probably got so much support is because it was a simple idea.

[00:24:56] Kellen Hoard: It didn't cost much, to be frank. One of the reasons it's popular is it's very inexpensive. It didn't, the technical number was $0, for how much it costs, because it's mostly just updating that website with resources in that area.

[00:25:08] Sara Bernard: Another bill, the youth council lobbied for HB 1354 was a bit more involved and that had to do with establishing a youth suicide task force.

[00:25:16] Kellen Hoard: This also tied into that part of that bigger mental health goal that we had, and it would convene a task force of established people from all different fields relevant to youth suicide, to figure out the root cause of the issue, both increasing and just existing at all, and figure out methods to address that and propose those solutions to the Legislature.

But the bill ended up dying in committee, unfortunately. I couldn't give you a specific reason why. It did cost more, but we really did think addressing those root causes is of course, and I personally feel it addressing a root cause of an issue in any way is of course gonna be way more impactful.

[00:25:56] Sara Bernard: Meanwhile, some schools around Washington state are trying to address if not the root causes, at least the symptoms. Highline Public Schools, for example, a district to the south of Seattle, is using both state and federal funds to increase the number of counselors in each of its schools.

[00:26:13] Susan Enfield: The state has passed legislation that beginning next school year, not this school year, but next school year, they will be providing additional counselors in high needs districts, which Highline is considered a high needs district.

[00:26:24] Sara Bernard: Susan Enfield has been superintendent of Highline Public Schools for the past decade. The legislation she's talking about here is SB 5030.

[00:26:32] Susan Enfield: So I made the decision, we made the decision, the school board and team that we would use some of our ESSER dollars to ensure that every school has a full-time counselor this year, regardless of enrollment

[00:26:44] Sara Bernard: And by ESSER dollars, Susan means the emergency funding that the federal government sent to all the states to help schools recover from pandemic impacts, roughly $190 billion in total.

[00:26:54] Susan Enfield: Now our bigger schools have multiple counselors, but the goal was that every school would have a full time counselor.

[00:27:06] Sara Bernard: It is true that so far counselors are in extremely short supply and few dispute that schools need more of them. It took emergency funds from the federal government and new legislation from the state government to even get one full-time counselor per school in the Highline district, for instance.

But it's still a school role that's evolving. Some people are concerned that schools need more than traditional guidance counselors. In times like these, they also need people who are prepared to deal with serious mental health crises.

Here's Claudia again.

[00:27:38] Claudia Rowe: Most school counselors go into that job believing that their role is to ensure that students have the proper number of credits in the proper array of courses to graduate.

And they are not generally trained in child psychology. That is not really their primary area of expertise, yet that is what they are now being pressed into service to do. And that is what the district mental health coordinator in Bellingham told me very explicitly, that the day of a school counselor is just completely different now than what it was even three years ago. Now they are sort of providing short term crisis intervention a lot

And counselors? They're not the only ones. The burden of providing this kind of support, along with everything else they do, is taking a toll on teachers too. We'll hear more about that after the break.

[00:28:39] Anonymous speaker: Good teachers need good teachers, and class is in session at Western Governors University. Online and competency-base, WGU Washington offers respected bachelor's and master's degree programs in teaching for aspiring and veteran teachers who want high-quality, affordable education on their schedule and at their pace. Learn more at wgu.edu. WGU, the university of you.

[00:28:49] Sara Bernard: Do you wanna just go ahead and introduce yourself, you know, your name and your profession, anything you wanna be identified as?

[00:28:56] Joan King: Yeah, sure. Um, I guess if I had to kind of boil down a biography right now...

[00:29:00] Sara Bernard: Joan King was in the U.S. Air Force before she got into teaching. But when she found teaching, she felt like she had finally found a career. She loved it.

[00:29:09] Joan King: I just don't think that there is any better feeling than when you find a solution for a student who's struggling, especially when it's like in the moment, which like teaching is, it's like flying by the seat of your pants and constantly making decisions and constantly not knowing if it's going to turn out. But when it does, it's like it's magic. It's like a huge social science experiment, and you just kind of like toss things in based on what you know, from whether it be like your teaching program or past experiences. And when you get better at it, it's just like this all-time high.

I remember being so crippled by anxiety when I was in the military and just not being able to sleep the night before, and this is the first job where I sleep like a baby at night. Come Sunday, I'm fine. And it's like, I don't know, it's just that I loved the job that much. Also just, I don't know what it is too about getting, like, building these relationship with students, and when you are kind of the safe person for a student, there's just no greater privilege.

[00:30:21] Sara Bernard: And that's the thing. Being a safe person for a student, being a caring, responsive adult in their lives, that's often what teachers ar to kids. It's maybe not technically part of the job description, but it's part of the job. It's just that now that part of the job seems like it's gotten so much bigger.

[00:30:39] Joan King: We also counsel students in a way — we have counselors at schools — we also counsel our students as well. Because we are the bridge between the classroom and the counseling office. And like, many of us are also parent roles to these student. And who have, who don't have like a home system in place, you know? And so, you know, that's in a normal year.

[00:31:06] Sara Bernard: I first found Joan because she wrote an op-ed about all this stuff, published in the Seattle Times back in November. Among other things, she wrote, "My days have been spent ensuring my students feel loved and seen and heard. The level of neediness for my students has left me feeling energy deficient and working at maximum capacity. Students are struggling to show any interest in academics while they're still managing their mental health. And as they should be, because the pandemic is not over.

[00:31:34] Megan Reibel: I think for the youngers, and I see this in my own kids, like a lot of reassurance, like more reassurance is needed. More handholding is needed, more, "You got this."

[00:31:49] Sara Bernard: That's Megan Reibel again with Forefront.

[00:31:52] Megan Reibel: I think the things that teachers always do, right? Like, showing their kids, they care about them, but at a magnifying level. And so like, I think about how tanked our teachers must be when they come home from their school day after providing this extra layer of care all day long.

[00:32:16] Sara Bernard: Teaching is exhausting in the best of times, it seems to me, but we've heard quite a few times while reporting on this series, that teachers are all extra exhausted now.

[00:32:25] Joan King: Teachers are not okay.

[00:32:27] Carinna Tarvin: The teachers are feeling like ... somebody said, "It feels like March," and they said this in November. Like, they're March exhausted and it's early.

[00:32:37] Susan Enfield: You know, the term that we're using in public education circles is everybody is June tired right now.

[00:32:42] Sara Bernard: This again is Susan Enfield. Superintendent of Highline Public Schools.

[00:32:46] Susan Enfield: We're seeing levels of exhaustion in October, November that we typically don't see till the spring.

[00:32:50] Sara Bernard: And there are a lot of reasons for that. Part of it is the serious emotional and psychological needs of students right now. But also the fact that many students are academically unprepared for existing state grade level requirements. That can be exhausting for teachers, but also time consuming because it can mean preparing lessons that need to be scrapped and redone again and again.

[00:33:10] Joan King: Our lessons aren't, um, I would say like, not quite as effective as they'd normally be in a normal year. So like there is one week where I literally, like, I spent hours creating lesson plans for a whole week and I had, and it wasn't going how I had planned it to go. And the students weren't responding or receptive to the learning. So I scraped an entire week's worth of lessons. And I started from scratch and that's, you know, that's considered good teaching, but with like everything else that's going on.

[00:33:42] Sara Bernard: For instance, teachers always need their planning periods, but now they really need them. They're doing more on the fly than they've ever done, but those planning periods are being taken away week after week, in part because there are so many teacher absences, but there's a shortage of substitute teachers due to a range of factors, including COVID. So other teachers in the school building are suddenly required to pick up the slack.

[00:34:06] Joan King: When it's your time, and they can't find anyone else like in the building, and your name is up, that means you have to sub. So if I have to sub, there goes an hour of my day. There are only so many hours in the day. That's my planning period. That's my grading period. We're covering each other's classes. There are no substitutes. It's like the number one thing that I forget that people don't know, there are no substitutes. And so we have to cover each other's classes.

So everybody loses their planning periods all the time. And that's a big change. And so people are already doing too. They were already doing too much before and now they have less time to do it with kids who are two grades behind, who are like even more addicted to their phones than they were before, like less connected to school in general, I think.

[00:35:08] Sara Bernard: And no matter where their kids are at, for teachers there are also still data tracking requirements, special education reporting requirements, school and district and state requirements, required meetings and trainings, and adapting materials for students who have to suddenly learn from home again, because they're quarantining or because of new variants. And new shutdowns. Not to mention general class preparation and grading and, and, and ...

[00:35:38] Joan King: I just don't think that anyone we don't really discuss, day-to-day what educators actually are expected to do in a single day.

[00:35:46] Sara Bernard: Oh, and by the way, there's also no telling when COVID specific protocols will be officially behind us.

[00:35:52] Joan King: We just hired a part-time like three hours a day COVID person to just follow up on a contact tracing and stay in the isolation room and call all the family and do all, like there's just so much leg work for the cleanup and all that stuff.

And some of us also are expected to clean the desks between periods, at a school where there's a five minute passing period. How the heck do you pee, take a bite to eat and clean all the desks. And like, many of us have actually recruited students to help us because, I mean, because we're just one person and the fact that we have to ask students for help is ridiculous.

That's a clear indication that we're being asked to do too much.

[00:36:43] Sara Bernard: So as with the crisis and student mental health, there's also been some movement at the state level to address teachers mental health.

[00:36:50] Megan Reibel: The state is requiring district level training and school building level training in secondary trauma for educators.

[00:36:57] Sara Bernard: Here again is Megan Reibel.

[00:36:58] Megan Reibel: But there's other things that folks are doing like, Kaiser's Thriving Schools program has a fantastic program that really works to address educator burnout, secondary trauma in our schools and it's free.

[00:37:14] Sara Bernard: And yet ...

[00:37:15] Megan Reibel: And yet it is on top of all of the additional require, you know, the requirements that are already there. So that's a great tool. But what I'm hearing from folks is they are so full, they are so tired, it's like addressing the secondary trauma is just one more thing on their to-do list.

I was talking to a colleague in a King County school district recently, and their district had a wellness day, right, for their educators. Like, we are gonna take this day, a professional development day and it is going to offer workshops to engage, right. In our own wellness. She had one person show up, right. because it was optional, because you can't mandate someone to engage in self care, because then that's not really self care. And so, that's what I feel like is hard. Like, I feel like we are trying to put a bandaid on an issue that is hemorrhaging.

[00:38:22] Joan King: The bottom line is teachers need more support. And at the end of the day, we don't need ... The self care we really need is we need to do less at our job and we need more help.

[00:38:35] Sara Bernard: As I mentioned earlier, I found Joan because of her op-ed for the Seattle Times, but I didn't mention the headline. It was, "Let me tell you why teachers are quitting."

I actually was curious about that. Like, I don't have, you know, good data on it, but anecdotally speaking, you know, from your experience, do you know teachers who are leaving right now?

[00:38:58] Joan King: I do. And since the op-ed came out, I just resigned.

[00:39:09] Sara Bernard: Turns out, joan King is among a number of teachers across the country who recently decided that enough is enough.

They say they're being asked to do too much and with no end in sight. They're walking out the door.

[00:39:33] Susan Enfield: I hope that we can continue to ask our teachers, what do you need right now? How can I support you? How can I, as a parent of your classroom, show up for you or show up for my kid in a way that like lessens your load. I hope we can do that. Man, I hope we can think creatively about how education might change or shift. I worry that people are a little too exhaust to be creative right now.

[00:40:24] Sara Bernard: So here's the thing. Public schools are pretty much always at some level of crisis in some shape or form.

Claudia Rowe for one, as a long time education journalist, knows that you are tired of hearing about this.

[00:40:38] Claudia Rowe: Look to be totally Frank here, educators are often complaining about what's going on in schools that no one is paying attention to. And I fully understand that your listeners might be like, "We've been hearing this forever." You know, there could be sort of a compassion fatigue, or like a boy who cried wolf feeling about the so-called crisis in the schools. But the fact is that the needs are more now and the teachers are more burnt out. So while the needs are more, the response is less.

[00:41:58] Sara Bernard: Thanks for listening to This Changes Everything. This episode was reported and produced by me, Sara Bernard, with additional reporting by Claudia Rowe and Venice Buhain. Editorial help from Brooklyn Jamerson Flowers. Donna Blankenship is our consulting editor and our story editor and executive producer is Mark Baumgarten. Audio support from Jonah Cohen.

We also want to note that Mark Baumgarten's wife does work for the Renton School District, though she doesn't work with any of the teachers interviewed for this series.

You can subscribe to This Changes Everything, wherever you listen. And if you like the show, please review us. It really helps other people find us.

For more on This Changes Everything and other Crosscut podcasts, go to crosscut.com/podcasts.

For the latest political, environmental, and culture news from the Pacific Northwest, visit crosscut.com.

This Changes Everything is a product of Cascade Public Media. I'm Sara Bernard, and for the next episode, don't worry. We're getting a little bit more upbeat. As much as the stress of the pandemic and online learning contributed to this huge explosion in mental health issues, some people have actually found that the virtual school model isn't all that bad.

And as an option, at least, it might be here to stay. That's next time on This Changes Everything.


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