By Lucas L. Johnson II

For years, public schools have struggled with teacher shortages. But the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem, and triggered a spike in retirements and resignations that have school administrators scratching their heads.

According to an Associated Press story that ran in September, Tennessee is among states with teacher shortages and difficulties filling openings. For instance, Metro Nashville Public Schools, one of the three largest school districts in Tennessee, reported more than 300 teacher openings in May.

“This year has turned out to be the most challenging of my career,” English teacher Mary Holden told NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, who was in Nashville, Tennessee, earlier this month for a nationally televised segment. “We are being stretched in ways that I did not anticipate. We need a lot more support.”

Public school administrators and state lawmakers say they hear the concerns of Holden and other teachers, and are taking steps to address them. That includes examining ongoing issues like inadequate pay and being overworked. But probably most important, looking at resources available to help teachers with their mental health.

In an interview with Holt while he was in Nashville, MNPS Director Adrienne Battle said the district is addressing teachers’ mental health needs. When asked what exactly is being done, MNPS spokesman Sean Braisted said a “variety of methods” are being used to provide mental and wellness support to teachers and support staff.

“We have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provided through our partnership with ComPsych that offers free, confidential counseling on a variety of issues ranging from mental health needs to financial or legal advice,” says Braisted. “We also offer behavioral support through our health insurance plans and onsite services at our Wellness Center, which is a partnership with Vanderbilt University Medical Center.”

According to a June survey of 2,690 members of the National Education Association, 32% said the pandemic drove them to plan to leave the profession earlier than expected. Another survey by the RAND Corp. said the pandemic exacerbated attrition, burnout and stress on teachers, who were almost twice as likely as other employed adults to feel frequent job-related stress and almost three times more likely to experience depression.

David Miller, a science teacher at a school in Davidson County, Tennessee, says part of the stress for many teachers has to do with the passion they have to teach, but not enough time to do the things that are requested of them.

“When it comes to our time, being able to serve the students, plan lessons, evaluate work, give feedback, communicate to parents … the amount of time that we have during the day to achieve all of our goals is minimum,” says Miller. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room at all to do everything we want to do. And so, I think what happens is you get teacher burnout. Because then if students aren’t performing well, the pressure always goes back onto the teacher about performance. So, teachers are constantly feeling pressure.”

However, he says one way to possibly incentivize teachers and lift their spirits, is to put more money in their pockets. During the latest Tennessee legislative session, state lawmakers allocated funds to give teachers a 4% raise. But that falls way short of the 20% increase Arizona gave its teachers.

“We go through a lot,” says Rose Bates, a special education teacher in Phoenix, Arizona. “So, it meant a great deal to receive that pay increase.”

In Tennessee, State Rep. Antonio Parkinson says he plans to propose legislation during the next General Assembly that will further increase teachers’ pay, and provide more support for them in general.

“We’re losing teachers daily,” says Parkinson, who is chairman of the Black Caucus of State Legislators. “I want to ease the burden on teachers, and bring more into the profession.”

Editor’s Note:
This is the sixth and final story in a series on the impact COVID-19 is having on K-12 education across Tennessee.