The first days of school are finally feeling "back to normal" for English teacher Clare Berke.
Berke, who teaches at Benjamin Banneker High School in Ward 2, says her students are able to sit in small discussion groups again. With vaccines available for children six months and older, she's no longer agonizing over strict seating charts, which kept students physically distanced and helped with contact tracing. Reduced case numbers mean that she isn't constantly worried about pivoting to remote learning due to a sudden COVID-19 outbreak.
"My own kids, they woke up on day two, and they're like, 'we love school and we can't wait to go back,'" she says. "It's lots of joy and learning happening already."
Humanities teacher Brittany Richardson says there is a "lot of positivity" at the Center City Public Charter School in Petworth.
"This year has so far — knock on wood — been amazing," she says. "We're all just relieved last year's over and ready to start fresh."
As grateful as teachers are for these signs of normalcy, for many D.C. teachers, normal needs to change. Since well before the pandemic, local teachers have complained of high turnover rates, brutal working hours, and an evaluation system that many describe as punitive. Not only are these problems still ongoing, the pandemic has made some of them worse.
D.C. is projected to have higher teacher turnover than the vast majority of states and some of the worst pay in the country given the cost of living, according to a WalletHub study issued earlier this week. The study ranks D.C. 48th among states in projected teacher turnover and finds it is the third worst state to teach in.
Schools are dealing with "significant vacancies" at the beginning of this school year, according to Frazier O'Leary Jr., a teacher and member of the D.C. State Board of Education representing Ward 4. He says that local teacher turnover is only getting worse and that he would be surprised if fewer than 25 percent of DCPS teachers have left their roles or quit teaching altogether since the last school year, based on conversations he's had with educators and vacancy estimates from the city.
"This year has been precipitous, in the decline of teacher retention," he says. "From everything that I hear from principals and teachers throughout the city, there's been a sea change in the number of teachers who aren't coming back."
The State Board conducted a survey of D.C. teachers in March 2021 and found that 43.4 percent said they considered quitting teaching due to the stresses of the pandemic.
"The frustrating thing for a lot of us is we saw it coming," says Scott Goldstein, the executive director of educators advocacy group EmpowerEd. "We've been saying for the last couple of years that this is going to happen, and if we don't make the job more flexible, if we don't focus on wellness, that we're going to face these shortages and the students will pay the price. And here we are."
Before the pandemic hit, D.C. schools were already experiencing high teacher turnover. A July 2021 report by the State Board of Education shows an annual teacher attrition rate of about 25 percent for six years in DCPS and charter schools — higher than the pre-pandemic national average of 16 percent. Whether COVID-19 has dramatically driven down teacher retention in D.C. is not yet clear. While retention did drop after the pandemic began, there isn't public data yet for this year's teacher workforce from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE).
Not every school is necessarily feeling the weight of low staffing. Dominique Moore, a fifth grade special education teacher, says John Hayden Johnson Middle School in Ward 8 seems "pretty well-staffed" and that teachers there seem "energized" as the school year gets underway. Across the district, however, Moore says morale is waning.
"People who at this point are still teaching are really doing it for the love of teaching, for the love of kids and fostering the next generation," Moore said. "They always expect us to do more with less."
Brad Thompson, a world history teacher at Theodore Roosevelt High School, says last year was the most challenging school year of his tenure as a teacher. He was covering three periods on average each week, in addition to his regular teaching load.
This year — his eleventh as a teacher — is looking better thanks to some added support staff, though they're still contending with ongoing vacancies.
"We are missing the Spanish teacher and a few other teachers and every period, a teacher has to cover that class," he says, which eats into their prep time.
What's probably the "biggest issue," Thompson says, is that classes have "ballooned dramatically" in size due to staff shortages. His classes have upwards of about 30 students enrolled. Last year, he had about 22 per class.
Personnel staff at DCPS' central office have been temporarily filling teacher vacancies across the District. Margaret Thomas, a special education teacher at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Ward 5, says it's the first time her school has ever resorted to these measures. Thomas says teachers and administrators at her campus have also spent the first weeks of school scrambling to onboard new teachers and finish the hiring process for others.
Moore says several teachers across the District, including a colleague, have dealt with delays in their offer letters and onboarding in the first weeks of school, due to staffing shortages at the DCPS central office.
"This is a crisis long in the making, that parents and students are really feeling the effects of now," Goldstein says. "The shortage that everyone is experiencing around the country is compounding a problem that was already stark in D.C."
With COVID-19 waning, he says, now is the time for change.
"The solutions are becoming not only more clear, but more exciting."
Reforming the teaching schedule
As much as virtual teaching was a "nightmare," Goldstein says it gave some teachers a taste of greater flexibility, with options to spend more time with family. Thompson, for example, says he got to do a four-day teaching week, using the fifth day to create his own work schedule.
But today, Goldstein says, teachers' schedules have mostly returned to pre-pandemic rigidity.
"The striking thing that's happened over the past few years is that almost every other career that teachers are qualified for has gotten dramatically more flexible, and teaching has not," Goldstein says.
Part of why Goldstein left his teaching job five years ago is that he became a father and needed a schedule that allowed for more time at home. The latest OSSE data shows that retention rates were lowest among teachers with two to five years of experience, which Goldstein says may be because some of those teachers are getting married and starting families.
He says that there are ways to make teachers' schedules more forgiving while maintaining a five-day school week. For example, schools can make time for high school students to do vocational programming and internships during school hours while younger students can do more project-based learning, leaning on existing partnerships between schools and D.C. area nonprofits. That would give educators more free periods to lesson plan, have meetings, and work from home.
"There's really exciting opportunities, both for students and educators," Goldstein says. "Those take planning, and the system actually supporting the work of schools to redesign."
Thompson says some of his colleagues work more than eight hours a day. While he's paid by the hour, he says any work he might have to do after five that doesn't involve interacting with students doesn't count toward his paid overtime hours. These schedules feel even less manageable to younger teachers, who tend to have lower salaries. He says it's also not uncommon for teachers to need another job on the side to make ends meet.
As of fiscal year 2019, the starting salary for a new DCPS teacher with a bachelor's degree could be as low as $56,313 a year.
Thompson says raising these salaries is key to retention in a city with a steep cost of living.
Making teacher evaluations less 'punitive'
An early 2020 survey by the State Board of Education showed that for DCPS teachers, "the primary departure driver" was the IMPACT evaluation system. Enacted in 2009 by then-DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee, IMPACT was one of the first evaluation systems in the country to determine a teacher's salary and job security based on students' standardized test scores.
The system aimed to root out — or "IMPACT out" — "ineffective" teachers, while boosting retention for "effective" teachers by paying them more — but many teachers say that's not how it works in practice.
"IMPACT is a punitive system, rather than a supportive system," O'Leary of the D.C. State Board of Education says.
Margaret Thomas says she's heard many stories from teachers whose scores would vary dramatically depending on their administrators, including veteran teachers.
"It works for getting rid of teachers. But for building capacity, it's not," she says. "The tool has been weaponized too much."
In response to concerns from the Washington Teachers' Union, Chancellor Lewis Ferebee announced a review of IMPACT in 2019. As part of that review, DCPS partnered with the American University School of Education, which later published a 2021 report showing that IMPACT was prone to "racial bias," with white teachers receiving higher evaluation scores on average than Black and Hispanic teachers.
Evaluators also observe teachers in unannounced sessions for about 30 minutes — too brief, teachers say, to fully capture all they do in a day.
Berke says she began teaching high school in D.C. fourteen years ago, when IMPACT was still new, and her first evaluation scores were "not good."
"It was really stressful for me," Berke says. "I thought, oh, should I quit teaching entirely? I don't want to be in a job that I'm bad at, maybe this isn't the thing for me."
Berke says she was lucky to find a mentor in her department chair, who encouraged her and told her she was on the right track. But mentorship isn't guaranteed for teachers, and Berke said being reduced to a score can be pretty demoralizing.
Most teachers — about 60 percent, as of 2021 — did feel IMPACT helped their growth to some extent, but there was wide consensus that the system needed change. Following the review, Ferebee has said he would not be getting rid of IMPACT, but would be interested in reforms.
Should it remain in place, Berke says the teachers' union wants the evaluation to come with readily available professional development. They also want evaluators to measure student success without relying on standardized testing.
"Standardized tests can be biased," Berke says. "They're important for a lot of reasons, but they're not necessarily a great indicator of what a teacher has really done for a student or for a class."
Moore says an effective mentorship program is one of the best ways DCPS can retain teachers.
Ultimately, Goldstein says, what matters most to students is that teachers and principals they trust and have built long-term relationships with.
"School stability is the foundation of school success," Goldstein says.
Securing a union contract
Negotiations remain at an impasse between D.C. and the Washington Teachers' Union, which has not had a contract since 2019.
Moore says not having a contract is a "very huge issue" — in part because, for years, teachers haven't been getting the raises that would have come in handy with inflation and the District's increasing cost of living.
"Fire and EMS have got a new contract and a raise. The police department has gotten a new contract and a raise. Government workers have gotten a new contract and raise," Moore says. "But the teachers are last."
Moore says she believes this is because teachers are pushing to end mayoral control of the public education system, one of the union's longtime priorities (the mayor has had almost full control of the city's public school system since 2008, with only limited oversight by the SBOE).
"The teachers at DCPS, at least the teachers that I have talked to, often feel like the mayor has weaponized our contract and made it a political issue," Moore says.
Last week Mayor Muriel Bowser signed a four-year labor contract with the principals' union, guaranteeing principals a 12.5 percent pay increase over the life of the contract.
Without a fair contract that would secure teachers raises, Thompson says D.C. is at risk of losing even more educators.
"We've waited too long"
Goldstein says teachers have been putting forward solutions for years.
"We've waited too long," he says. "We just need policy leaders to really seize the moment and not be afraid to tackle the problem, and listen to students and teachers and parents and families about the solutions."
If D.C. sticks to the status quo, Thompson says teachers will continue to leave after two or three years.
"Teachers will get burned out. Young teachers will begin to get burned out. They'll continue to get burned out." he says.
Brittany Richardson says when she left her previous school, "there was not enough therapy in the world" for her to stay.
"The kids were coming with so much trauma and the school was not supporting them and unpacking the trauma, so the trauma got unpacked on us," she says. "It takes a toll on you."
Moore says teachers may be leaving, but it's inaccurate to say D.C. is facing a "teacher shortage."
"There are more than enough qualified people in this field," Moore says. "It's just they've gotta put some respect on our name."
This story originally appeared on DCist.com.