Jesse Thompson loved working with kids who thought they were destined to fail.
The kids who avoid turning in assignments because at least they could “chalk up any shortcomings to never having tried in the first.” When those students walked into his classroom the purpose of his profession, of his very existence, became clear.
Teaching wasn’t just about reading Macbeth or getting the hang of iambic pentameter for Thompson. He wanted to teach a young person “to believe in yourself a little bit, and that you’re not a bad kid, and that you’re not stupid. And that you have these capacities that go way beyond what you thought you were able to do.”
The joy Thompson found in teaching high school English made the decision to quit his job in Cheyenne all the more difficult. “It was really the dream situation for me. I was planning on having a long career up there,” he said.
The stress of teaching amid a pandemic took a severe toll on Thompson’s mental health, and he found himself sitting in a gas station parking lot each morning, attempting to meditate and calm himself down, but still feeling that “driving my car off a bridge sounded more appealing sometimes then going to work.” He realized he had to quit to save himself.
“I miss my students,” Thompson said. “But I’m not sure public school teaching is going to be good for me, at least not in its current state.”
Teachers across Wyoming are struggling as the COVID-19 pandemic approaches its third year, and data suggest many are considering making the same decision as Thompson, either leaving the state or public education altogether.
A nation-wide problem
States across the country are contending with teacher burnout — a survey of National Education Association members found 55% were more likely to leave education or retire early because of the pandemic. Another survey from the Rand Corporation found most who left public school teaching cited stress rather than pay as the top contributing factor — teachers who quit often took jobs with either lower or equal salaries.
In Wyoming, the stress is heightened by debates over masks, failures to track COVID-19 cases and substitute shortages that forced teachers to work overtime. WyoFile spoke with teachers across the state, many of whom wished to remain anonymous because they feared retribution or hostility from colleagues, school administrators or parents, about the difficulties they were facing as omicron surged across the state.
The National Education Association polled Wyoming members in May and found a fifth of educators were considering leaving the state, and the percentage was even higher for early-career educators. Only 24% of Wyoming educators polled said they would encourage someone else to enter the profession, while just 9% said they were “very satisfied with conditions facing educators.”
Last year Jaye Wacker, who taught in Laramie County for decades, decided to quit partially because he wanted to spend more time with his daughter but also because he no longer felt safe going to the place he loved.
Wacker has problems with his lungs, and he feared if he contracted COVID he would no longer be able to hike, ski and ride mountain bikes. He also worried going into school could put his family at risk.
He said he’s been getting a lot of calls from fellow teachers who want to make a career change too, and a few who have succeeded in leaving public education. “They just couldn’t take the grind of the system anymore,” Wacker said.
Many school districts rolled back mask mandates and other precautions despite the spread of omicron.
Natrona County School District, for example, no longer tracks COVID-19’s impacts on the district, meaning it doesn’t contact trace, test students or quarantine/isolate those who contract the virus.
The Wyoming Health Department also doesn’t know the exact number of students or staff in the state who have COVID-19 because the data is self-reported and limited to lab-confirmed cases. Between Jan.14 and Jan. 28 there were 340 students with lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wyoming.
Natrona County’s public health officer, Dr. Mark Dowell, wrote via email he hasn’t had any “direct communication with the school board or district,” and has no idea how many teachers or students were out due to COVID.
But teachers and students are getting sick. Two teachers in Natrona county said they’ve noticed more faculty and students absent. “Teachers are being asked to cover for other teachers, every single period of every single day,” one teacher said. Another noted, “I have more students who show up to class sick because they say their parents won’t let them stay home.”
Another educator in Albany County said although her school still has a test-to-stay policy, lines got so long at the nurse’s office that students waiting for COVID-19 test results were sent back to their classrooms. “They are absolutely throwing us to the wolves. They just don’t care if we get COVID,” she said.
She’s concerned the surge in absences will impact the quality of education students are receiving. “There’s no continuity for kids. They’re in and out [sick]. Teachers are in and out. Who knows what substitute you’ll have today?”
As far as Sean O’Sullivan, communications specialist for Albany County School District 1, is aware, he said, “things have been going pretty well with the tests.” The district is also planning to open another testing location, he said.
The district has had 80 more requests for substitutions per week compared with last year, he said. “We have more subs now than we’ve ever had. It’s just a question of trying to get as many in as possible,” O’Sullivan said.
In August, Wacker, a parent and former teacher, attended a school board meeting in Laramie County School District One. Wacker wore a mask to the meeting and was followed out by a man who kept screaming at him, “You’re a fucking child abuser. Do you think child abuse is OK?”
Wacker kept asking the man to leave him alone, he said, but when the man prevented Wacker and his wife from getting to their vehicle he called the police.
“I didn’t even talk, I just wore a mask for the meeting,” Wacker said.
Masks are politicized in the state, and some like Wacker are frustrated by the vitriol wearing one can fuel.
Teachers in Wyoming aren’t united in their desire for pandemic precautions. A “pulse survey” conducted in Albany County School District One in January revealed how stark the differences in opinions are.
Some wrote they were glad to “see faces again,” and did not want a vaccine mandate. Other respondents wrote their morale was low because of “COVID uncertainty” and “a lack of concern for teachers feeling unsafe and overwhelmed.”
The division over masks and mandates have made many educators fearful of speaking up.
Thompson, who taught in Cheyenne and is high risk for COVID, said he felt he was in a hostile work environment and found it difficult to bring up concerns about mask protocols.
Despite safety frustrations, many teachers still said having kids learn in-person is important and needs to be a top priority.
“The majority of the people that I work with, regardless of the mental, physical and emotional health concerns would still say, ‘I just want to be in the classroom with the students because that’s where they learn best,’” said Nikki Lally, a science teacher in Douglas.
Although educators in Wyoming may not agree on COVID-19 precautions, they appear more united in their distress over the heavy workload created by offering both remote and in-person courses and persistent substitute shortages.
“I see firsthand the imprint of fatigue from this pandemic on Wyoming’s education employees,” Grady Hutcherson, president of the Wyoming Education Association, wrote in an email. “I’ve heard from members in every region of our state that they are tired, they are burnt out, and they need additional support.”
Lally, in Douglas, said her district is also facing shortages. “People are coming to work sick, when they should be staying home. It’s a catch-22 when you’re told by your supervisors ‘If you don’t feel well stay home,’ and then the next words out of their mouth are ‘but we don’t have any substitutes,'” she said.
Wyoming teachers are still doing two jobs: providing virtual options for kids out sick with COVID and teaching in-person courses without additional prep time, according to Lally. The only way to improve the situation is to give teachers “an opportunity to slow down to catch up,” she said.
“This pandemic has demonstrated that a lot of our systems were a lot closer to the breaking point than we realized,” Thompson said. He doesn’t blame other educators for his experience, but believes the public school system has been strained for decades as teachers have taken on more and more responsibilities without additional resources.
He just happened to start his career when the system finally snapped, Thompson said.
Hutcherson, president of WEA, noted the American Rescue Plan dollars could provide an opportunity for a reset.
He wants districts to use the federal funds to bolster mental health resources for both students and employees and improve pay for teachers and as a way to retain substitutes. “We need communities to show our education employees the respect and support they’ve always deserved, and they’ve earned throughout this pandemic,” Hutcherson wrote.
Many teachers brought up getting their prep time back so they don’t have to take so much work home at the end of the day.
One teacher, Michelle Rooks in Teton County, is happy with her school district’s response. The superintendent tells teachers how many staff and students are out with COVID each week, and Rooks said even when the mask mandate was not in place, 75% of her students still showed up to class wearing one.
She can walk into the nurse’s office and get tested at any time. “I think that they’ve done a lot to help us feel more secure in this situation,” Rooks said.
Teton County hasn’t been immune to staffing and substitute shortages, but in response the district canceled certain meetings to make up for the time teachers spent substituting and provided extra prep time and professional development days.
“Leadership has done a nice job of trying to mitigate that stress for us when they can,” Rooks said.
Without some change — systemic or piecemeal — teachers across the state said they have a hard time envisioning teaching in Wyoming long-term. Many said they are looking into teaching jobs in other states or ways to keep teaching but not necessarily in public education.
“I have the greatest respect for my colleagues who are still teaching,” Wacker said. “What they’re doing is nothing short of miraculous.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis or having suicidal thoughts, you can call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741741.