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The pandemic continues to take an enormous toll on schoolteachers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Sickness, frustration, fury and burnout - all consequences of the pandemic for America's teachers. The National Education Association, which represents nearly 3 million teachers nationwide, asked their members how they're doing, and their survey found that more than half of America's teachers are planning to leave their jobs. Joining us now is Becky Pringle. She's the president of the National Education Association. Thank you so much for being with us.

BECKY PRINGLE: Good to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: I mean, this is not good news, right? More than half of all teachers in this country want to quit? What have you been hearing from teachers, not just in your union but in your life about what's pushing them out?

PRINGLE: You know, Rachel, I taught science eighth grade, the middle-level learners for over 30 years. And honestly, I have never seen anything like this. Mostly, it was just the overwhelm of having to cover classes and the shortages among staff and every day being, you know, chaotic in not knowing what was going to happen because of this continued pandemic. And so an already stressful job was made even more so because of the added workload and responsibilities and expectations.

MARTIN: I wonder about the general energy around all the pandemic debates, for lack of a better descriptor. I mean, we've seen these intense school board meetings where parents are pitted against teachers. I mean, there are parents who are sick and tired of their kids having to stay home for weeks at a time because of COVID protocols they don't think are necessary anymore, teachers who still feel vulnerable to the virus and don't want masking rules to change. Is that also driving teachers away - that ugly tension with parents?

PRINGLE: Absolutely. And I would I would certainly use a stronger word than energy around it.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PRINGLE: We have seen (laughter) something...

MARTIN: Like what?

PRINGLE: It's crazy. That's the word I would use. I mean, for teachers to be blamed for the pandemic because they're trying to keep kids safe? They're trying to follow the science. Do you - can I just tell you, Rachel, it hurts my heart as a science teacher that we're having a conversation about science and whether it exists or not. When we have evidence that something is protecting our kids, then we want to use that evidence. You know, all of us are exhausted. Our parents are exhausted. Our kids are not just exhausted. They're fearful about their future. But what's different here is we are actually being blamed and attacked, physically attacked, let alone verbally attacked, our families threatened. What - in what other space is that happening? So in addition to the stress, there is fear and this - that weight of the divisiveness within your community that is making it even harder to continue to educate our students.

MARTIN: So what's to be done? I mean, it can't just stay like this. You can't have half of America's teachers walking out the door. So do we just wait for the pandemic to pass, hoping that that will encourage teachers to stay?

PRINGLE: We can't. Most health care professionals, infectious disease experts are telling us that we're going to have to live with COVID for a while. So we do have to take some immediate steps. And we've seen school districts around the country do that. You know, we fought really, really hard to get that $170 billion in the American Rescue Plan. And so one of the things - the top issue when we asked, well, how do we - asked our teachers, well, how do we address this? And the very first, the top one was better pay and benefits. And so there are some school districts that have done that. They've used the American Rescue Plan money to raise teacher salaries, to raise support staff salaries. The second thing they said is the mental health of students. You know, as our students are coming back to school, not only are they - do they have issues around academic gaps. They have huge social and emotional challenges just being with each other and the traumas they're bringing back to school.

MARTIN: And that's tough on the teachers, who are expected...

PRINGLE: Yes.

MARTIN: ...To kind of bear the brunt of that.

PRINGLE: We need mental health professionals, people who are trained to help our students.

MARTIN: Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, we appreciate your time. Thank you.

PRINGLE: Thank you so much, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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