Cool Springs Elementary School

Students and teachers gathered near a classroom at Cool Springs Elementary School in Petersburg. Virginia faces a shortage of teachers and classroom morale is one factor.

Somewhere in Virginia today, a public school teacher resigned.

This resignation wasn’t linked to a family emergency, health crisis or poor performance. No, it came from a realization—“I can’t do this job any more.”

No matter if a teacher has multiple years of experience or is a rookie in the classroom, I suspect that more of our teachers are coming to this conclusion.

I remember my first year of teaching.

Back in 1975, I wondered if I would survive my challenging ninth grade students. That same feeling consumed me in year 30. I was serving an elementary school as principal. I had hit my wall. The following year, I retired.

What could be easier than teaching a classroom full of students from September to June?

After all, teachers get the summers off (ha!), they have a package of benefits, a monthly pay check and a retirement plan. With these guaranties, how could a teacher abruptly resign?

When a teacher realizes “I can’t do my job anymore” and the benefits of employment no longer matter, I suspect the answer to the resignation question is grounded in morale.

For public school teachers, morale is a quiet intruder with multiple layers. Those layers singularly or as a group can pack a powerful punch.

Morale layers are formed in the classroom, within school buildings, at school board offices and inside our communities. We owe it to the resigning teacher, all internal stakeholders, every student and our communities to learn the exact cause for this type of resignation.

Why?

Because the future of public education might hinge on the teacher’s answers—especially when morale is the pivot point.

A classroom teacher faces many piled-on pressures.

Lesson planning that is scrutinized by building-level administrators and beyond, multiple planning sessions, student assessment, student performance on state tests that determine a school’s accreditation, frequent staff development, countless required meetings, paperwork, extracurricular leadership, communication skills, technology, working with challenging students and parents, and classroom management.

Individually and collectively, these pressures can impact a teacher’s morale. They can form the foundation for a resignation. But, I believe the exactness of the “I can’t do this anymore” resignation is going to be found in the community of the school, its neighborhoods and the families the school is working to serve.

Maybe we don’t want to admit it, but many families in our state are in crisis. A family in crisis with school-age children can mean a crisis in the classroom for their son or daughter, the teacher attempting to educate them and even their classmates.

That teacher who resigned hit the morale wall. Chances are that wall is tied to the teacher’s attempt to work with a student or multiple students in crisis.

A student in crisis can drain every ounce of physical and emotional energy from a teacher.

Often, a student in crisis desperately seeks attention in all of the wrong ways. This can be a means to compensate for the academic inadequacies ricocheting inside the student. Those inadequacies can make classroom life unbearably miserable for the student, the teacher and classmates.

To truly understand a resignation generated from hitting the morale wall, school systems must be willing to listen without judging. Investing in an open and thorough post-resignation interview is an opportunity to learn. Those conversations have the potential to provide preventative insights.

But, if we really want to solve the multiple layers of challenges that public school teachers across Virginia face, we must invest in listening and learning from our families who are in crisis, too.

It’s more than likely that every school system in our state is dealing with this formula: a family in crisis = a student in crisis = a teacher in crisis = a formula for failure.

We are experiencing a shortage of teachers in Virginia. I wonder how much of this shortage is linked to hitting the morale wall, and the realization—“I can’t do this job anymore”?

This crisis/morale formula needs to be disrupted. We can’t afford not to intervene.

At a critical point in the movie “Apollo 13,” a NASA leader emphatically tells his team as they develop the plan to bring the astronauts safely back to earth: “Failure is not an option.”

That same urgency must apply to the teacher who “can’t do this job anymore” and our families in crisis.

Failing them is not an acceptable option.

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Bill Pike is the director of operations at Trinity United Methodist Church and a former Tuckahoe District representative on the Henrico County School Board.

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