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How to beat burnout and keep the best teachers in class

How to beat burnout and keep the best teachers in class

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It’s going to take more than money to keep Wisconsin’s best teachers in the classroom.

They need respect as professionals. They need control over their classrooms. They need students to put their cellphones away.

More cooperation and engagement from parents would sure help, too.

With school starting across much of Wisconsin this week, we all have a role to play at improving public education — especially with so many teacher positions unfilled. Madison still had around 120 teacher vacancies, the district reported Friday. The worker shortage across most of the economy has hit public education hard.

And no wonder. This isn’t an easy job, especially after the pandemic kept so many students away from in-person classes for too long, especially in Madison. That has exacerbated mental health and behavior issues, child psychologists say, while limiting learning. Many students fell behind and spent too much time on digital devices at home, developing bad habits.

Teachers face enormous challenges and distractions as classes begin. COVID still looms, with fear of new strains emerging. Worst of all, draining political debates have targeted public education, including wild accusations of indoctrination and demands to ban books. It needs to end.

Public workers in Wisconsin, including many teachers, are leaving their jobs at the highest rates in decades, according to a report by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum last week. More public employees have left in the last two years than following the passage a decade ago of Act 10, former Gov. Scott Walker’s strict and divisive limits on unions.

Significantly, more teachers are bailing not because they’re getting old and retiring but because of burnout, the report suggests.

Money, of course, is a factor. Many districts have approved 4.7% wage increases, the maximum allowed under Act 10’s inflationary caps on wage negotiations. (The Madison School Board approved a 3% base pay increase in July. Yet Madison is one of the few districts in the state that still gives teachers additional raises for longevity and advanced degrees. Those hikes average about 2%, putting a lot of Madison teachers on par if not ahead of their peers.)

Yet the vast majority of teachers didn’t get into their profession to make lots of money or have their summers off. They teach because they want to inspire young people to succeed. That’s their passion.

COVID badly disrupted their face-to-face interactions with students, many of whom are restless and harder to reach.

Providing more stability for everyone in school buildings will surely help. Wisconsin should keep its schools open and let teachers choose to teach without masks, which can be uncomfortable and make it hard to communicate.

Pulling a single police officer from each of Madison’s four main high schools hasn’t improved student behavior or school safety. Instead, outside officers who don’t know the students have had to respond to almost daily calls for help, creating more potential for conflict and misunderstanding. Madison should reconsider that decision.

School districts can do their teachers a huge favor this fall by adopting clear and effective bans on students using cellphones during class. The devices have become a chronic barrier to learning. Madison appears to be moving in the right direction.

Too many teachers are being disrespected by a vocal minority. Some parents and politicians have scoured teachers’ lesson plans for offense. Teachers have unfairly been criticized at times for policies they didn’t adopt and might not even agree with. Local school boards and administrators make the big decisions.

Moreover, the teachers who remain don’t have as much help because support staff are in short supply. That makes it harder to provide individual attention to the young people who need it most.

School districts need to be more creative in attracting young educators while keeping existing staff excited and improving. A lot of effort is already going into that.

Lowering the standards for teaching is definitely not the answer. Wisconsin should avoid Florida’s folly of filling classrooms with current and past military personnel who haven’t been trained to effectively engage and teach students.

Here’s a final suggestion, something we all can do: Tell a teacher how much you appreciate them. Be specific, especially if that teacher is educating your student and you’re happy with the job they’re doing. More respect and support for their hard work is key to keeping talented people in front of our children.

Geske, a former state Supreme Court justice, introduces herself as one of the Wisconsin State Journal's new community editorial board members

Strong, a former Madison police lieutenant and longtime youth football coach, introduces himself as one of the Wisconsin State Journal's new community editorial board members

Schmitz, the Downtown Madison dynamo whose great-grandfather opened a store on the Capitol Square in 1898, introduces herself as one of the Wisconsin State Journal's new community


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