The Kids Are in the Gym with the Janitor, and Educators Are Not Okay

Image credit: KC Green

by Carrie Culpepper, UTeach National Network Coordinator, UTeach Institute, University of Texas at Austin

“The kids are in the gym with the janitor,” the principal told me over the phone early one morning in August 2021. I texted one of the six instructional specialists on my team and asked her to go to the school to pick up a class of 5th-graders whose teacher had called in sick that morning. I called more schools and found more places that desperately needed my other specialists in their classrooms.

Hearing that students were sitting in a gym with a janitor waiting for a teacher — any teacher — to take them to their classroom was shocking. If a principal told me the same story today, it would not give me a moment’s pause. Stories of district superintendents substitute teaching or serving lunches don’t shock me anymore. Hearing about teachers leaving mid-year or planning to exit the profession does not shock me. Learning that the state of New Mexico encouraged their National Guard to provide support to overwhelmed schools is not shocking. Nothing about this can shock me anymore. This can’t be the new permanent reality for public education. We have to change it. Now.

The urban district I worked in from 2017 through January 2022 serves about 50,000 students at 90 schools and employs about 3,000 teachers. All but one school qualifies for Title I funding — financial assistance to schools that serve high numbers of economically disadvantaged students. I was a director at the central office, responsible for leading our induction program, which provides support to new teachers through orientation and mentoring. This work is incredibly important because without induction programs, a high percentage of new teachers leave the profession in less than three years. In the summer of 2021, I hired a team of six specialists to help overhaul our district’s program not only to better serve new teachers but also to address the new challenges of teaching students traumatized during the COVID-19 pandemic. Within weeks, our team helped write and received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education for nearly $12 million. We were elated. And we had no idea when we convened in July to start the work how drastically different our school year would look.

For the next six months, the district faced insurmountable challenges — shocking until they were no longer shocking. My team and I would frequently refer to the meme in which a cartoon dog sits in a room on fire, wearing a frantic smile and saying, “This is fine.” It’s fine, everything is fine, we told each other, laughing at the meme and at ourselves. We had another mantra, “Nobody quits.” Eventually, though, it wasn’t fine, and I did quit. I walked out on all of them. Everything is not fine.

I left five months into the school year and the guilt I feel is overwhelming. Weeks later, I still get a lump in my throat when I think about my team and what they must face every day and that I am not there facing it with them. When I announced in January that I was leaving, no one intentionally made me feel guilty. One said, “Take us with you, please.” But she wasn’t trying to hurt me — she wants to find another way to work. She and the others understood. They told me they would do the same thing themselves if they had the option.

And now I don’t have to assign specialized staff to a random classroom that likely has no lesson plans for a substitute for a class of students who have not had a consistent teacher all year. I know it’s still happening, but I don’t have to see it. I don’t have to tell my specialists to keep lesson plans ready in their cars so they’ll be prepared to replace an absent teacher at any moment. And even this preparation isn’t enough. It might work for the secondary math specialist who substitutes for an absent math teacher. But what about the secondary math specialist substituting for the early childhood teacher? Or for the middle school band director? Or for the special education teacher who changes their students’ diapers? An external substitute can turn down an assignment they do not feel confident working. The specialists can’t. Science specialists substitute for dance teachers, physical education specialists for art teachers. Elementary reading specialists substitute in high school credit recovery classes. Everything is not fine.

Back in July, before we knew what the school year would do to all of us, my new team of specialists reported for their first day of the contract year, we had already spent time remotely meeting each other so we could dive into our initial task of hosting a virtual new teacher orientation for the more than 400 teachers who were joining the district in August. As the first day of school approached, we learned that there were still over 100 vacant teaching positions across the district and that the six specialists on my team (along with others from central office) would be used to “temporarily” help fill those vacancies until new teachers could be hired.

Then we realized there was no one to hire. When I left in January, one particular high school algebra class had had substitutes, including a long line of specialists, since the first day of school. Whenever a new specialist would arrive at the classroom, the students would ask, “Are you our new teacher?” And each time the specialist responded with something along the lines of, “No. I’m just here for today.” At the end of the class period some students would ask, “Can you come back tomorrow?” and the specialist would tell them, “It depends on what is needed at other schools.” Eventually, the students stopped asking. Everything is not fine.

For the whole of the fall of 2021, I would start my day with a spreadsheet listing the teacher vacancies and absences that the central office team needed to cover. The lowest number was around 100, the highest near 250. Every day I was identifying classrooms where I could place members of my team so their expertise would be an asset. I looked for schools where more than one of them could go so that they could help each other take a restroom break since most of the staff restrooms were locked, and the school staff handling their own classroom overflows might not be available to unlock them.

If we were lucky, a member of the team substituted in a classroom where they could teach a real lesson. But that was rare. The stories my team told were heartbreaking. In August, nearly an entire classroom of second graders was unable to recognize letters or numbers. Students’ oral language development was so delayed they found it difficult to answer basic questions like, “Where do you line up for dismissal?” Students in a middle school French class had never been instructed in French. Often the specialists simply listened to the students who just needed to talk to a caring adult. At first, some of their stories about multiple members of their immediate family dying of COVID and not having attended school of any kind for over a year were shocking. But eventually, they weren’t. Everything is not fine.

In this chaos, we did our best to meet the goals we had promised for the new teacher induction redesign grant. But the critical activities — meeting with teachers, mentors, and administrators to plan and to execute the plans — proved impossible. We couldn’t improve the program because we didn’t even have time to operate the program. Meetings would be scheduled and then cancelled because at least one of the people needed was substituting. Eventually, I told the team not to schedule anything until we felt confident that the current “wave” of teacher shortage had passed. It never did. Everything is not fine.

When my team initially met in July, I shared a vision of the program we could build together over the next five years. We used the well-known analogy of “building the plane while flying it,” as that’s how public education frequently works. Except this time was different. We realized that the plane we were building was also on fire and we couldn’t find fire extinguishers. The control tower didn’t appear to have a sufficient plan for landing the plane or putting the fire out. I jumped off before we ever left the ground.

In the immediate days after my decision to leave, I worried that I had done it out of panic, or worse, cowardice. I had spent the past six months trying to keep our work moving forward, to support the new teachers we desperately need, while simultaneously attempting to protect my team from the fallout of a crisis that was becoming more and more apparent and distressing every day.

The women who made up my team are confident, fearless, and resilient. They did everything asked of them and never complained. But I was the leader. I was supposed to make the work easier, to remove the barriers and give them the space and support they needed to be successful. And when that happened (and even when it didn’t), they shined. I have never been prouder of a group of people or the work they pulled off with the limited time and capacity they had to do it.

I am now one week into my new position at The University of Texas at Austin where I work with 49 universities and the alumni of the nationally recognized STEM teacher preparation program UTeach. I was in this position five years ago, before I went to work in the district I just left. I came back hoping that being at an organization that is so respected at all levels of the education system will let me get my story — a whole school district’s story, everyone’s story — to someone with the influence to change anything for the better.

Educators can’t change this on their own. Teachers need to focus on planning engaging lessons. Administrators need to be securing resources to proactively assist their staff and students. Students need caring adults who are prioritizing these things instead of barely holding on between crises.

There was already a teacher shortage. There were already huge inequities in the system. COVID-19 revealed and exacerbated the problems and is accelerating the damage. What I experienced in the last six months has shown me what the future of public schools looks like if we don’t find a way to change it.

Students gather in a gymnasium because there aren’t enough teachers to separate them into classes so they can engage in learning. If they’re lucky, they can skip the gym and end up in a classroom with a stream of substitute teachers, who may or may not have expertise in the subject area they are assigned to teach and who cannot provide consistent academic and social-emotional support for the children who are suffering from significant trauma.

My story is just one of the thousands told by educators who have gone from jokingly agreeing that “nobody quits” to planning how and when to quit, where to go, and what quitting will mean for their careers and their families. These educators aren’t leaving because it’s hard. They’re leaving because it’s impossible. Impossible for them to give their students meaningful learning opportunities or even consistently stable environments in which to learn.

They’re leaving, like I did, because they’ve lost faith that anyone who can meaningfully address the problems will actually do so, and they don’t see an end to what was supposed to be a temporary situation.

And my personal story as a central office administrator barely represents the worst of what is happening across the K-12 educational system right now. Teachers who remain are contending with the emotional and academic damage of the pandemic on students — and on themselves. Administrators at all levels are making gut-wrenching decisions and face tremendous backlash no matter what choices they make. School nurses, social workers, and counselors are stretched beyond belief. And in some schools, the janitors are still in the gym taking care of the kids. Everything is not fine.

--

--

--

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Effective Teaching Methods for Online Learners in Allied Health Professions Programs by Mohammed…

Do school kill creativity? TED Talk by Sir Ken Robinson — Review

Hacks for the Second Language Teacher

Board Updates, September 28

5 Edtech tools to try out this year | NEO BLOG

(3/28) Note to the Community Re: Faculty Declination to Sign on to 3/22 Statement

A Letter from Stanford’s Dean of Admissions About Global Online Academy

College Students in Debt

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
The UTeach Institute

The UTeach Institute

More from Medium

No, I’m not an MD, BUT…

Pen Pals & the Lost Art of Handwriting

Is Mental Health Really a Problem?

Are your chips down?