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Kiekow: A reflection from a resigning educator

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Educator resignations are becoming as contagious as coronavirus variants. On Feb. 6, I joined the education exodus by submitting my resignation as the director of communications for a school district in suburban St. Louis.

Retaining teachers has been a challenge for decades. Typically, teachers leaving the profession is attributed to low salaries. During the pandemic, superintendents and administrators, who command six-figure salaries, have also joined the growing list of those departing education. To prevent irreparable damage to the public education system, we have to identify and address why educators at all levels are walking away.

I believe unrealistic expectations and a lack of empathy are to blame.

As a school communicator, my role is all about storytelling. I love finding new ways to tell positive stories about students. Unfortunately, since March of 2020, I have spent most of my time entangled in nonsensical interactions about the coronavirus with competing factions. On one side, there are people who believe coronavirus safety measures are intrusive. They have deep-seated anger toward school districts that stems from the closures at the onset of the pandemic. On the other side, there are people who believe coronavirus safety measures are lacking. They have an entrenched belief that schools should provide the same level of protection and services as top-tier hospitals.

People in both factions expect their individual opinions to become policy. Another thread that connects the fabric of these factions is that neither has accepted reality: that our society, including our public education system, is not capable of functioning as it did before the pandemic.

Educators frequently use the word “stakeholders” as an umbrella term to cover students, parents, employees and taxpayers. For the purpose of this reflection, I am not referring to students. They are playing a very minor role, if any, in the culture that permeates education. Adults are the protagonists in this problematic production. The majority of stakeholders are supportive and do not belong to either of the aforementioned factions. However, those who do, often express their positions through accusatory and abusive language.

After pouring your energy into serving stakeholders during a pandemic, there is something particularly hurtful about those same stakeholders denigrating you for sharing vaccine information or blaming you for someone contracting the coronavirus. The inboxes and voicemails of educators across the country are filled with vitriol. In addition to attacks related to the virus, in some districts, educators are being targeted for simply teaching accurate history. I have lost track of how many times I have learned about a cruel message moving a colleague to tears.

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Educator stress levels are further increased when school districts face pressure from states to immediately eliminate learning loss created by nearly two years of chaos and death. Despite genuine calls for educators to practice self-care, the pressure makes allotting time for self-care next to impossible.

Before working in education, I was a news reporter in St. Louis. In that role, I covered unthinkable tragedies, so I am no stranger to trauma. However, the level of sustained trauma I have witnessed educators endure over the last two years is unlike anything I have ever seen.

For me, the trauma has come in waves. Typically, it begins with something diverting my focus away from celebrating students. The wave that may have hit me the hardest came on Jan. 24. As I was writing a story about a student earning a college scholarship, I learned that dozens of Missouri school districts are being sued for mask policies. In an instant, the serenity stemming from a story about hope was replaced with the anxiety associated with possible litigation.

Like most educators, I entered the profession to inspire students. As someone who dropped out of high school at 15, I have used my personal story to prove to students that positive change is possible. With that in mind, I believe the culture that plagues education can be changed. Adjusting expectations to meet our current reality and extending unwavering empathy to all educators are the keys to that change.

No one is immune to the discomfort or trauma of the coronavirus.

Since 2018, I have had the honor of working alongside dedicated staff, teachers, principals, superintendents and school board members. My reverence for those public servants made my decision to resign difficult. However, I find comfort in knowing my ability to serve students does not depend on my place of employment.

I hope sharing this reflection serves as fuel to drive the conversation about public education in the direction of positive change.

Anthony J. Kiekow is an Associated Press award-winning writer and has worked as a communications director for Hazelwood School District and Riverview Gardens School District.

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