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After 14 years, a Rochester teacher joins the 600,000 educators who left the field this year

Pencil tray and an apple on notebooks on school teacher's desk
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With a shortage of teachers, some classrooms won't have a permanent educator when the school year starts.

This past school year was Quiana Joseph-Muhammad's last with the Rochester City School District. She was a high school English teacher and had been an educator for 14 years.

“I was realizing that I was spending way more time doing my work that pays me as a teacher than I was actually being a parent to my own kids,” Joseph-Muhammad said.

A lot of things led to her decision to leave — things that the pandemic amplified, she said, like a lack of support staff and a general disregard for teachers’ work.

“It was really hard during the era of COVID to watch a lot of the commentary that was taking place in the news and on social media,” Joseph-Muhammad said. “The fact that we made this choice, so we should just deal with the choice that we made.”

It was demoralizing, she said.

“It's like, we made this choice to try to set the foundation for the next generation of employable adults,” she said. “To set a foundation for our future, as a society, because every single career comes from being taught something.”

Quiana Joseph-Muhammad spent 14 years working in education.
provided by Quiana Joseph-Muhammad
Quiana Joseph-Muhammad spent 14 years working in education.

Money was also a factor. Salaries that she said don’t reflect the value of educators’ work also took a toll. She was working part-time on top of teaching full-time.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, when you adjust for inflation, 2021 teacher salaries had increased by just $29 a week since the mid '90s.

“I think that for far too many years, we as a society just haven't prioritized public education,” said Jolene DiBrango, vice president of the New York State United Teachers union. “And the fact that public education really unites all of us. It is the bedrock of our democracy.”

In the Rochester City School District, nearly 200 teachers resigned or retired last school year, reflecting a national trend.

About 90% of teachers across the country reported burnout this year, according to the National Educators Association. And data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows about 600,000 educators left the profession in the last two years.

There are measures that districts can take to help prevent the burnout that often leads to teachers leaving, DiBrango said. Longer mentoring programs, smaller class sizes, and more student mental health counseling could offset some of the burden on teachers, she suggested.

“We definitely know that for too long, teachers, they're not always given all of the supports that they need to support students,” DiBrango said.

However, even getting enough counselors is tricky because there are too few mental health professionals in the state to meet the demand. In 2020, the New York State Education Department reported there are fewer than 11,000 licensed mental health practitioners working around the state. There are about 2.5 million students enrolled in public schools.

Shaun Nelms is the superintendent of East High School
University of Rochester Warner School of Education
Shaun Nelms is the superintendent of East High School

In all of this, East High School Superintendent Shaun Nelms said students are suffering, and he warned there could be lasting consequences if these issues are not resolved soon.

“When I hear about teacher shortages, and I hear about classrooms not being filled, my major concern is: What message does it send children?” Nelms said.

If students without full-time teachers fall behind, Nelms said he wouldn’t be surprised.

“It will be interesting to see students who went through their first month of school having more substitute teachers than full-time teachers and how they experienced school compared to a kid who has their permanent teacher in there from day one,” he said. “It's a different entry point into the learning experience for the entire year.”

Over the summer, the city district has held job fairs to recruit teachers and staff ahead of the school year. As of mid-August, out of over 350 vacancies, nearly 250 classroom teachers have been hired.

Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.
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