Kentucky teachers talk about why they leave the classroom. And why they stay.
‘This is an honorable profession’
Emilie McKiernan Blanton has been called a “unicorn” — but not because she has mystical powers.
Rather, her reputation comes from her career. The 38-year-old is a 15-year teacher veteran.
Her long track record makes her something of a rarity nowadays as Kentucky and the nation face a shortage of teachers — a phenomenon that Blanton says isn’t being helped by rhetoric from some politicians.
“I’m not in my classroom being like, ‘do you want to change your pronouns?’” Blanton said.
Perhaps the most controversial legislation coming out of Kentucky’s recent regular session, Sen. Max Wise’s anti-trans Senate Bill 150 guarantees teachers will be allowed to misgender students, requires schools to revise sexual health studies and mandates school bathroom policies. The bill also bans some medical care for transgender minors.
Amidst the politicization of education, teachers face persistent logistical and workload challenges.
As a freshman seminar teacher at Southern High School in Louisville, Blanton manages up to 31 teenagers in a single class period.
Her alarm goes off at 4:45 every morning. Between building lesson plans, engaging with parents and providing academic and emotional support to students, 12-hour days are the norm.
“That’s how much it takes to be a good educator right now,” she said. “I have ten months to move 150 students to the finish line. And if I don’t, I am the worst human being to have ever existed.”
Like many educators, Blanton pursued teaching out of a passion for the profession. Having been a non-compliant student herself, she felt a calling to be the kind of teacher she wished she had had.
With Kentucky’s teacher shortage reaching emergency levels this school year, educators are feeling the weight of the crisis. The Impact Kentucky Working Conditions survey asks thousands of teachers across the state about their working conditions. The 2022 data highlight several alarming statistics:
- 53% of teachers have a disfavorable perception of their well-being, efficacy and belonging;
- 46% of teachers felt dissatisfied with the quality and quantity of feedback;
- 53% of teachers experienced dissatisfaction with the adequacy of school resources;
- 41% of teachers were dissatisfied with the overall social and learning climate of their schools.
The teacher shortage received considerable attention during the recently adjourned legislative session. From House Bill 538, Rep. Timmy Truett’s controversial school discipline bill, to Senate Bill 49, Sen. Matthew Deneen’s emergency teaching certificate extension, the Republican-led legislature addressed the issue from different angles. Notably, the legislature ignored Gov. Andy Beshear’s “Education First Plan” that called for a 5% pay increase for all school employees and a new student loan forgiveness program for public school teachers.
Recruiting and retaining teachers is a complex and multifaceted challenge; teachers have unique reasons for leaving the field.
After earning her doctorate, Jasmine Perry left teaching for a role at the Collaborative Center for Literacy Development, an organization that promotes literacy development policy and practice for stakeholders in Kentucky’s education system.
In her final year of teaching, Perry “floated” between classrooms, pushing a cart with lesson materials in place of a permanent classroom or office. Pressures brought on by standardizing test-based curriculum and performance evaluations encouraged her transition out of the classroom and into education research.
“It felt like an atmosphere where we’re being watched,” she said. “We weren’t being trusted to implement (our own lesson plans).”
Teachers did not always feel this way.
Allison Slone, a special education teacher at Rowan County Senior High School in Morehead, has seen the shift over her 24-year career. She says her colleagues have departed for many reasons, including mistreatment from their district, the fear of retribution, physical and verbal assault from students and a contradictory correlation between their workload and compensation.
“Students are the priority. There’s no teacher that’s here for any other reason than students,” she said. “But someone has to take care of the teacher so that we can take care of the students.”
Terrie Morgan, the superintendent of the Hardin County school district, remembers a time when teaching was held in high esteem. She has almost three decades of experience in the field.
“Some of our politicians are not showing respect for education,” she said in a recent phone interview. “They’re saying things that, in some cases, are not accurate. I question if they have been inside the schools themselves.”
Morgan is co-chair of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators’ Coalition to Sustain the Education Profession, which has worked closely with lawmakers to develop policy, including Rep. James Tipton, chairman of the House Education Committee and sponsor of HB 319, a bipartisan, low-cost teacher retention bill that Beshear signed into law.
The coalition proposed many of the new solutions, she said, including signing Kentucky into a multistate teacher-licensing agreement and supporting the relocation of educators married to military personnel.
“We certainly see this as a start,” Morgan said. The coalition recommends other strategies, including conducting a comprehensive study of Kentucky education, addressing issues with certification and analyzing financial incentives for in-state recruiting and retention, among other things.
In the meantime, Morgan supports her staff as best as she can.
“The most difficult part of my job is trying to make sure that (teachers) realize they are doing a phenomenal job in the classroom,” she said. “This is an honorable profession — don’t listen to anyone (who says otherwise).”
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