Education

For the first two years of the pandemic, JCPS saw record teacher retention, even as nationally, surveys warned educators were reaching the limits of what they could endure.

Last year, the dam broke. 

JCPS saw the largest wave of teachers resignations in at least eight years: 437 teachers resigned during the 2021-2022 school year, a 60% increase from the year prior.

Now the district is back to school with likely the worst staffing challenges it’s ever faced, and not just among teachers. The district is also down bus drivers, instructional assistants, custodians and other critical employees.

Officials say they have a plan to get a certified teacher in front of every classroom. But the staffing crisis isn’t going away any time soon.

The ‘absolute disrespect’

This school year was supposed to be Deanna “Buffy” Sexton’s 20th year teaching for JCPS. But, weeks before the school year began, the long-time middle school teacher submitted her resignation. 

“And the reason was the absolute disrespect,” Sexton told members of the Jefferson County Board of Education during a public meeting last week.

Sexton told WFPL News that, as a teacher, these days she feels disrespected by just about everybody ⁠—from politicians to parents to students to her own teachers’ union and school board, who she feels failed to negotiate an adequate pay raise.

“We get hit with so much stuff — from the news, from social media, from everywhere. We’re just the world’s worst, or we’re the world’s best, and ‘you knew what you were getting into’,” Sexton said.

Sexton’s frustrations have been brewing for a long time, but she said they rose to a boil during the pandemic. She felt left out to dry health-wise by her administration, who she said didn’t follow proper contact tracing procedures to alert her when three of her students tested positive for COVID-19.

A rise in hard-to-manage student behaviors also drove Sexton’s exit, and she’s not alone.

“It is by far the biggest issue that we hear from teachers,” Jefferson County Teachers Association President Brent McKim told board members during this month’s meeting.

Researchers have documented an increase nationally in problematic student behavior: classroom disruptions, fights and unauthorized digital device use are all up. Many educators and researchers believe higher rates of traumatic experiences over the last two years are contributing to the increase in behavior problems.

“They bring a lot of that trauma with them, and it expresses itself in ways that lead to what I call secondhand trauma for educators in the classrooms,” McKim said.

Some say community members’ behavior is also impacting teachers’ decisions to leave.

Education has become a mainstage venue for political battles and culture wars. Teachers are caught at the center of battles over COVID measures, remote learning and how we as a society talk about race and gender. 

JCPS high school teacher Sara Butryn has been sounding the alarm about a possible mass exodus of teachers for months. Butryn is staying this year, but she’s worried by recent legislation targeting classroom speech on race and gender.

“If I’m nervous, other teachers in this district are nervous, and they’re going to choose to whitewash their curriculum,” Butryn told the school board earlier this month. 

Teachers, and especially teachers of color, may choose to leave if they don’t feel the district has their back when it comes to academic freedom, she said. 

And it will be students who suffer most, Butryn said.  

“Schools that have already struggled to fill vacancies now face record numbers of core content classes calling for substitutes. This will only increase the opportunity and access gap,” she said.

An early-career teacher shifts course

Many veteran educators describe the pandemic years as the hardest of their career. But for newer teachers, those challenges were all they knew.

Former Doss High School social studies teacher Roya Fathalizadeh taught for three years before she decided to leave classroom teaching. At the end of the 2021-2022 school year, she submitted her resignation, packed her bags and headed across the country to Arizona State University to pursue her Ph.D. in education.

Fathalizadeh always planned to get her doctorate eventually, but said the stresses of teaching sped her decision along.

“If it wasn’t for the circumstances teachers had to be in day in and day out, I would still be in the classroom,” Fathalizadeh told WFPL News.

A young woman stands in front of a welcome to Arizona road sign, holding a golden doodle.submitted

Former Doss High School teacher Roya Fathalizadeh left Louisville with her dog, Diego, to get her Ph.D. at Arizona State University.

Fathalizadeh started her career in the middle of the school year in 2019, amid mass teacher “sickouts” over then-Gov. Matt Bevin’s attempt to gut teachers’ pension system.

“I still remember like that first semester teaching, just watching the news and seeing everything play out. And, you know, just in my head being like, ‘What did I do?’” she said.

In 2020, the world threw Fathalizadeh an even bigger curveball: the COVID-19 pandemic sent JCPS into remote learning for more than a year. When Fathalizadeh and her students finally came back to in-person learning, it was chaos. The district, which was already short on teachers and substitutes, was plagued by unprecedented staffing shortages as teachers fell ill from COVID-19 or had to quarantine. 

“There was not one day where we didn’t have a classroom that needed coverage. There was emails going out, teachers having to cover half the classroom,” Fathalizadeh said. “It was insane!”

She began suffering from panic attacks at school, and eventually told her administration she couldn’t take on any more extra classes. As a new teacher she relied on having a planning period to be prepared for her own students. 

Even aside from the pandemic-related stressors, Fathalizadeh had other frustrations. 

She believed the state and federal government’s focus on standardized testing detracted from truly engaging education. And she didn’t always see curriculum reflecting what students really needed or wanted to know. She’s planning to use her degree to eventually do curriculum development.  

“I’m hoping that where I’m heading is going to put me in a position to be able to help influence our system in a better way,” she said.

Teacher pipeline ‘devastatingly low’

JCPS officials say this year is going to be tough in terms of staffing shortages, but that they’re hard at work with efforts to recruit and retain teachers. 

The district’s human resources department was reorganized in 2019, and in 2021 Aimee Green-Webb was promoted to JCPS’ Chief of Human Resources. Since Green-Webb took the helm, she said she’s focused on making the district’s recruitment and retention efforts more “intentional,” and grounded in research. 

The district also brought in Marco Muñoz in a new position to lead the district’s retention efforts. Green-Webb said Muñoz focuses on the most high-needs schools, “working directly with teachers, understanding what makes a difference in the life of a teacher.”

Muñoz said in addition to some exit interviews, he makes “stay interviews” — calls to teachers when principals warn central office they may be on the verge of quitting.

He said he’s pairing new teachers with mentors and finding growth opportunities for seasoned educators.

“The needs are quite different depending on the stage of their career,” Muñoz told the board.

Even if the district turns back the tide of teachers leaving, staffing shortages will continue to be a problem.

As teachers leave or retire, the stream of new teachers coming to take their place has slowed to trickle. Enrollment in Kentucky’s educator preparation programs fell from more than 12,000 students in 2011 to around 7,400 in 2019.

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said, nationally and locally, the number of college students getting their degrees in education is “devastatingly low.”

“The outlook at this time for the teaching profession for this nation is not good,” Pollio told the school board.

JCPS officials estimate they’re beginning the school year with about 125 vacancies. That’s about 2% of the 6,400 teachers the district employs. Those vacancies are disproportionately concentrated in high-need schools. 

Still, Pollio promised that each classroom will have a certified teacher this year, even if it means sending central office staff in temporarily.

Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated the year Green-Webb was promoted to Chief of Human Resources.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.