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Why Kansas City teachers quit their jobs: 'Our credibility and our autonomy are being threatened'

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
In 2020, after a contentious contract negotiation, veteran teacher Amanda Coffman resigned as a teacher at Indian Woods Middle School in Kansas. Coffman is one of several teachers who say they are not valued as professionals.

Educators explain the root cause of why many teachers are leaving the classroom and what can be done to improve the workplace.

Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers in the Kansas City area remain stressed and frustrated with ongoing changes in health protocols, fights within school boards and statehouses over what they can and can’t teach, and a lack of recognition.

Teachers across the country are now exiting their profession in high numbers. According to a survey by Education Weekly, when asked about the likelihood of leaving teaching in the next two years, 54% of teachers said they are “somewhat” or “very likely” to do so — 20% higher than a survey done before the pandemic began.

Three educators from Missouri and Kansas school districts joined KCUR’s Up To Date to discuss the root cause of burnout in their profession and what can be done to help.

Overwhelming expectations

All three educators agreed their schedule regularly exceeds the standard 40-hour workweek, often without compensation, in order to meet the needs of their students.

Kelly Kluthe, a 4th and 5th-grade science and STEM teacher at Notre Dame de Sion, said she spends a “significant amount of time” on weekends grading and putting together class schedules. Kluthe said her Sundays are spent grading, “between five and 10 extra hours that are unpaid for outside of school.”

Amanda Coffman, who left her teaching job with the Shawnee Mission District after 21 years in the profession, said it’s only now that she realizes how much she was doing.

“When the basics of your job cannot be done in 40 hours — that’s grading and planning — then that's not a reasonable expectation,” Coffman said.

Aaron Schwartz, an educator in Kansas, agreed that he could “absolutely not” complete all of his responsibilities in 40 hours, and often works on the weekend and nights grading papers and thinking about the next day's lessons.

A shortage of qualified teachers and substitutes due to the pandemic is only exacerbating problems, causing teachers to see increased class sizes or having to cover classes and subjects they wouldn’t normally.

‘Teachers are running out of hope’

Local educators have been caught in the crosshairs in the political battle against “critical race theory” (CRT), which teaches that racism is embedded inherently in aspects of American society. But pushback from conservative groups has led to legislation that would stifle any discussion of race in the classroom.

Teachings about gender identity and sexual orientation have also become targets of conservative groups, as bans on books by LGBTQ authors have been on the rise recently. Many in education view this as a form of censorship.

Schwartz says that this current climate is putting many teachers on edge, and is endangering their ability to do their jobs.

“You have a group of professionals that are being treated less than professionally,” Schwartz says. “They're stressed, they're overworked, and now our credibility and our autonomy are being threatened.”

What can be done?

Kansas and Missouri have introduced relaxed qualifications to attract substitutes teachers, in an attempt to alleviate strain on overworked teachers. But educators are concerned this is a short-term fix that ultimately devalues the profession.

“We need good people, not just people that are willing to step in for temporary solutions,” Kluthe said. An obvious solution would be to increase pay for teachers. The current starting salary for new teachers in Missouri is $32,970, which is among the lowest in the country. Kansas ranks 33rd in the nation in average salary for teachers, at $38,314.

Overall, both Kansas and Missouri have seen a 5% decrease in the overall salary of teachers between 2010 and 2020.

“It's not just the pay that you see, it's the pay over your career,” Coffman said.

Schwartz worries a lack of expertise in new and substitute teachers could affect the future of the profession.

“Part of what an expert teacher does is bring up younger teachers,” Schwartz said. “They help model and mentor. And I think when you lose that short of expertise and mentoring and leadership in the building you're going to have an overall poorer product at the end of the day.”

Stay Connected
Jacob Martin is a news intern at KCUR. Follow him on Twitter @jacob_noah or email him at Jacobmartin@kcur.org.
As a producer for Up To Date, my goal is to inform our audience by curating interesting and important conversations with reliable sources and individuals directly affected by a topic or issue. I strive for our program to be a place that hosts impactful conversations, providing our audience with greater knowledge, intrigue, compassion and entertainment. Contact me at elizabeth@kcur.org or on Twitter at @er_bentley_ruiz.
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