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Shaw: Former area teachers say they left profession feeling exhausted, unsupported

“It was hard to leave,” one former teacher said. “I still have students messaging me. I miss teaching. I loved teaching. I didn’t want to leave teaching, but I had no choice. I had to put my health and my life first.”

A woman with short hair and glasses sits in a living room.
Drea Greenawalt, a former Fargo teacher, left the profession after 15 years in May 2022 amid rising student behavior issues.
Jim Shaw / Special to The Forum
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FARGO — Teachers are leaving the Fargo and West Fargo school districts in record numbers.

From the end of the last school year compared to the end of the previous school year, Fargo reports teacher resignations and retirements jumped from 92 to 126, a 37% increase. West Fargo reports the numbers rose from 89 to 118, a 33% increase.

In contrast, the numbers in Moorhead are pretty steady, increasing from 63 to 66.

In Fargo, Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said teachers are leaving for a variety of reasons, such as “spouses leaving, personal needs and going to other professions.”

However, a number of Fargo teachers aren’t quitting jobs they once loved for higher-paying occupations.

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For many of them, it’s because they couldn’t take it anymore. Some feared for their personal health or safety. Several teachers were miserable because of unruly, foul-mouthed students who refused to obey their instructions. Resigning was the only viable option.

Drea Greenawalt followed her heart and started teaching 15 years ago. The last six of those years were in Fargo. She taught music throughout the district. Her last job was as choir director at Ben Franklin Middle School.

“Student behavior was just awful,” Greenawalt said. “There was a lack of consequences and accountability for student behavior.”

She said part of the problem was caused by a change in the grading system.

“Last year, it was decided that sixth graders were no longer getting letter grades. They would just be marked as proficient or partially proficient,” Greenawalt said. “So, I had several of my students tell me, ‘I’m not getting graded anymore, so why do I need to do anything.’”

Greenawalt said many students just didn’t care.

“They weren’t trying. They weren’t motivated to finish classroom assignments,” she said. “I had students who didn’t pay any attention. Some had headphones on. Some were sleeping in class.”

It was the misbehavior that really got to her.

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“Students swore in class all the time. They picked fights with each other,” Greenawalt said. “I got called names all the time.”

Greenawalt, who was already frustrated by having to substitute teach during her free periods, was also upset with the lack of real discipline for the misbehaving students.

“I would kick kids out and send them to the office. I wrote behavior reports,” she said. “However, fewer people were seeing those behavior reports. The students might be talked to and get detention, and then they would come back to class and start acting up again.”

Greenawalt came to the realization that there was little teaching taking place in her classrooms.

“I spent 25 minutes out of 40 minutes a class every day dealing with discipline and behavior issues,” she said. “I had kids emailing the principal that they should fire me and that I’m the worst teacher ever. I was fed up and couldn’t take it anymore.”

So, she resigned last May. Greenawalt said cellphones and social media are major causes of the student misbehavior. She also said the school needs more assistance.

“There needs to be a larger presence of mental health professionals in the schools,” she said. “Those four counselors are so overworked and tired. They need help.”

Greenawalt has come to realize that leaving teaching was the right move.

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“I’ve gone from coming home in tears two to three days a week to coming home and enjoying my evenings,” she said. “My stress level is down one million percent.”

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I talked to four other teachers who recently quit but asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, harassment and harm to their reputations. Here are some of their comments:

‘There was no support’

“I had a kid come after me and grab my arm and twist it because he was mad at me,” said a former Fargo teacher. “It scared me. The parent I met with made me out to be a horrible person.”

It was the lack of support from school administrators and treatment from parents that bothered her the most.

“I would have parents screaming at me,” she said. “People making decisions have no idea what’s happening in the classroom. I wasn’t backed up when a kid was tearing up a room. There was no discipline. There was no support. I was not treated as a professional.”

This teacher was also upset that she was expected to do so many things on her own time. In the end, she knew she had to leave.

“It was hard to leave. I cried a lot,” she said. “I worked with a lot of great kids and parents, but the violent kids, the administration and angry parents outweighed that. I couldn’t take it anymore.”

‘Literally life or death’

For this teacher who taught in south Fargo, leaving teaching after 15 years was about protecting herself.

“It was literally life or death,” she said.

She was hit hard by COVID-19, which she says she caught at school. She was hospitalized three times. She said she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t get out of bed and was in extreme pain.

She found during the last school year that there was much less support for teachers who had COVID. She said a school board member wrote in an email to her that there was little chance of getting COVID-19 in school, and if she got it, she was irresponsible with what she was doing outside of school.

“That comment from the board member was painful and insulting,” the former teacher said.

The school district dropped its policy of providing specific paid time off for teachers if they got COVID.

“I used up all my sick days and personal days because I had COVID. I had to pay into the school district because I was out sick,” the teacher said.

Still, she eventually returned to the classroom only to find that the masking requirement had been dropped while students and teachers were still out sick from COVID-19. That frightened her.

“Everybody was out constantly,” the teacher said. “I didn’t feel safe at work. I was afraid I would get it again. There’s no way I would have survived a second round of it.”

With no breaks during the day and feeling she wasn’t working in a healthy environment, she made the difficult decision to leave the profession.

“It was hard to leave,” she said. “I still have students messaging me. I miss teaching. I loved teaching. I didn’t want to leave teaching, but I had no choice. I had to put my health and my life first.”

‘Afraid for my health’

Another former teacher said the Fargo school district’s handling of COVID-19 was the prime reason she quit her teaching job.

“COVID was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said. “With the students back in the classrooms without masking, I was afraid for my health. I have underlying conditions.”

Her doctor sent a letter to the school district administration that explained her conditions. She said the district responded with a letter telling her she would be fine.

“I was upset when I received the letter,” she said. “They didn’t take me seriously.”

Superintendent Gandhi said the district had a strong response to COVID-19 and listened to the local experts.

“Our response to COVID we feel is sufficient,” he said. “We follow the guidance from Fargo Cass Public Health.”

As for designated time off for teachers who have COVID, Gandhi said it is no longer needed.

“We transitioned from having an unlimited free-for-all for leave,” he said. “We didn’t feel it was necessary to continue that (COVID leave) carte blanche. …The leave we offer employees now is sufficient.”

In dealing with her students, the former teacher said she suffered from “compassion fatigue, stress and burnout.”

She also saw bad behavior from some students.

“There was overall disrespect for teachers,” she said. “Students didn’t do what they were told. There were fights in the hallways. Kids swore at teachers right to their faces.”

She knew she had to leave.

“All this was not good for my mental health,” she said. “It would not have been fair to the kids for me to be at a job that I wasn’t enjoying anymore.”

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‘I couldn’t see them’

Another former teacher I spoke to believes COVID-19 had a dramatic impact on student behavior.

“The kids got used to hiding behind their masks. They didn’t have to participate,” she said. “The kids were still hiding when the masks went away. With the district’s new dress code policy, you couldn’t tell them to take their hats off or their hoods off. I had 80 kids, and I couldn’t see them.”

A music teacher, she said it was very difficult when the students came back after being away due to COVID.

“The students wouldn’t sing, they wouldn’t answer questions and they wouldn’t participate in class discussions. They didn’t want to do anything,” she said.

The level of disrespect and rudeness was something she had never seen before.

“There was way more fighting,” she said. “The foul language was off the charts.”

She will never forget one incident when she tried to get a student to behave.

“I had a kid who was lunging at other kids. I told him to stop,” she said. “He screamed at me and said he was going to sue me and get me fired. I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’”

The former teacher said there needs to be more parent support.

“We would talk to a parent and the parent would say, ‘My child doesn’t behave that way. That doesn’t sound like my child.’ The parents didn’t believe us,” she said.

‘We’re here to support’

Gandhi said the current grading system is working and the dress code isn’t the problem.

“Educators are connecting with their students with the dress code as it is,” he said.

Gandhi acknowledges there are problems with student behavior.

“There are challenges far greater now than there have been in the past,” he said. “My bigger issue is what causes those behaviors to occur.”

The superintendent said administrators have the teachers’ backs.

“We’re here to support our staff,” Gandhi said. “Teachers have a very, very difficult job.”

Gandhi questioned whether the unruly student behavior is as widespread as the teachers I interviewed made it out to be.

“I think you’re taking the opinions of a few individuals and making a general statement, which may or may not be fair,” he said.

Still, all five of these experienced teachers I quoted were highly respected by their peers, thought teaching was a calling and expected to be teaching for many more years to come. Instead, they felt they had to get out.

“It breaks my heart that I’m not teaching anymore,” one of those teachers told me. “I can’t believe it. It still hurts to be away. I wasn’t having fun anymore. It wasn’t the job I fell in love with.”

Opinion by Jim Shaw
InForum columnist Jim Shaw is a former WDAY TV reporter and former KVRR TV news director.
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