Substitute teachers who’ve taken on long-term assignments in schools where teachers have resigned continue to demand a wage increase and benefits. They began their weekly protests in front of the Wilson Building in January. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)
Substitute teachers who’ve taken on long-term assignments in schools where teachers have resigned continue to demand a wage increase and benefits. They began their weekly protests in front of the Wilson Building in January. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)

For months, several District teachers have made known their intention to either find employment at another school, or leave the profession altogether. This phenomenon stems, in part, from concerns about COVID-19 safety protocols, burnout and lack of administrative support. 

Chantal Fuller, a former special education teacher, pointed to the latter as a major reason for her transition out of the classroom. She described her former employer, a Northwest-based public charter school, as an institution not conducive for young people, especially those reeling from academic and socioemotional issues. 

Fuller, who worked for D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) before going to the charter sector this academic year, said administrators at the public charter school often accepted special-needs students without ensuring they could properly accommodate their individualized education program, or IEP.  

At the end of every grading period, Fuller and her colleagues often had the task of passing students who failed to complete work while in school. As she recalled, some of her students never made it to class once they entered the school building. Instead, they would roam the hallways and engage in negative behavior without consequence. Attempts by Fuller and her colleagues to hold students accountable and even compel administrators to expand access to behavioral health services fell short. 

After the resignation and firing of colleagues, and an encounter with an administrator about a dress code policy that hadn’t been codified, Fuller resigned from the charter school on March 18. Within a matter of weeks, she will obtain her master’s in strategic communications from Trinity Washington University which she hopes to utilize in launching a public relations firm for Black rappers and athletes. 

“I always told myself that the minute I allow my work to be tainted by things that have nothing to do with education, it’s time to go,” Fuller said. “There’s a market for education and learning loss [and] that’s turning into a million-dollar industry. Money’s being poured into these schools to make things more equitable [but] policies are being put in place to make shareholders happy [where] only people at the top benefit.” 

Substitute Teachers Become Second Line of Defense

Long before the pandemic, low teacher retention has been an issue plaguing the District’s public and public charter schools. Key causes included low teacher pay, long hours and lack of appreciation. 

At the beginning of the 2021-2022 academic year, affiliates of education reform organization EmpowerEd cautioned DCPS officials against restarting standardized testing and IMPACT teacher evaluations that would further stress teachers

During the pandemic, the DC State Board of Education’s all-teachers survey revealed that a significant number of teachers mulled over leaving the profession because of their worsening socioemotional well-being and that of students. Other gripes centered on health and safety protocols and the likelihood of being unfairly evaluated. 

As staff vacancies increased, schools became more dependent on substitute teachers who covered classes for weeks and months at a time leading many who have extensive teaching and real-world experiences to have since organized for higher pay and benefits

In their role, some substitute teachers, like Myrtle Washington, see firsthand the hurdles that teachers often experience. One glaring reality that Washington, president of Washington Substitute Teachers United, pointed out focused on the connection between learning loss among students and poor behavior.  She said teachers who don’t receive proper administrative support struggle to sharpen their classroom management skills.  

“ It’s not easy,” Washington said. “Even as a substitute I plan what I’m going to do the following day and I ask other teachers where they are in the curriculum for their classes. I take the material associated with the subject the class is doing. I have memberships and online resources to find worksheets and whatever my children need.” 

Students Feel the Lack of Consistency 

After D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and a slew of public charter schools mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for staff members, some administrators and educators found themselves in a quandary about teachers’ bodily autonomy and the lengths they would go to ensure students’ safety. 

In the first few months of the school year, the mandate, in tandem with other factors, spurred teacher resignations.  

Subsequent resignations have stemmed from issues predating the pandemic. At one Northeast-based charter school, a vice principal who requested anonymity said they do their best to create opportunities for teachers to collaborate with one another and receive professional development. They said they also make it a point to treat every teacher as an individual. 

Even so, the staff at the Northeast-based charter school has been hemorrhaged to the point that trust has diminished among students and families. 

“It feels like teachers are disposable. It has affected student and family morale in so many ways,” the vice principal said. “It causes changes to students’ schedules so things aren’t as consistent. There’s also the challenge of building a relationship with a teacher in the middle of the year.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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