Teaching, a truly noble profession, is on life support. After decades of inadequate investment, our public schools were short-staffed and under-resourced when the pandemic began. Now, educators’ working conditions, which are also students’ learning conditions, are abominable—and for many, simply unbearable. Here, three long-serving educators—Monique Boone, Kelly Erinakes, and Nicholas Ferroni—share their experiences striving to meet students’ needs and offer straightforward solutions for restoring the teaching profession’s vitality.
Monique Boone is the preK–12 English language arts and reading coordinator in the Channelview Independent School District in Channelview, Texas, and a member of Northeast Houston AFT (Local 6568). Previously, she taught middle school English and journalism and was an instructional technology specialist. A certified master reading teacher and reading specialist, Monique also teaches GED classes for the Harris County Department of Education. In addition, she is a consultant in literacy, technology, best teaching practices, and identity-affirming schools.
Kelly Erinakes is a dedicated educator and union activist. Since 2001, she has taught history and government at Coventry High School in Coventry, Rhode Island, and has been the president of the Coventry Teachers’ Alliance (AFT Local 1075). Previously, she spent six years as a middle school teacher.
Nicholas Ferroni is a history and cultural studies teacher at Union High School in Union, New Jersey, a member of the Union Township Education Association, and an associate member of the AFT. An advocate for gender equality and for LGBTQIA+ youth and an educator dedicated to inclusive history, he has been recognized as a Champion of Change by the United Nations Women and an Upstander of the Year by the Human Rights Campaign.
If you work in a school, please take from this Q&A the knowledge that you are not alone. Your fellow education professionals and your union are fighting for the changes that you—and our nation’s children—need. If you are a parent, community member, and/or elected official, please hear these educators. They are caring for your children, and they need you to care for them by fully funding public schools, including providing the staff, services, and supports that enable students to be physically and mentally healthy and ready to learn.
Editors: Recent surveys have indicated that one-half to two-thirds of teachers are considering leaving the profession. What is driving so many to consider different careers?
Kelly Erinakes: This school year has been atrocious. The workload for teachers has increased exponentially, and teachers’ morale is at an all-time low. In 20 years as union president, I’ve never seen it so low. In addition, many staff members have gotten COVID, and many are immunocompromised, so anxiety is very high.
This year, our schools are open five days a week, but day to day, many students are at home with COVID or quarantined. Every day, teachers are simultaneously teaching to the students in class and also providing remote instruction for those at home. The lessons they are planning for class don’t often work well for remote, so there’s an enormous amount of double planning.
In addition, we have very few substitutes. With teachers getting sick, the teachers who are able to come in are covering other classes on a regular basis, which means they have no prep time during the day. They’re also covering by pulling other students into their classes, dramatically increasing class sizes and too often causing more stress and behavioral issues for the students. Meanwhile, the parents supporting their children at home tend to become frustrated if teachers don’t answer questions or help resolve technology problems right away—but they can’t respond quickly because they are currently teaching in person.
Nicholas Ferroni: This has been the most overwhelming, mentally draining, exhausting year. It’s the first year I have questioned whether I can continue teaching or not; I even updated my résumé because I wasn’t sure if I could maintain the best version of myself for my students. I never thought I’d be in a position where I’d consider leaving my dream job. We’re breaking professionally, mentally, emotionally. The students are the reason we became teachers, but we need more support to stay in this profession.
This year, I have 153 students. Connecting with each of them is tough. Just to reach each family once every few weeks, I spend three or four hours of my personal time each week calling parents to let them know all the amazing things their children are doing and find out what’s going on at home. When I learned that one of my students lost a family member, I focused on making sure they were stable because if a student is depressed, education is really irrelevant.
I’m in my 19th year as a teacher, but it feels like I’m in my first year because we’re all doing something that we weren’t trained to do. The miracle is that somehow we’re making it work.
Monique Boone: It does feel like we’re first-year teachers. The pandemic created a big learning curve for students, educators, and principals. It was challenging for teachers to climb that curve while experiencing sickness and death all around us. On top of the rush to create online lessons with little training, educators struggled because many of our schools did not have enough devices, and many students did not have internet access. So everyone was scrambling to give students the learning tools they needed. Meanwhile, many students’ and educators’ family members lost their jobs. It was an incredibly tough situation for families, students, and educators.
I have young children, so I saw the situation as both an educator and a parent. I quickly realized that I could be either a really good worker or a really good stay-at-home mom, but doing both is exhausting. I was up all day and all night. I had calls and Zoom meetings up to 4 a.m. with administrators and teachers. So many teachers were in tears because they wanted to do right by students, and they didn’t know how. Many teachers developed depression and other mental health issues as they struggled to balance family—their children at home all day and their family members dealing with sickness—and their work of caring for and educating their students.
When we returned to in-person learning, educators’ anxiety was extremely high because there were many unanswered questions. Elected officials throughout my home state of Texas seemed to have self-serving agendas, leaving superintendents and principals to do the best they could to make decisions. Now we have a severe teacher shortage because teachers don’t feel safe or supported, and they’re overwhelmed.
As an instructional coach, I try to be there and give words of encouragement. I try to thank teachers every day for showing up. But then I go home and question: I’m telling someone, “Thank you for doing this work,” but at what expense to their livelihood, sanity, and families?
Nicholas: I can’t imagine what it is like for teachers who are parents. I’m single, and here’s my normal day: I wake up at 5:30. I get to school by 7 to get everything set up. My class starts at 7:35. I have one prep period, but throughout the omicron surge I had to cover another class because teachers have been out sick, and we don’t have enough substitutes. School ends at 2:35. I stay after for an hour to try to catch up. And then I exercise with a group of students who play sports, which is part of my self-care as I train and get to know them. I get home around 5:30 and work until 8:30 or 9, editing notes and presentations, grading papers, calling parents—doing everything that I should have been able to do while I was at school. I have dinner, go to bed, and repeat.
On average, I work about three hours a day outside of school—and I know some teachers who do far more, especially if they coach or run clubs. Even worse, many teachers must have second jobs because they can’t support their families on a teacher’s salary. One of my best friends goes from school to driving Uber at night. That’s not sustainable.
Kelly: My members and I are facing similar challenges. Even with teachers double planning for their in-person and remote students and covering for colleagues who are out sick—resulting in a 60- or 70-hour workweek—there’s been no increase in benefits or salaries.
Inside schools, it’s a really tough environment. The students are stressed, but teachers never have a free moment to connect with them because they are rushing to cover classes. Administrators are always talking about students’ social and emotional well-being. Of course that is important, but I’m constantly urging administrators to also be concerned about the social and emotional health of adults.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed the COVID guidelines on staying home from 10 days to 5 days, some administrators accused teachers who were not able to come in after 5 days of milking their illness and being lazy. Some administrators can’t appreciate how difficult it is teaching in this COVID environment because they have never had to do it. Teachers have to be on their feet and exuberant with students. It’s exhausting even when you are healthy. Administrators will say that teachers are working hard and are appreciated, but more actions to support these feelings would be appreciated by my members.
Editors: If large numbers of experienced teachers do change careers, what will that mean for students?
Monique: We depend on our seasoned teachers, department heads, and teacher mentors to train the people coming up. I didn’t just become a master teacher; I had a mentor and others along the way to help me. But in Texas, we already have lost many seasoned teachers. At year three or year five, people are becoming mentor teachers. In three years, you haven’t mastered anything!
It reminds me of a video one of my students made in 2017 as Hurricane Harvey turned us upside down. My student’s home was flooded, and her family had walked for miles in waist-deep water. Taking shelter under a bridge, she made a video in which she said, “No one is coming for us.” Today, that’s how we feel: no one is coming for us. It is a tough situation to be in as an instructional leader. I work close to the community where I live and grew up, so this work is near and dear to my heart. It’s not just the work I do to feed my kids; it’s legacy work for my family and me. I want to see teachers thrive, and I want to see student success increase.
I fear that our students are going to suffer. If we can’t retain teachers, principals, and superintendents, we can’t guarantee quality instruction. If we rest everything on minimal state testing, what does that look like for our future? What does the future look like for a Black student living on the wrong side of the train tracks who is not getting what they need now? What happens if marginalized students don’t have experienced teachers with the collective efficacy to say that these students can succeed and who will stay to see it through? It seems like the divide between the haves and the have-nots continues to get bigger and bigger.
I cannot see myself doing anything else. I would rather stay and advocate for change because my heart is filled by working in education—showing up for teachers, administrators, and students every day. And I just hope that we can come to a place in education where everyone can feel fulfilled in this work.
Nicholas: I agree. I have one foot out the door, but I’m going to stick it out and be a part of the change. I’ve committed too much time and energy to stop trying to make things better for the next generation of teachers. I’m going to keep shouting and screaming as loud as I can so that, hopefully, the right people hear it.
Editors: In addition to experienced teachers, what else do students need?
Kelly: Students also need social workers, school psychologists, wraparound services, and healthy teachers.
There are not enough social workers and school psychologists for the amount of trauma students are facing. In my district, one social worker and one school psychologist serve two or three elementary schools. At my high school, we have 1,500 students and just two social workers; our guidance counselors have about 400 students each. With those caseloads, there’s no time to learn about families’ needs and connect them with services. And unless you work with both students and their families, little will improve for students.
Because teachers feel they’re the ones who have to hold it together, they don’t reach out enough. We’re used to being the helpers; we’re used to being the nurturers. We’re not used to asking for help. That’s the biggest struggle right now: teachers who really need help do not acknowledge it. My union colleagues and I are on alert to figure out who needs help and then making sure they get it. I’ve done home well checks for a couple of teachers when I was concerned about suicide. We have several teachers who have been hospitalized for depression and suicidal tendencies. Other teachers have needed counseling. It would be much easier to ensure educators get the mental health care they need if administrators would support our efforts. It shouldn’t just be union leaders assisting teachers with social-emotional issues and/or placements when needed. District human resources departments should take a more active role in the social-emotional well-being of their employees.
Editors: On top of the pandemic, teachers are facing enormous pressure to limit what they teach about race, gender, sexuality, and other topics. How are these attacks on teaching honest history, book bans, and other attempts to censor instruction affecting you?
Nicholas: I will say with absolute certainty that I teach nothing but the truth. I provide the entire story and let students come to their own conclusions.
I remember taking my first college course in African American studies at Rutgers and learning about the Tulsa race massacre. I asked my professor, who is African American, “We learned about the Boston Massacre and only five people were killed by British soldiers. Why is it that something happened where 300 people were killed by a mob, but it’s not in the history books?” He said, “Because they were 300 Black people.” That stuck with me because it highlights that for far too long, only certain stories were told.
For the longest time, the majority of Black students, female students, and LGBTQ students learned almost exclusively about straight white male history. That was the norm. Now that we want to include other people, all of a sudden it’s oppression.
As a child of German descent, I learned about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, but I never felt guilty about it because it’s not reflective of me. So the logic that we’re traumatizing children or that we’re somehow indoctrinating children is one of the biggest farces I’ve ever heard. Making sure every child feels included is not indoctrination. Making sure every child understands the truth about the histories of other people is not indoctrination. It is teaching empathy and open mindedness.
I love my country enough to want to dedicate my life to teaching US history, but I also want to teach it in an honest and truthful way—so we don’t make the same mistakes again, and so we understand where we are and where we’re going. Learning about systemic racism, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement doesn’t make me hate this country. It makes me realize we’ve come a long way, but we still have far to go. It makes me appreciate the people who fought for their rights.
Kelly: My experience is similar to Nicholas’s. We’re fortunate to be in the Northeast, where the push to limit what teachers can teach is not strong. I have a master’s in history, and I know US history well. I teach the truth. Teachers are not teaching critical race theory, but the people who are worried about it have greatly expanded what that term means—they are worried about teaching core topics like slavery and its aftermath. They claim that learning about slavery makes white students feel bad about their ancestors and themselves and that it denigrates the white population as a whole.
That’s not the case in my courses—and it ignores the fact that students learn a great deal on social media. They are more mature intellectually than high school students were earlier in my career, and they ask more sophisticated questions. As an educator, my job is to bring out that inquisitiveness in students. When they have questions, that’s when they are engaged and truly learn. And I answer their questions honestly.
In my AP US Government and Politics course, I have to teach affirmative action and gay and lesbian rights. It’s part of the AP curriculum. I make the students debate; they present multiple perspectives and reach their own conclusions. I do the same in my history courses. I present the texts in a neutral way, answer students’ questions honestly, and facilitate as the students engage each other in difficult discussions. I create the environment for respectful debates and intellectual discussions from the very beginning of the school year. We set ground rules focused on mutual respect.
Students are often surprised as they learn US history. For example, when we learn about Emmett Till, many students say they can’t believe that happened. This can lead to an awakening—but it does not lead to guilt or shame. What I see throughout my history courses is students developing empathy. Whether we’re learning about the gay and lesbian youth movement, the Mexican American movement, McCarthyism and the Red Scare, the treatment of Irish or Italian immigrants, or women’s rights, students develop empathy. I hope they are also learning lessons that they will carry through their lives so our country does not repeat its mistakes.
Monique: At the beginning of the school year, the social studies leader and I met with teachers to explain the new bill (which has since become law*) indicating that they could not teach critical race theory. I kid you not: the room fell silent, and someone said, “What is that?” We don’t teach critical race theory; we teach history as it is written in the textbook and other resources provided by the state and in accord with the state standards.
So far [as of March 2022, when this interview was conducted], we have not yet banned books, but we were given a list of almost 800 books that were flagged as not suitable for students.† I don’t know who identified these books, but I see many on the list that students love. Many are picture books and middle-grades books that I don’t see any problems with at all. For example, one book on the list is A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée. It’s about a little girl in the seventh grade who learns that there are times when the right thing to do is to stand up for change. I would have my 10-year-old read it.
Our district encourages a 360-degree view for looking at political, historical, and scientific things, meaning we’re providing multiple perspectives so that students develop their thinking. But our teachers are scared. They want to provide quality instruction, but they don’t want to lose their jobs. So every other day, I get calls and emails from teachers asking, “Hey, I want to teach about the Holocaust. Is that OK?” or “Hey, for Black History Month, can we celebrate Black achievers?” They don’t know. And I don’t want them to be scared, but sometimes it’s hard to give answers.
Unions are more important now than ever, especially the AFT. So my colleagues and I encourage our teachers to stay connected to the union for information because it knows the laws and what teachers can do. That has been pivotal in guiding our work.
Editors: Given the overwhelming challenges you’ve described, what changes are needed to make teaching a desirable, long-term career?
Monique: There is no one solution, but a significant salary increase would help. A stipend doesn’t sustain your family, but a considerable salary increase would be meaningful.
Many teachers I know, even myself, have part-time jobs or side hustles to be able to provide for our families. I do contract work for education agencies, and I offer professional development for teachers. I also have my own company working with districts and schools to improve the cultural relevancy of their curriculum and instruction. But honestly, I don’t think I could afford to be a teacher without a side hustle. I’m fortunate to do extra work that brings my heart joy, but many of the teachers I work with have to take second shifts in retail or drive for Uber just to make ends meet. That’s unacceptable in 2022.
Kelly: We need to bring back respect for the profession. In addition to higher salaries, teachers need to be more empowered at the district, state, and federal levels. The only people who can fix education are those who are educating. Funding is also a huge issue: our school buildings are crumbling, and we have too many students per classroom.
Teachers are not just teachers; they are also counselors, caregivers, and service coordinators—they strive to meet all of their students’ needs. It’s not unusual to be greeting the students at the door and have one student come in crying—she doesn’t have her homework and didn’t get any sleep because her mother was on a drunken rampage. Another student will be cranky because he didn’t have breakfast. Three or four more will arrive with similar concerns. So before you can even begin teaching, you have five or six students who need personal attention before they are ready to learn. And the larger our classes become, the more needs walk in the door.
On top of that, you have a range of prior experiences and knowledge in each classroom; some students need enrichment activities, others are struggling to master the content, and still others are in the middle. The smaller the class size, the more one-on-one time you have with students to give them what they need intellectually.
Monique: Reducing class sizes is critical. Currently, we are filling classes to the brim because we don’t have enough teachers. The teachers I work with have 28 to 38 students in a class.
Nicholas: Along with increasing salaries and reducing class sizes, we have to reduce caseloads for school nurses, psychologists, and counselors. In my school, counselors have 500 students—how are they supposed to address mental health and social and emotional needs?
In my ideal world, teachers would be given more time to prep, to interact with each other, to plan, and to mentor new teachers. Some paperwork and some instructional time would have to be taken off each teacher’s plate. I would teach five classes instead of six or seven, and I would have one period in which I mentor a new teacher who is not teaching a full-day schedule. Unfortunately, the reality is that we are so understaffed that new teachers are largely on their own.
As a student, I didn’t realize the simple things. I didn’t realize that teachers paid for the supplies in my classroom. I didn’t realize that so many teachers had second jobs because you can’t support a family on an educator’s salary. I always appreciated and valued my teachers; I didn’t realize that society demeaned them and degraded them.
Education is the one investment that everyone benefits from. Every single day, teachers invest their hearts, their souls, and their money into their students. We want society to invest in us and in our schools as much as we invest in our students.
*To learn more about Texas's law limiting instruction, see “Republican Bill That Limits How Race, Slavery, and History Are Taught in Texas Schools Becomes Law.” And for additional context, see “Legislators Fight to Control the Content of Civic Education.” (return to article)
†For more information on the books being questioned, see “Texas House Committee to Investigate School Districts' Books on Race and Sexuality.” (return to article)
[Photos of Monique Boone by Emily Jaschke; photos of Kelly Erinakes by Brooke Macomber; photos of Nicholas Ferroni by Hassan Mahmood]