Soothing stress and growing the teacher workforce

At a recent continuing series of professional development sessions in Corpus Christi, Texas, the AFT offered practical strategies and support to aspiring teachers—at a time when teacher shortages are dire, and such new educators are sorely needed—and also addressed the serious stress educators are facing today. Partnering with a local community center and with Texas A&M University, the session built important bonds within the community as well.

Corpus Christi AFT

In a room at the Antonio E. Garcia Arts and Education Center, a hub of community life in Corpus Christi’s west side, two AFT staffers and Corpus Christi AFT union leaders greeted a group of students enrolled in the education program at the university’s local campus. There was no pressure to pass a course or get a good grade; the session was free, a gesture of support for people working hard to become teachers and an effort to prepare them for a profession that can be incredibly rewarding, but increasingly challenging as well.

What if they don’t listen?

A portion of the workshop addressed one of the biggest worries among new teachers: an out-of-control classroom. What if the students don’t listen? Will I be able to get their attention? How do I prevent the classroom from becoming chaotic and dysfunctional?

Veteran teacher Julie Washington, now on staff in the AFT’s human and civil rights department, shared her own experiences and provided inside strategies and assurances to build confidence. One key bit of advice: Listen to the students. She demonstrated with a listening activity. “The bottom line is when people are listened to, they feel valued, loved, respected.” In the classroom, teachers have the power to make children feel all those good things—good things that are predictors of a child’s success.

These sorts of lessons were particularly important for this cohort of education students as they build confidence and prepare to lead their own classrooms. Washington was surprised by how many told her they’d been discouraged from becoming educators, that people didn’t believe they could do it. Perhaps it’s because they’ve had few examples to follow: The entire cohort was Latino, and even in Texas, where 53 percent of students are Latino, just 28 percent of the teachers are.

The session reflects AFT’s larger effort to grow the teacher workforce with particular attention to increasing the number of Black and Latino educators.

Self-care 101

To support aspiring teachers—and those already in the classroom—self-confidence and self-care are crucial says Chuck Wilson, who helps lead the AFT’S mental health work. Wilson, who co-presented the CCAFT workshop, shared his mnemonic, ALGEE: assist, listen, give, encourage and encourage again, because this step is so important. The formula applies to young students, but teachers can practice it in the mirror as well.

AFT members have shared a lot of struggle with Wilson. Many are overworked, underpaid, underappreciated and unheard at work. “You have one social worker for five schools,” Wilson says by way of example. “One. And each school may have 800 kids. The burnout is enormous.”

At home, members face challenges, too: “More month than money,” as Wilson describes it—caring for underemployed spouses, grown children who have come back home to live, sometimes with their own children, and parents who are sick in faraway states, or who have died with no homegoing service possible because there wasn’t enough money to do it in a pandemic. “This is why we need mental health first aid,” says Wilson.

Supporting AFT members’ mental health

In addition to the workshop for education students, the Corpus Christi AFT is developing mental health supports for its own members. “To say the teachers are under stress is an understatement,” says CCAFT President Nancy Vera, who describes teachers sobbing in her office—especially since the pandemic. Some are expected to show up even if they are sick with COVID-19.

Among other difficulties they face: high-stakes tests, at a time when students are absent and cannot be found; new teaching programs they are required to implement with no training; administrators walking into classrooms to check on small group instruction, when social distancing makes those small groups difficult to manage.

“How can teachers be expected to do all of this work without any relief?” asks Vera. “Teachers give, and they give, and they give without thinking about themselves.” Mental health support would go a long way to help, she says. “If they take care of themselves, they’ll be able to take care of the students.”

To provide some relief, the union is building a wellness room at Zavala Elementary School, supported by an AFT Innovation Fund grant. It will be a haven for teachers to alleviate stress, with possible programming on self-care and massage; a walkway and garden are also being built.

Building with the community

The class at Texas A&M is just one example of how the AFT is connecting with communities and working to expand and support the teaching workforce. In addition to its partnerships with the university and the Antonio Garcia community center, CCAFT maintains relationships with organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens, the NAACP and the South Texas Human Rights Center to work on issues like immigrant safety and preserving Black and Latino history.

“All these folks are family members of the children in our schools,” says Vera. “We all need to lift each other up.”

[Virginia Myers]