As Idaho Teachers of the Year, we are acutely aware of the problems and obstacles created by the COVID-19 public health crisis. We have seen students and educators struggle with the stresses of uncertainty, trauma, and workload, but have few options for where to turn for help.
We have seen classes canceled because there are no substitute teachers, staff covering for each other outside of their comfort zone and qualifications because no one else was available. And we have seen our limited number of counselors, psychologists, and nurses overwhelmed by unmanageable caseloads.
The bigger picture at issue is that most of these situations were problematic long before the pandemic. COVID-19 brought them to the forefront, but this convergence also presents us with a great opportunity to finally address them. Idaho has a large budget surplus, as well as significant emergency funds from the federal government that can (and should) be used for both short-term and long-term solutions.
Our students have had a tough time over the last year. They have dealt with multiple learning modalities, seen aspects of their lives outside of school turned upside down, had to figure out how to stay connected socially during a pandemic, and seen their families struggle with financial difficulties. It is not surprising that their mental and emotional health may have suffered.
A school counselor can provide support and guidance, but we just don’t have enough of them. Idaho’s student to counselor ratio is about twice what is recommended by the National School Counselor Association, 250 to one. Even before COVID-19, our counselors were pulled away to perform many other duties, leaving less time to focus on helping students navigate the emotional roller coasters of their childhood and teenage years. Now tack on the extra stress and caseload of the pandemic and our mental health experts are stretched to the breaking point.
Unfortunately, part of the additional workload for school counselors and psychologists is trying to help their staff colleagues. Teachers and support staff have been overwhelmed by the public health crisis and face their own personal anxieties just like everyone else. In most cases, there is very little help made available to them—even assuming they could find someone to cover their duties so they could get professional help.
This brings us to another personnel issue. On average, Idaho has the sixth-largest class size in the nation. This issue doesn’t just manifest itself in teacher stress and workload, but also in the limitations on being able to provide the individualized, differentiated instruction that is so critical to student success. And that was before the public health crisis.
Over the last year the strain on our teacher workforce has increased. We all have stories to tell about the dual lesson plans of in-person and online teaching, teachers who had to take multiple classes because a colleague or their family member got sick, or schools that had to close because they just didn’t have enough staff to educate and care for students.
A grossly insufficient pool of qualified substitute teachers has also been exacerbated by the pandemic. Why would someone put their health in jeopardy as a substitute teacher when they could be paid just as much in a myriad of other jobs? Our students deserve substitutes who have the ability and training to provide instruction with minimal drop off in quality of education; but that requires resources and commitment.
The support staff of our schools are unheralded and underpaid, but they are the unsung heroes of our education system. From the bus driver who picks up students in the morning, to the custodial and cafeteria workers, to the paraeducators and speech pathologists and every other staff member who interacts with kids, these people are a critical part of the team that educates students. Once again, we just don’t have enough of them and struggle with consistency because they aren’t paid enough to make ends meet.
Idaho is full of dedicated professional educators who do their best with what they have. But just think of what we could accomplish if our state really committed to these professionals—and their students. More mental health professionals would translate to more students in a better position to reach their educational goals. More teachers would translate to smaller class sizes and more individualized instruction. Improved compensation for support staff would translate to improvement in meeting all the needs of all students.
The pandemic has shown us where our shortcomings lie, but it has also given us an opportunity to take stock in the situation and make decisions that will improve the education experience for our students. As Idaho Teachers of the Year, we call on our legislature, governor, and state agencies to seize this moment and make a commitment. Not just for the short-term of the COVID-19 crisis, but for a commitment to long-term investment that will ensure our schools and educators have the resources, personnel, and support that will allow every student in every corner of our state to reach their full potential.
Stacie Lawler-2020 Idaho Teacher of the Year
Marc Beitia-2019 Idaho Teacher of the Year
Becky Mitchell-2018 Idaho Teacher of the Year
Melyssa Ferro-2016 Idaho Teacher of the Year
Kim Zydel-2015 Idaho Teacher of the Year
Jamie Esler-2014 Idaho Teacher of the Year
Katie Pemberton-2013 Idaho Teacher of the Year
Erin Lenz-2012 Idaho Teacher of the Year
Stefani Cook-2011 Idaho Teacher of the Year
Mick Sharkey-2006 Idaho Teacher of the Year
Tina Roehr-2004 Idaho Teacher of the Year
Jennifer Williams-2002 Idaho Teacher of the Year