Addressing the Challenges Facing Educators, and Additional Thoughts Following the State of the Union

Last Tuesday President Joe Biden gave his first State of the Union address. He did so amidst the Russian invasion of Ukraine- an atrocity that most Americans are united against, despite the currently divided state of our country. Another topic that most Americans can agree upon is the need for support for our nation’s students and those who educate them. President Biden did not focus on education as much as one would have expected pre-Ukraine, but his actions thus far, statements during the SOTU address, and actions of Secretary of Education Cardona give me hope that we will be able to address the curveball asteroid thrown to our school system.

President Biden focused on the mental health needs of today’s students. Already, the American Rescue Plan funds allocated to districts should be spent on, among other things, mental health and SEL support or curriculum for students. The federal FY23 budget has an additional $1 billion earmarked to allow schools to hire additional counselors, psychologists, and other health professionals. This is wonderful, if we can address the shortages and hiring challenges outlined below.

However, the Biden administration and Secretary Cardona- for all of the wonderful accomplishments- have failed to address an absolutely critical piece of the puzzle. They are forgetting about those adults who serve our kiddos each day, and have demonstrated Herculean effort over the last 2+ years (and always, let’s be honest). I read articles each and every day about burnt out teachers, teachers wanting to leave the profession, and the shortage that already exists. Most of what I read provides tips for “self-care”- taking walks, doing yoga, not checking email at night. However, nothing that I have read recognizes that our educators, in many cases, are struggling with similar emotions as the students they serve. Furthermore, many articles provide tips for principals about how to support their teachers. This is great- and my son’s principal in Dunlap, Illinois is truly the best I have ever seen (shout out to Mrs. Ellis!). But those articles fail to consider one critical point—our administrators are struggling with many of the same emotions as our teachers. In addition to the focus and resources surrounding child mental health and wellbeing, we must recognize and support educator mental health and wellbeing. 

What is needed?

Funding for mental health support and counseling for educators.

Furthermore, districts have the money to provide mental health services but can’t find the people to deliver them. The funding is (obviously) critical, but state governments and the possibly the federal government must put structures into place to assist districts in addressing these critical shortages.

What is needed?

  1. Incentives, funded at the state and federal level, to encourage individuals to return to the workforce.
  2. Flexibility to allow districts to leverage individuals who may not want to work a full FTE position, i.e., retirees who would be willing to work a couple of days a week but not full time.
  3. Flexibility for districts to hire therapists to provide services virtually without having to wait four, six, eight weeks for a posted position to yield no quality candidates. Our kids need help NOW.
  4. Flexibility for therapists who deliver services virtually to be able to provide services in multiple states without going through the often-arduous licensing process for each state. Let’s agree that if someone is qualified in the great state of Texas, we’re okay with that person providing services to a student in need in Chicago. Again, our kids need help NOW.

President Biden also spoke about the need for universal Pre-K for 3- and 4-year-old children. I do not disagree, and this may help address some of the work shortages as caregivers are able to return to work. Supporting young children of lower SES backgrounds will have a particularly strong impact, as children of poverty may hear up to 32 million fewer words than their middle-class peers.  Additionally, a recent study found that a third of students in younger grades are missing critical reading benchmarks. As Dana Goldstein of the New York Times states, “reading is the building block of human knowledge, and it’s the all-consuming purpose of elementary academic education is many ways.”  Furthermore, a quality education is the best way to break the cycle of poverty- and the ability to read is absolutely fundamental. The American Rescue Plan also mandates districts spend funds addressing learning loss. Clearly, this is greatly needed. And, there are some wonderful software solutions out there that provide targeted, individualized, responsive reading and math instruction and can certainly support educators in addressing learning loss (in those areas) for their students. But you and I both know that nothing- NOTHING- can take the place of a skilled, caring teacher. So, the fact that over 50% of superintendents report teacher shortages is even more concerning that it would have been five years ago.

What is needed?

  1. Incentives, funded at the state and federal level, to encourage individuals to return to or stay in the workforce.
  2. Flexibility to allow districts to leverage individuals who may not want to work a full FTE position, i.e., retirees who would be willing to work a couple of days a week but not full time.
  3. We need to treat our educators like Switzerland does. Highly respected, highly regarded, highly paid.
  4. We must reconfigure our education system into one that supports students AND those who educate them. It is not an “either/or,” but rather an “and.” *

*Preview of upcoming blog post…😉

In closing, I don’t disagree with President Biden’s assertion that the state of the Union is strong. I do, however, have concerns that if we do not immediately and effectively address the challenges facing our educators and their students the president delivering the SOTU speech ten years from now will not be able to make the same claim.

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Jamie Downey

Jamie Downey

Jamie Downey has over 18 years of expertise working with students and teachers in the field of education. After spending 10 years in public education as a dual language elementary teacher and campus and district administrator, Jamie entered the world of Marketing and EdTech. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish Literature, a Master of Education specializing in Educational Administration, and is ABD in the process towards her EdD, all from The University of Texas at Austin. Jamie is passionate about serving the underserved and ensuring that all students have access to quality instruction and services, regardless of their zip code or special needs. As such, she is proud to serve eLuma Online Therapy as VP of Marketing. In her spare time, Jamie enjoys spending time with her family, traveling, and running.