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Arizona teachers face mental health crisis because of low pay, pandemic stress, scant support

Just weeks before teacher Michelle Capriotti is set to leave her family to take a better-paying job in California, she stands in her living room on a recent afternoon, chatting with her son about the changes coming their way.

“How do you feel about me leaving?” Capriotti asks Christopher, a 17-year-old with special needs, as he makes his way down the stairs.

“They actually called today. You’re fired so you don’t even have to go!” he says in jest.

“Fired from a job I haven’t even started?” she replies, laughing.

Turning away, she notes that Christopher does this whenever her move comes up.

“He is not happy that I’m leaving.”

Capriotti, a public school teacher in the East Valley for more than 27 years, said she took the job in San Jose because she’ll double her pay and get better benefits. Come August, she will fly home every other week to see her family. Even with the cost of airfare, she said, she’ll still be making more money.

Capriotti says her story is common among Arizona teachers. She anticipates a “mass exodus” of educators in coming years – due to low pay, rising stress made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, and an overall feeling of enough is enough.

“I know more teachers leaving this year than I ever have in my career, and they’re not leaving because they’ve reached the age of retirement,” she said. “They’re tired. It was one thing to hold it together during a crisis, but at some point teachers became the bad guy.

“It’s taxing. It’s frustrating.”

A five-alarm crisis

Navigating low salaries, minimal benefits, short staffing, pandemic worries, exhaustion and burnout: Many teachers would tell you this is the job description of today’s educators.

The result, studies show, is a widespread and growing mental health crisis among U.S. teachers – a problem so grim that many are leaving the field or, like Capriotti, making drastic lifestyle changes.

Long before the pandemic, 46% of K-12 teachers reported high levels of job-related stress, according to a 2014 Gallup report on the state of America’s schools.

Fast forward to 2022. A new RAND report finds that 73% of teachers feel frequent job-related stress, 28% have symptoms of depression, and 59% report burnout. Rates of burnout and depression are highest among teachers of color.

A National Education Association survey from February concluded that burnout is the top issue facing educators, with 90% of teachers calling the issue “very serious or somewhat serious.” About 55% of teachers said they were considering leaving the field earlier than planned, with Black and Hispanic teachers even more likely to quit or retire.

The NEA represents more than 3 million public school teachers, faculty and staff members at colleges and universities, retired educators and college students preparing to become teachers.

“This is a five-alarm crisis,” NEA President Becky Pringle said when the report was released. “If we’re serious about getting every child the support they need to thrive, our elected leaders across the nation need to address this crisis now.”

Sharon Hoover, co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland, said it’s clear that “teachers are increasingly more stressed.”

“People are taking on second and third jobs. They are having to travel huge distances just to secure jobs where they can financially make due or to get the needs met for their own children,” she said.

In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services funded Hoover’s organization to address the emerging issue of student mental health. In recent years, however, the center has broadened its focus to include teacher mental health.

She said one approach districts often use to address teacher well-being are programs that encourage self-care strategies – things such as better nutrition and exercise, social support and stress management.

Although this can be helpful, Hoover said those efforts alone won’t fix the problem.

“Educators are increasingly vocal about the fact that they can’t just ‘take care of themselves’ in toxic environments,” she said. “We can’t expect people to just do more for themselves. We have to change the structures within which they work to support their well-being.”

Hoover said broader organizational changes are needed, including adequate compensation and giving teachers a bigger role in decision-making, more flexibility and autonomy, additional professional development opportunities and a greater sense of purpose.

“If you don’t fix some of the basic needs like compensation, it’s not going to do the trick,” she said. “It’s akin to saying, ‘Just walk more, just eat better,’ which doesn’t work if people can’t purchase the basics they need to keep themselves and their families afloat.”

Some of these issues are especially dire in Arizona, which consistently spends less on K-12 education and teacher salaries than most states.

A May Census Bureau report found that Arizona spent $8,785 per pupil in 2020, ahead of only Utah and Idaho. And Arizona was dead last – 51st among states and the District of Columbia – when it came to the amount spent on actual instruction, at $4,801 per pupil.

Arizona’s average teacher salary of $52,157 ranks 44th in the nation, according to the NEA, well below the national average of $66,432.

“Arizona’s education landscape can be more aptly described as a hellscape,” said Rodrigo Palacios, president of the Tempe Secondary Education Association and a member of Save Our Schools Arizona, a group advocating for increased public school funding.

Nationally, the NEA reports, the average teacher salary reflects a 1.8% increase from the previous school year, but after adjusting for inflation, pay declined by 3.8% over the past decade.

Throw in the added stress of teaching during a pandemic, and some educators have decided they’re done.

A January survey by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association showed nearly 80% of K-12 teacher positions were either vacant or filled by people who don’t meet standard teaching requirements.

In addition, the report found, more than 1,600 teachers had severed employment. Most resigned. But more than 600 either didn’t report to work at the start of the school year, or abandoned their job after the school year began.

‘I’m tired’

For nearly 20 years, Sydney Francis taught at schools in Flagstaff before she left the field in 2018. She primarily taught art classes to elementary and middle school students, but as a mother of two children, she said that she struggled financially throughout her career.

Ultimately, she said, lack of community support and budget cuts that spurred the “Red for Ed” protests in 2018 persuaded her to quit.

“Toward the end, we took pay cut after pay cut – one to health care, one to salaries – and it was like, ‘I already can’t afford to live, and I’m stressed and I’m tired,’” she said. “And then on top of that, I just didn’t feel supported in my community anymore.”

Francis said some of the main stressors throughout her career involved being chronically short-staffed.

Instead of employing teaching assistants, schools often asked teachers to monitor recess, meaning they didn’t have time to eat lunch or prepare afternoon lesson plans. Or teachers were asked to stand outside and greet students each morning, cutting into morning planning time.

In addition, Francis said that some of her students had special needs and would have benefited from the assistance of a specialized teacher, but those positions often went unfilled.

Given the pressures and her own financial struggles, Francis found it difficult to take care of her students during the day and her own kids at night.

“I felt tapped out by the time I got home,” she said. “I felt like my own kids were getting a less nurturing version of me some days.”

‘Mutual triggering’

When teachers struggle, their students often do, too, experts note.

The WISE Center at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., works to improve the mental health of both students and teachers. The group partners with schools to survey teachers, identify root stressors and take steps to address problems.

Megan McCormick, co-founder and director of programming at the center, said students generally are sensitive to the adults around them, so if a teacher is stressed, a student is more likely to be stressed. She calls the phenomenon “mutual triggering.”

Children who are frequently in high-stress environments tend to mimic the symptoms of behavioral disorders even if they don’t have them. McCormick said this often leads to children receiving treatment for something that could be resolved in the classroom.

“The hard and fast of it is that there aren’t enough therapists, at all, to treat every kid who looks like they have some sort of emotional or behavioral problem,” she said. “By paying attention to the mental health of teachers, we can make such a big impact, with fewer resources, on children.”

In one case, the WISE Center collaborated with a school to provide free counseling services for teachers. About half took part, and all who did reported feeling less stressed.

“There are a lot of barriers that teachers have to attaining therapy, and there are specific things about our team being integrated into their schools and knowing school mental health that helps to retain teachers,” McCormick said. “And the teachers feel like it makes an impact on their students.”

Ultimately, the WISE Center and the National Center for School Mental Health agree: Supporting teacher mental health starts with listening to and investing in teachers.

“We don’t wait for students to be failing before we provide reading support; we shouldn’t wait for teachers to leave the field before we give them mental health support,” Hoover said. “There should be universal well-being support for teachers, and teachers should help inform what they look like.”

McCormick said providing such support would be worth the effort.

“At the end of the day, states and communities have to be willing to do for teachers what they do for students – take the risk and make the investment. It’s one that will produce results,” she said.

“Happy teachers means happy kids, and I think that’s worth sinking a lot of time and money into.”

The last straw

Since she started in 1995, Capriotti has taught grades 6 through 12, as well as special education and physical education in the Chandler and Gilbert school districts. Although state funding and salary have always been concerns, the pandemic was a bleak turning point for her.

First came the challenges of transitioning to virtual learning. Then when in-person instruction resumed, she said, she knew of classrooms with little ventilation that often had up to 35 pupils.

“People didn’t understand that I came home to a family,” Capriotti said. “It would be one thing for me to get COVID; it would be another to give it to my husband, who is a stroke survivor. We were told by medical professionals that COVID would be a death sentence for him, and yet that was never perceived as a viable reason for anyone to hold off on returning to classrooms.”

When the public began taking its frustrations out on educators – volatile school board meetings that made the rounds on social media are just one example – she felt like teachers became scapegoats and were left hung out to dry.

“I have two master’s degrees and I am two years into a Ph.D. program. I’ve spent 20 years in the profession, yet I make $63,000 per year. Tell me what profession with that level of education and that level of experience has that level of pay.

“Then to be demonized on top of it – that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Capriotti explored jobs in other Arizona districts but said she would’ve made even less – “anywhere from a $4,000 to $7,000 pay cut just by switching districts.”

Her new job in the East Side Union High School District in San Jose offers more than twice her Arizona salary, a stark increase in insurance benefits and overtime pay. Capriotti plans to fly from Phoenix to the Bay Area at 5 a.m. on Mondays to get to her job by 8 a.m. When she flies back to Phoenix for a weekend, she won’t touch down until 9 p.m. on Fridays.

Like Francis, Capriotti said her burnout took a toll on her relationship with her children.

“You do give so much of yourself, and our families suffer because of that,” Capriotti said. “I have four children, and they’ve gotten a very tired mother, a very stressed out mother, sometimes a mother who comes home and wants to check out.”

Research shows that nationwide, women report experiencing more pandemic-related stress than men, in part because they often play a bigger role in juggling childcare or family responsibilities with careers.

In Arizona, 76% of all teachers are women. The 2022 RAND report found that 78% of female teachers in the U.S. felt frequent stress, compared with 59% of men.

When asked about the availability of mental health resources for teachers, Capriotti snickered and said her insurance covered 10 counselor visits.

“There’s not a whole lot that you can fully deal with in 10 visits … and, also, who has the time?” she said. “They’ll schedule a counseling appointment at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday, but at 10 on a Tuesday you’re teaching a class, so there’s very little support out there.”

When Capriotti’s daughter, Caitlin, decided to spend a year working as a substitute teacher before entering law school, she offered some solemn advice about teaching in Arizona: “Don’t love it too much.”

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