For every three people on the Landed team, one of us has worked in schools. The financial services we create are meaningful in and of themselves, but what gets me out of bed in the morning is the knowledge of who our services benefit and the ripple effects we hope to stir by providing school employees with greater stability.
I believe that teachers are the bedrock of our communities. They have my utmost respect. As has been said many times before, teaching is the one profession that creates all others. Educators are mentors, healers, leaders, and gardeners. They are caretakers, bouncers, crisis counselors, and friends. They are the supervisors of our childhood memories and the weary heroes of our middle school nightmares. Teachers are comedians, referees, and knowledge experts who command small armies with no bathroom breaks. They are grossly undervalued, and they deserve better. Not only that, but our children deserve better: they deserve teachers who are well-rested and well-equipped.
That theme of teacher wellness impacting student wellness emerged at Wednesday’s panel in The Mission: “How to Make it as a Public School Teacher in the Bay Area.” Landed’s Nikki Lowy (who previously helped schools rethink and replace classroom buildings) and Emily Eshman (who previously taught elementary school) put together a panel to address the topic of what it’s like to be a public school teacher here. Set in Manny’s civic social gathering space, the panel featured four educators: Laney Corda, Robyn Shutt, Sonya Mehta, and Zach Bell.
After a series of introductions, the panelists were asked to describe a typical day-in-the-life as a public school teacher.
“I’m thinking, ‘Should I give them the scary version, the happy version, or the funny version?’ But the reality is that it is an emotional rollercoaster,” said Laney, who is in her 10th year of teaching at James Lick Middle School. “I’m going to start this day-in-the-life at 4:00 p.m. I’m reflecting on the day that I had, and I’m evaluating pretty much every single decision that I made that day and mulling over, ‘Was this the right way to go? Was it not?’”
Laney described the time each evening that she uses for lesson planning and grading (12 to 15 hours per week outside of her contract). Although her students are at radically different levels academically, they are all 11 years old and share a relatively short attention span. As Laney put it, “It’s a middle school classroom, so anytime there are more than 10 seconds of unstructured time, something's going to get thrown across the room.” To avoid lulls in learning that might derail the student experience, Laney designs her lesson plans in five-minute intervals across 120 minutes and tries to plan for all the aspects she knows may go awry. Since she teaches language arts and social studies, she also spends extra time helping her students (many of whom speak English as a second language) learn to read and write.
Laney jokingly explained that she often forgets to eat during the school year. “As a teacher, you can’t stop thinking about all of the kids that you didn't get to. Somebody's having an issue, so I’m emailing my counselor at one o’clock in the morning like, ‘Hey, can you check in with this kid tomorrow?’ Again, this is not a unique story. This is happening and this is what educators do. This is our daily experience, as far as I’m aware.”
Laney explained that she doesn’t take a lunch break because she generally has 25 or 30 kids in her classroom who need help with tutoring, cursive, or practicing for the school play. There is an hour built in at the end of the day for prep time, but teachers often need to use that time for meetings. Then at the end of the school day, “You can rewind everything I just said and press play because I’m going to do it all over again tomorrow.”
The rest of the teachers in the room nodded, including Zach Bell. Zach was a consultant at Bain & Co. in Boston before moving to the Bay Area and becoming a career educator. He teaches sixth grade math in Oakland, where he also founded a racially and economically diverse summer camp called Camp Common Ground. On the eve of the Oakland teachers’ strike, Zach was able to offer some perspective on the day-to-day experiences of teachers in Oakland Unified School District.
“We didn't hit our enrollment numbers to get an English teacher, so in addition to math, I also teach English,” said Zach. “Because the need is really high and these are people in front of you who you care about, you do other stuff. So I started a math intervention class on Mondays and Thursdays, because there are students coming in who maybe only had some informal schooling in Guatemala, and multiplication may be far off for them. Then I run a boys’ group on Tuesdays, sixth period, that I think is really important for the culture of boys at the school... and every Friday after school, I play basketball, because it’s another really positive way for those boys to come together.”
Zach told the room that one of the biggest challenges teachers face at his school is that they cannot get substitute teachers. He has not taken a sick day because he knows it would be too hard on his fellow teachers without a sub to cover his classes. In December, when a colleague had a back injury and had to stay home, the principal covered those classes for two weeks and the school did not have a principal during that time – meaning there were more problems and fights among students.
Another major challenge is the language barrier between families and school employees when there isn’t an employee available who can speak the parents’ language. It makes it difficult to help students’ progress and build relationships when there aren’t enough resources to address the diversity of the population. Zach said that he happens to speak Spanish and that it is “special and powerful” to work with his immigrant population of students but that “there’s not nearly enough support for us” to serve students the way they deserve, especially Yemeni children and others who may be coping with trauma.
“There should be so many more people in schools,” said Zach. “So many more adults. Like 20 times more. When you think about who you would let your kid be babysat by – would you really hire one adult for 30 kids? Of course not… and in addition to supervising them and making sure they’re safe, we also need to teach them stuff.”
“I can't really say anything that’s more powerful than what’s already been said, but we aren’t funding our schools in this state,” said Sonya Mehta, a former teacher who works with The Teaching Well in Oakland to increase educator retention through wellness. “California is the fifth largest economy in the world, and we’re in the bottom quartile of school funding in the nation, which is unconscionable.”
“I think it’s important to mention our payscale too,” said Robyn Shutt, an elementary school teacher at Tenderloin Community School in San Francisco. “I have seven years’ experience, two credentials, and a master’s, and I get a $500 raise every year... my brother graduated a year ago, and he already makes three times the amount I do.”
Robyn noted that she lives paycheck to paycheck and buys about five boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios each week to share with her students. The other teachers on the panel resonated with Robyn’s story of supplementing classroom materials, struggling to buy groceries, and fighting to find housing. Sonya was an early Landed homebuyer and now owns a house in Oakland; Zach said he is interested in pursuing down payment support as well so that he can sustainably live in his school community.
The panelists centered on unmet student needs and the butterfly effect of low teacher salaries. They emphasized that the salary problem is not a teacher/administrator issue but instead a larger battle that many school leaders are fighting alongside their teachers.
Emily asked the panelists what shifts they believe need to happen in order to make teaching more sustainable in the public school system. Sonya first spoke to the work she is doing at The Teaching Well to help schools improve their employees’ wellness and said their organization is seeking high net worth individuals to help them expand to more schools.
“If we can keep our people in the system and they don't have to make that choice between their own personal health, wellbeing, and balance in their lives and serving... If we can create a system that allows for that, that's when we can actually start doing all the other things. Because right now our education system is like a leaky bucket… certain schools are losing half or more of their staff from year to year. It doesn't matter what other investments you're making in the system. If we can't keep our people, then we're just spinning our wheels.”
Laney agreed and emphasized that improving education feels less about identifying what educators are doing wrong and more about fixing how our society views, values, and engages with education. “I truly believe that until we as a society and as a culture value what's going on within the four walls of my classroom, and until that is the most important thing that we're talking about – I feel like I'm not going to see a difference until that mind shift happens.”
Robyn agreed. “The analogy I use when I talk to people is that children are like flowers. They grow at different rates. They're all beautiful. But they're going to grow at different rates. You will have a child who’s a tulip – she'll just spring up the minute she gets to school. And then you’ll have a sunflower, who’s going to take months in comparison to that tulip to grow... There's nothing wrong with that. Absolutely nothing wrong with them not able to do division until they're in sixth grade. What is wrong is that we tell them that because they can't do it, they're done.”
“I tell my students that your education does not stop when you leave my classroom,” she emphasized. “So if you're not reading at grade level, that is okay. You're a sunflower. You're taking a little bit longer, and you're going to be just as beautiful when you bloom. And I think that is a shift that we need to make as adults.”
Zach nodded. “Schools are the place where we grow kids. It's not just an academic place. A lot of people argue that school is where the local health care clinic should be. That's where the therapy services should be. That's where the sports programs need to be located. That’s where all of the things you need for a kid to thrive should be located: at the school… School is a place where all kids can go and be safe and get services. It's a pretty incredible structure we have in place. So let's make good on it.”
Many people in the audience expressed that they were from outside the world of education, and several asked what actions they could take to be helpful. The key takeaways were:
- Maintain proximity to the issue. “I can tell there's so much emotion and care in the room. And it's just really different when you get to actually see the kids,” said Zach. “I feel like it's really grounding. We are in a picket line tomorrow and there are volunteers, staff, parents who need help supervising and providing educational activities for students during the day.”
- Support the child, but also support the whole family. “It is not just their parents’ ‘fault’ that based on trauma, that child is struggling,” said Robyn. “We are a village. It takes a village to raise a child. So when you see that child, you understand they come from a home, and their mom and dad need your support too. It’s all of us together, working together, to support those children – and to support us as educators – at every step.”
- Volunteer in a public school classroom. Laney said that the presence of more adults in her classroom has helped improve learning outcomes for her students this year. “They are making huge gains and huge progress and their confidence is growing because they have adults building relationships with them.”
- Become a financially sustaining member of an education nonprofit. The ones mentioned at the event were The Teaching Well (where Sonya works), Camp Common Ground (founded by Zach), and Aim High, where Laney was a site director (and I serve on the Young Leaders Board). The panelists also recommended donating directly to classrooms at DonorsChoose.org. “Do something sustaining so that you can’t forget,” said Zach.
As often happens when I’m leaving the presence of teachers, I left feeling like I’m not doing enough. I called my older brother on the dark drive down Highway 1. I asked him what he thought.
“You’re helping teachers live where they work, and helping teachers helps kids,” he said. “If we can keep great teachers in schools, that’s the most important thing we can do.”