‘Death by 1,000 cuts’: Kansas teachers demoralized by current environment

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TOPEKA — Caught in a political crossfire and exhausted from the pandemic, Kansas teachers are putting down their books and leaving the profession.

In a survey from the National Education Association, 55% of teachers indicated they were ready to leave the classroom. As of April 12, there were 1,381 teacher vacancies in Kansas, according to the Kansas State Board of Education, and this number is expected to rise.


A teacher of 27 years, Jeff Plinsky, has seen the steady decline of those entering the field. While there have been a multitude of reasons for this, Plinsky said, it started when former Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration focused on an efficiency model to cut public school spending while increasing teacher workloads.

“The best way to describe it is sort of the death by 1,000 cuts,” said Plinsky, outgoing vice president of the Lawrence Education Association and a teacher at Lawrence High School. “There are a multitude of things that have hit teachers really over the last decade and perhaps even longer.”

These issues became exacerbated after March 2020, when teachers had to adapt to virtual learning. Many teachers, though, weren’t extensively taught how to virtually teach, and they weren’t ready for the emotional toll of not being able to see their students.

“It was really hard because we couldn’t get a hold of some of those kids,” said Jessica Popescu, who left the teaching profession in May after nine years. “So you just kind of had to watch them sink and somehow get over it. That’s hard, especially if you care about your students.”

A 2013 graduate of Kansas State University, Popescu was recently hired as a student recruitment coordinator at the Research College of Nursing in Kansas City, Missouri.

“I got really tired of doing a lot of things that, one, I didn’t believe in,” Popescu said. “Or, two, that are just done to kind of check the box. As teachers, we’re always asking for more money, but then it felt like a lot of what we do isn’t taken seriously. I wanted to be taken seriously as an educator. I wanted to be seen as a professional.”

With just six years left before retirement, Plinsky said if he could retire tomorrow, he would.

“(I’d be just as happy at) some minimum wage job,” Plinsky said. “People don’t yell at you there about what a terrible human I am and what awful things I’m trying to do to their children while my colleagues are sheltering children’s bodies from flying bullets that no one seems to be able to stop.”

Janet Waugh, who represents northeast Kansas in the 1st District on the Kansas State Board of Education, said things did not get better for teachers once students were back in the classroom. Not only did they have to catch students up on their studies, teachers had other factors to deal with.

“Misinformation is one of the biggest and most dangerous things that we have that people are upset about,” Waugh said. “It’s sort of like (critical race theory), which is not in our standards. To my knowledge, there’s not a district teacher teaching it.”

“Parents were upset. The Legislature was upset,” Waugh added. “So many people were criticizing the teachers, that the teachers — first of all, they’re totally exhausted. They’re drained. The second thing is the way they’re treated. It’s just sad.”

Still, for many teachers, the joy in their job lies with their students, Waugh said.

“I believe teachers see this as a calling,” Waugh said. “They don’t see this as a job. They can make more money (elsewhere). … They love kids. They love to teach.”

 Lawrence High School teacher Jeff Plinsky prepares a recent graduate for the 2022 National Speech and Debate Tournament. The tournament was hosted in Louisville, Kentucky, from June 12-17. (Margaret Mellott/Kansas Reflector)

Plinsky said new teachers need to be prepared for the political currents that come at them.

“(New teachers) need to make sure that they have a financial and psychological support network around them,” Plinsky said. “The blow, after body blow, after body blow that they take in education — if they don’t have that kind of support, they won’t survive.”

Joan Brewer, dean of the Teachers College at Emporia State University, said giving the power back to teachers is crucial.

“Listening to teachers, instead of just telling them, ‘This is what you have to do or what you need to do,’ ” Brewer said. “I think a big key with the Legislature is just really investing in teachers and letting them, in many ways, lead the way.”

To improve the system though, some believe it must first collapse before significant changes can be made.

“I don’t think we’ve hit the peak yet,” Popescu said. “I think you’re seeing it get worse and worse and worse. And I don’t know what’s going to tip it over the edge, but we haven’t hit that yet.”

Echoing Popescu’s sentiment, Plinsky said that though there are people doing their best, he has no confidence that those in power in Kansas are interested in preserving quality education.

“Maybe,” Plinsky said, “the whole thing has to collapse in a heap of ruins before the folks in power decide maybe they ought to fix it.”

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