In the past two years, record numbers of teachers have left their jobs across the country, exhausted and overwhelmed from rising work obligations. Following the national trend, the end of the 2022 school year saw 35 Westwood staff members announcing their resignation or retirement across all departments. During their final days at Westwood, a few exiting teachers shared their thoughts on education philosophies, future plans, and the factors that contributed to their resignations.
Several of the resigning staff have been at Westwood for years, some working here for over a decade. Each has experienced unique successes and challenges during their time.
“In our Advanced English I classes, I think we’ve built a really strong writing program geared towards analysis,” English teacher and Department Chair Hilary Carter said. “The amount of growth that I see in terms of writing from the beginning to the end is one of the things I feel really proud of.”
During the past few years, the teachers have handled everything from curriculum changes to learning blocks due to the pandemic.
“I always tell students that I hope the transition to whatever’s next will go smoothly based on our time together,” English teacher Jennifer Cullen said. “Over the last few years, College Board changed the rubric [for AP English] right as the pandemic came, [and] I feel proud that we’ve managed to navigate what’s the same and what’s different. I think by the end of the year, students feel like they know what their goals are and how to reach them.”
Though the transition from virtual learning to in-person learning was difficult for many staff members, according to one English teacher, this year was one of her favorites.
“I don’t think I would have changed anything,” the teacher said. “We came back with such vigor from being out of school. We created this welcoming environment, and it seemed to work really well.”
Departing staff also shared the difficulty of making the decision to leave.
“[My biggest regret] is leaving,” Lead Custodian Eddy Moreno said. “I wanted this to be my retirement, throw a big party the day of my retirement. [I wanted to] bring my grandchildren [and] be with you guys who are my biggest inspiration.”
Another teacher wished she had the opportunity to involve the community in her decision to leave.
“I think we all struggle with professionalism in a sense that there are certain things that would not have been appropriate,” the teacher said. “I know there’s this group of parents and families who are upset, [and] I regret that they couldn’t know certain things earlier. They couldn’t know it from me because that would have been unprofessional. I feel like there’s some mutual sadness now.”
This year’s resignation rate for certain departments was abnormally high. While stress, COVID-19, and general exhaustion may have contributed after a challenging two years, the primary reason cited by a majority of teachers is the change in the relationship between administrators and teachers.
“The narrative here is that it’s the pandemic or it’s the state of education,” a teacher said. “And I’m sure some people make personal choices. But the numbers aren’t the same everywhere. We saw the list of people who won’t return, and it’s a sizable list.”
The start of virtual learning created the rift, according to teachers. The short amount of time provided for teachers to learn new software and technologies generated a wave of desperation from struggling staff members. But the administration wasn’t able to navigate the sea of complaints either.
“We were complaining because we were desperate,” a teacher said. “Teachers were incredibly frustrated and scared, and felt incompetent in areas where they had normally felt very, very competent. And I think there just came a point when the administration got tired of hearing us complain. Everyone was in survival mode, [and] I think the relationships have deteriorated since then.”
After the divide was created, it only deepened as teachers increasingly felt an inability to express themselves and be heard.
“There are some systems that feel like they’ve broken a little bit, especially in terms of helpful and transparent communication between all the different groups,” a teacher said. “Students and teachers get information last minute, and I think that it [creates] chaos. If I complain, I’m just a complainer. I think there’s been an increasing [mentality that] it’s no big deal to take the teacher out of the classroom, and I think that has felt like a diminishing of us as professionals.”
Both a reduction in tolerance for dissenting opinions and a rising fear of consequences played a part in several teachers’ decisions.
“It’s become this weird sense of ‘If I say this, am I going to have [a] backlash?’ One of the things we said in a meeting was [that] the only reason why we’re willing to be as vocal as we are now [is] because we’ve resigned. [We] never had been this vocal until we came to the conclusion that we didn’t have anything else to lose,” one teacher said.
While many teachers resigned because of certain experiences with the administration, some staff members chose to leave for other reasons.
“It [was] a personal decision,” Mr. Moreno said. “I don’t want to leave. But a couple of things have to change. Money means nothing to me when it comes to you guys.”
According to the administration, for the past six years, an average of 37 staff members have chosen to resign or retire each year.
“Education is a very challenging profession and there has been no harder time to be a teacher than the last [three] school years,” Associate Principal Erin Campbell said. “What has happened at Westwood is a microcosm of what we’ve seen in our larger scale communities – Austin, Texas, the United States, and the world. Leadership decisions have not been met with unanimous agreement and often we find that people sit on polar ends of any given issue.”
The administration going into the 2022-2023 school year hopes to find avenues to “make teaching a sustainable profession” at Westwood, Ms. Campbell said.
“Our Westwood administration has already begun conversations with our teachers about how we can decrease burnout and create the conditions where Westwood is the school that no one ever wants to leave until they can retire,” Ms. Campbell said. “There are things outside of the Westwood administration’s control [but] there are many aspects of our daily work environment that we can influence and improve. I hope that next year can be a year of unity where teachers and staff feel support from all angles.”
The teachers who have chosen to continue at Westwood have also responded to the unprecedented resignations.
“I think it’s a real shame that we’re losing so many excellent teachers,” journalism teacher Lanie Catuogno said. “I’m sad that they had experiences that made them want to leave, because I know that they loved the school too. I did not have any bad experiences here with admin or students or the district. I have been and continue to be perfectly happy in this job. And I intend to stay until I retire.”
Some have discussed why they decided to stay in light of the experiences that caused so many staff members to leave.
“I love this school, and I don’t think I could leave for another school,” Theory of Knowledge teacher Matthew McBrearty said. “I’ll miss [the teachers who are leaving]. I tried to convince all of them to stay until the bitter end, and I’m probably still going to make the last pitch but I wish they’d all stay and I think they’re going to miss it. Teaching is always difficult, and I think you’re always trying to learn and adjust, and I’ll keep doing that.”
Along with citing the motives for resignation, exiting teachers also wanted to provide constructive feedback for the district before they left. Most mentioned that they would like a collaborative spirit to return between administrators and teachers.
“I think there was a time when I taught at Westwood years ago, that the teachers, administrators, and students all treated each other with respect, kindness, and understanding,” one staff member said. “And I think somehow we got away from that. We need to go back to treating people like people. Having strong leaders is really what the district needs to focus on.”
Another common theme among teachers was their desire to maintain their individual education philosophies.
“I think that we have had a change in philosophy at Westwood, in terms of how to go about teaching, and there hasn’t been much wiggle room on it,” a teacher said. “I think there are certainly merits to this particular philosophy, but I don’t necessarily want it to be mandated to me. And it’s a lot of extra work for teachers who already feel like they are incredibly overworked.”
The philosophy mentioned was a proposed change in grading by the administration. The change would involve priority standards, proficiency scales, and other ways of allowing students to show their mastery of content. Teachers valued the idea, but would have liked to choose the elements that fit within their courses rather than be forced to use the entire system.
“[It] sounds positive, but we still work with instructors at the district level,” one teacher said. “If the campus doesn’t get district level permission for certain things then it is two jobs for the teachers. That’s part of the reason that it feels like so much, because you’d be doing one thing to serve [the district] systems and one thing to be part of a philosophy, and there has definitely been a sensation of ‘do this or don’t be here.’”
Teachers would also like to see easier communication channels throughout the district so they can seek out concrete solutions for campus-specific problems.
“There has got to be an easier clear path for teachers to voice concerns and complaints and grievances and so forth,” an English teacher said. “It was a very hard process for us to navigate. Round Rock ISD has this complicated machinery outside of the school, and you don’t even know who some of those people are to reach out to.”
In addition to finding ways to report problems effectively, there is no assurance that the issues will be dealt with at a district level, according to one teacher.
“I think that on many levels, there has sometimes felt like there is a way of lodging a concern, but you don’t know if anything happened,” the teacher said. “You don’t know if there was a conversation [or] if it gets sent off into cyberspace.”
The teachers discussed how there has been little trust in the system for a few months. The teachers who wanted to report their concerns only reported anonymously due to a fear of consequences mentioned earlier. This makes it difficult for the district to inform teachers that they have addressed the issue at hand. To overcome this communication barrier, one teacher suggested that district officials attend smaller teacher meetings to get a better understanding of teachers’ environments and problems.
“Rather than sitting in on our full staff meetings, come sit in on our [Professional Collaborative Community] (PCC) meetings, come to department meetings, and just do a pulse check,” the teacher said. “We talked about doing pulse checks on students, [so] do a pulse check on your teachers, because your teachers were not doing well.”
The last main suggestion from teachers involved changing the balance on the administrative team by bringing in new people with different perspectives and a unifying spirit.
“[The district] needs to focus on being very thoughtful about who they put in those leadership roles. [They need] experienced people,” one staff member said.
Most resigning teachers have chosen to continue in public education after their departure and will move to a new district.
“We’re continuing on,” Ms. Carter said. “I know it’s a hard time and people are leaving education in droves, but we’re still going to be doing [this].”
Some teachers are moving to schools out of the state.
“I just got hired at a teaching job in Oregon,” Chemistry teacher Mr. Seth Gonzales said. “[I’ll be] moving back to Oregon to be closer to family.”
A few others are retiring or leaving education entirely.
“I think it’s time for me to try something different,” one teacher said. “My main focus is going to be on my daughters. And we’ll just see where that takes me. I don’t have much of a plan.”
Several teachers also left advice for their successors next year, imparting some of their most valuable lessons learned during their time at Westwood.
“You can have the best lesson plans in the world [and] you can be super knowledgeable, [but] it’s important that your students like you,” Ms. Carter said. “Spend a couple of days just getting to know your students because it will absolutely make the rest of the year go smoothly.”
Understanding students and their needs was a common theme among departing staff members.
“We need to keep the focus on the kids and not treat them as paper units,” one teacher said. “Success is built into the student relationships, so if you don’t understand the students [and] you don’t understand fostering their creativity, then the program falters.”
Work-life balance and finding relationships with other teachers were other prominent pieces of advice.
“If you’re not careful, teaching can be like being on an island,” Ms. Cullen said. “Because you [have] your little world and you shut the door. But I think that collaboration is an important part of learning for everyone. Not just students, but professionals as well. Being open to revision and reflection based on relationships with other professionals is important.”
The loss of experienced teachers will leave a lasting impact for years to come. This moment may decide the next decade of academics and classroom procedures at Westwood. As the district begins hiring new teachers, the Westwood community is still processing all the recent changes and how they might affect the 2022-2023 school year.