A national shortage of teachers and high turnover rates in the profession has made keeping classrooms staffed increasingly difficult for Des Moines area school districts.
In May, Axios reported that Des Moines Public Schools lost 310 of its teachers over the summer due to retirement or resignation, accounting for 11.4% of its educators.
Dr. Todd Hodgkinson, an associate professor of secondary education at Drake University, does not blame any specific district. He says it’s a national problem that isn’t new.
“It’s just a reality, 47% of teachers leave in the first five years, and that hasn’t changed for however long I’ve been teaching, at least 10-15 years now,” Hodgkinson said.
Burnout is a leading factor for teachers leaving the profession, according to Hodgkinson. With large amounts of work outside of the classroom, teachers’ personal time and social lives can be non-existent.
Daniel Nizzi, who has taught at Abraham Lincoln High School in Des Moines for 15 years, experienced these challenges first hand.
“The first thing I did my first year of teaching was get home and fall asleep,” Nizzi said. “Then I’d wake up, grade the previous day’s papers, set up all the materials and lessons for the next day and I would be up until midnight or 1 a.m. regularly.”
Working with hundreds of different students a year, Nizzi and his fellow teachers also deal with unexpected tragedies that occur in the lives of their students.
Nizzi has seen multiple students die during his years in the classroom, which takes a mental and emotional toll on teachers’ well-being. One instance has always stuck with him.
“[I had] a student my first year that, before that year was over, was murdered. Just the emotional shock of having a situation like that – an individual that was in front of you and that you got to know, just all of a sudden gets taken away,” Nizzi said.
With all its complexities, Hodgkinson has seen the profession increasingly villainized for everything from the quality of education students receive to what is included in curricula.
In response to the fear of critical race theory being incorporated into curricula, the Iowa legislature passed a law last summer that bans teaching lessons suggesting the U.S. or the state of Iowa as fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.
“[Teachers are] attacked on a daily basis in the media or by politicians and policymakers,” Hodgkinson said. “Their pay gets cut because education funding has been cut for the last 10 or 15 years. They’re just tired, it’s a busy job, but they’re tired of being perceived as lesser than.”
The Des Moines Public School District has been implementing district-wide plans to standardize classroom learning. A key feature is the removal of the teacher as an instructor.
Instead, they act as a facilitator for questions as students work at their own pace through district-designed curriculums. This shift has been met with anger from teachers in the district who feel they aren’t allowed to do their job, according to Nizzi.
“When I started, there was a lot more trust in the teacher to do the job that they were professionally trained for in college, to do the job you interviewed them to do,” Nizzi said.
Dealing with retention, DMPS has been taking steps to try to prevent vacant positions like offering a $50,000 incentive for teachers reaching retirement to stay.
For now, the district is staying afloat, but the problems in the profession as a whole remain.
“It’s a difficult job that has a lot of complexities that a lot of people don’t see, and it’s really stressful,” Hodgkinson said.