Survey results conducted by the largest educator’s union in Colorado paint a bleak picture of how most educators feel in their jobs.
The Colorado Education Association recently surveyed around 1,600 public educators in the state and found their main concerns were lack of investment in the education system, disrespecting their professional experience and feeling unsafe at work. Those issues were more pronounced for LGBTQ+ educators, who said they felt particularly unsafe existing authentically at work.
Education association leadership members presented the report in a press conference last week they called “State of Education,” mimicking the nationwide “State of the Union,” address.
“Respecting our educators as experts means centering our voices in legislation that affects our work,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, a high school counselor and president of the Colorado Education Association. “We need to be asking our educators who do the job every day what is needed.”
Baca-Oehlert said the COVID-19 pandemic, skyrocketing costs of living with wages that haven’t kept up, an increase in school shootings and politicization of the classroom have all pushed teachers out of the profession.
Most survey respondents pointed to low pay as their primary reason for leaving the profession. An average teacher’s salary in Colorado is about $60,000, the report states, which is 35% less than comparably-educated adults. The National Education Association also reported Colorado ranks 49th in the country for paying its teachers a liveable wage.
Dave Lockley, educator and president of the District 12 Educator Association, said his district in Westminster currently has 40 vacant paraprofessional and educator positions, meaning teachers are stretched even thinner trying to fulfill roles outside their job description without pay matching the extra work.
“Every time we’re missing one of these key cogs in the larger machine of education, it means our students don’t get the education they deserve,” Lockley said. “We’re asking our educators to sometimes do double the amount of workload that they’re doing and they’re falling off and leaving at an unprecedented rate.”
Twenty-one percent of survey respondents said they considered leaving education due to politically-motivated attacks on their curriculum or themselves.
“Especially as social studies teachers and across the board with educators, we try to present a variety of perspectives for kids so they can learn, be effective problem solvers and be critical thinkers,” said Kevin Vick, vice president of the Colorado Education Association and a teacher in Colorado Springs. “What we’re seeing on an increasing basis is educators getting harassed over and over again for not supporting one particular viewpoint in the classroom.”
Teachers in the LGBTQ+ community reported higher levels of concern than their cisgender, heterosexual peers. According to the survey report, 85% of LGBTQ+ educators reported not being “out,” at school, and 80% reported working in a school without gender-neutral restrooms.
Additionally, 40% of LGBTQ+ educators said they had witnessed or heard about students being harassed or discriminated against, and 45% said if their school engages in equity work, they are not asked to be involved in such work.
Several education association leadership members said LGBTQ+ teachers being mistreated is an issue both for the teacher and for LGBTQ+ students, as students gain a perception of the “real world,” at school.
“It’s important to understand that these statistics of how welcome or unwelcome our LGBTQ educators feel at their schools provide a mirror of how our LGBTQ students feel at their school as well,” Baca-Oehlert said.
The 2022 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey also told a dismal story for LGBTQ+ children: around 20% of gay, bisexual and lesbian youth reportedly attempted suicide in the last year. The number was higher for transgender students at 26%.
“I think it also sends a message to the students in that building that if the educator isn’t accepted, what does that mean for me, as a student,” said Kasey Ellis, counselor and president of the Cherry Creek Education Association.
As American public spaces are plagued by gun violence, 67% of respondents reported feeling “very” or “somewhat” worried about a mass shooting at their school. While some politicians have proposed increasing school security and arming teachers with guns, most respondents said carrying guns would make them feel even less safe. What would help increase feelings of security, 39% of respondents said, is increased access to mental health resources.
While the state legislature convenes over the next several months, education association members said they hope legislators prioritize affordable housing, higher teacher’s salaries, education licensing, educator working conditions and mental health for both students and teachers.
“Though Coloradans often pride themselves on being progressive and championing inclusion, our state’s budget on education tells a different story,” Baca-Oehlert concluded.
This story is from Rocky Mountain PBS, a nonprofit public broadcaster providing community stories across Colorado over the air and online. Used by permission. For more, and to support Rocky Mountain PBS, visit rmpbs.org.