In December, Nashua’s teacher, Walt Freeman, took to the microphone to address the town’s school board.
“If I were to write a futuristic dystopian novel, it would start with a deadly pandemic as the backdrop. The schools in my dystopian novel would be infested with violence and apathy,” said Freeman, an English teacher at Nashua High School North. “Hundreds of teacherless students a day would be herded like cattle into virus-filled pens to wait out the day because there was no one available to come and teach them.”
He described fights and acts of vandalism and “bounties” given to teachers while educators are told to “keep swimming” through it all.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have to write this novel,” Freeman added. “We all experience this novel daily – a bizarre and shameful reality.”
It’s a story that several school districts in the state seem to be living, including Keene. This week, the Board of Education asked administrators to use all available tools — including expulsions and suspensions — to fix persistent safety and behavior issues at high school, according to The Keene Sentinel.
Behavioral issues — including fighting, vandalism and vaping — have plagued the school all year. A fight last Friday led to a protest on Monday attended by dozens of high school students and several parents, according to the newspaper. Several students have been suspended.
“The bottom line is that children deserve to be in a safe environment, just like our staff,” SAU 29 Superintendent Robert Malay said, according to the Sentinel. “The tools that this advice gave us have been implemented.”
Freeman told the story of the dystopian novel to illustrate some of the challenges teachers face, while working without a contract. The Nashua teachers’ union and the school board’s bargaining team were at a standstill for several months before the two sides reached a tentative agreement in early March.
The union believes that the endless negotiations have damaged teachers’ morale. But even with a contract, educators and parents in Nashua say schools continue to deal with the effects of a pandemic that has disrupted classrooms across the country, exacerbating longstanding problems in education.
“You add the other layers of COVID-19 and the impacts that they’ve had, the different legislation at the state house that negatively impacts education, and public education more specifically,” said the president of the Nashua Teachers Union, Adam Marcoux, in February. “People have reached an end point where they don’t leave Nashua to teach somewhere else. They completely abandon education.
Diana Greer is one such educator. In mid-February, she resigned from her position as an eighth grade science teacher at Pennichuck Middle School, where she had worked for two and a half years. The school’s other eighth-grade science teacher also left a few weeks before Greer’s resignation, she said.
Burdened by growing behavioral issues in the classroom and the toll of the pandemic on her own mental health, Greer began looking for a new position towards the end of November.
“I often went to speak at Board of Ed meetings, telling them how awful it was and that I was looking for work elsewhere. And I’m young enough to still be able to find work elsewhere; I have a general science degree,” said Greer, who taught for about seven years. “But you know, other people are just waiting for their few years of retirement, or really have no choice but to teach.”
According to the district, 41 Nashua teachers plan to retire at the end of this school year. This is the highest number of retirements in the past five years, with 27 retirements in fiscal 2021, 25 in fiscal 2020, 26 in fiscal 2019 and 39 in fiscal year 2018.
The state also faces severe staffing shortages across a range of pre-pandemic disciplines, including teachers in special education, English language learning (ELL), math, science and social studies. As of March 10, the Nashua School District job board lists more than 400 vacancies, more than 150 of which are categorized as student support services.
“As you know, staffing shortages are a concern not only for us, but for all school districts and schools in the region,” Nashua communications director Stacy Hynes said in an email. “I don’t believe it’s because of the pandemic…staff are retiring for a lot of reasons. I’m sure you’ve seen data that indicates declining enrollment in college education degree programs.
But the pandemic has certainly complicated things. In early 2022, when COVID-19 cases spiked, the district closed its schools for two days due to staffing shortages. And with substitutes equally scarce, there hasn’t always been someone available to cover lessons when school is in session.
At her high school, Freeman said the solution is usually to have students spend those class periods in the auditorium.
“They’d come into the hallway, and they’d spot the sign on the door and their shoulders would slump. And sometimes they just go, ‘Again?’ or they would watch us where we stand in front of our classrooms,” Freeman said. “…and we were shaking our heads and saying, ‘I know – there’s nothing we can do.’ And they trudged back to the auditorium.
The district did not respond to an emailed list of questions about Nashua’s staffing needs, its procedure for covering classes when a replacement is unavailable, or the impact of shortages on the school day for students. students.
It was frustrating for Jamie Cutrona, whose son is in eighth grade at Fairgrounds Middle School, to see teachers fighting for a contract after doing so much work throughout the pandemic. She feels the district and school board could have done more to support their staff during the crisis.
“I feel like they always do their job in their classrooms to the best of their abilities. I don’t feel like it’s diminished,” Cutrona said. “Teachers always do what they have to do, and I’m very grateful for that.”
Likewise, Mother Colleen Jamieson felt there was a lot of confusion and disorganization regarding administration last year, especially as the district prepared for a leadership transition. But she was pleased with the efforts of teachers and school staff throughout the crisis. Jamieson has two sons who attend Main Dunstable Elementary School, one in kindergarten and one in grade two.
“My son’s teacher last year, she was really — I mean, it was like we went through the war together,” Jamieson said.
But that doesn’t mean Jamieson’s children haven’t been impacted by the school disruption. She recently shared a sad moment with her eldest son, who told her he didn’t like group hugs anymore because he learned at school that touching and cuddling weren’t allowed. While Jamieson understands why rules like these are necessary, it was a sobering moment to realize how much his son missed out on his early years of school.
That’s why she would like to see the district focus on “the mental health aspect of everything.” It’s not that they don’t have support – the guidance counselor has been fantastic at Main Dunstable,” Jamieson said. “But I think in general, I think a lot of kids miss that a bit.”
Freeman noted that students have had to give up many of the social experiences associated with school over the past two years, from field trips to clubs and committees to drama productions. For teachers, the impact of these failed experiences is obvious.
“Training through a few years of this for them has been kind of an endless nightmare. Your heart breaks for them,” he said. “And I have to tell you that the courage and the resilience are there. But the same goes for depression, anxiety and sadness.
Greer said her decision to quit teaching was partly spurred by an increase in behavioral issues, noting she was spending longer than ever before breaking up fights. When substitutes were not available to cover absences, she said paraprofessionals, who typically assist instructors and work directly with students with disabilities, were sometimes pulled from classrooms to replace teachers. This made student behavior more difficult for Greer to manage, and she felt there was no clear direction from district leadership to help teachers navigate these situations.
According to President Jennifer Bishop, the school board has received emails from the community about paraprofessionals being removed from classrooms. She said the district recently contracted with a recruitment agency to help recruit substitute teachers, and with COVID-19 cases trending down and mask mandates being lifted, her hope is that such measures will soon no longer be necessary.
Bishop also acknowledges that the mental health and behavioral issues facing schools could discourage potential candidates from applying for vacancies.
“Who wants to hear that on the news and then say, you know, ‘Sign me up, I want to go work in a classroom’?” said the bishop. “I sometimes feel like we’re kind of in a no-win situation.”
One of Freeman’s biggest concerns is that there aren’t many educators “waiting in the wings” to fill these positions. And Greer says many of his colleagues are also planning their exit strategies.
“I know Nashua is not unique in many ways, and many schools face these challenges,” Greer said. “But you know, it gets to a point where, I know I’m making a difference for some kids. But I can’t sacrifice myself for that.
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