Kavitha Cardoza, Special Correspondent, WAMU Radio, Washington, D.C. interviewed an experienced District of Columbia high school Spanish teacher. This interview appeared April 3, 2015
Teachers in D.C. schools are under immense pressure to improve students test scores. Their job security depends on it. At the same time, teachers who do well can make tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses. Alli Baugher is dedicated, high-achieving teacher who’s dealing with burnout after just eight years on the job.
Explain what it was like starting at Ballou.
So I remember coming into Ballou my first year this very idealistic, recent college graduate and every year there would be these teachers that would leave and there was always this sense of pride for those of us that had stayed. And even in our first year, when it was just so hard and we were lesson planning till 10-11 p.m. at night and then baking cookies early in the morning for our students and just being ridiculous but we were still like “at least we’re fighting the good fight.” And I always thought it was so funny that in my third year of teaching, I was considered a veteran at Ballou. I was department chair. By my 7th year in a school of over 100 adults working there, there were only 10 that had been there longer than me. And I just found that crazy.
So tell me what happened
I was very confused. I worked very hard, I’d developed a rapport with my students, I had good working relationships with the other teachers in the building, I trust and respect my principal, and I feel really good about the fact that we have this new building, we have just so many exciting things in our future, but I am miserable. Coming home every day crying. I feel like I can barely do anything but collapse on the couch at the end of the day.
And then I started getting panic attacks during school. But I didn’t know what was happening to me and then it started happening more frequently. I was convinced that I could push through it, that I was a lifer, that I was committed to Ballou and to my students. And so over winter break I saw several therapists. I was very mindful of taking time to relax and to re-energize myself so that I could be a better teacher again when I came back.
Because not only was I having these panic attack experiences, I was also snapping at my students, I was losing my patience and it was almost like there was this little version of me over my shoulder going, “What are you doing? Who is that person, that monster, that you’re becoming with your students?” Because its the last version of myself that I ever want my students to see. I didn’t want them to go home, having not felt like I cared about them, that I thought they were wonderful. That I thought that they were really really capable and smart because so often the teacher is the one person that you can guarantee or hope to guarantee is going to tell them something positive about themselves that day.
And in that first week back at school before class even started, actually it was like 8:40 a.m. in the morning, I had just an awful panic attack that I had to go to the ER. I was able to describe this experience and what happened to me to friends and family that every day as teachers, our students are coming into the classroom with all of this pain and anger and they’re coming in hot with all of this stuff going on in their heads. And the only way to respond to that appropriately as a teacher is soaking it up like a sponge and just responding with kindness and patience and love and I think that my sponge was just really full.
There’s a big difference to me seeing you now and when I saw you in the classroom where you were just glowing. I feel a tremendous sense of sadness from you.
I started teaching at Ballou when I was 21 years old. So it was a quarter of my life. If anyone asked me “Who is Ally Baugher?” I would have said “I am a teacher and I teach at Ballou and let me tell you about all of my children.” Losing Ballou was very much like losing my identity. I felt like I’d let my students down, for some of my children just getting to school it was them overcoming incredible obstacles and I was saying, “I’ve had a couple panic attacks and I’m the one giving up.” I was really really hard on myself.
What we often forget is that teacher retention is also important because so many of the best programs in our schools are teacher driven. One perfect example there was a story probably five or six years ago about a teacher at Ballou who started a lacrosse team and it was this big news and everyone was excited about and the students loved it. And then she left and all of the kids came back the next year saying, “Are we going to have a lacrosse program still? Who’s going to do it?” And they were really still excited about this program but it was discontinued because there was no one there to run it.
When you started feeling the way you did, did you speak to your principal? I think DCPS would say they have several programs to retain teachers, you could teach part time and then do a hybrid model of some kind of management, they pay teachers more compared to a lot of urban school districts, they have recognition ceremonies, what about all those efforts?
I think that the focus at Ballou, I felt like was so often on struggling teachers. I did reach out to several admins during the fall, and they were supportive, absolutely were supportive and I don’t fault them in any way for my needing to leave. I think one of the problems in the way that we approach teacher retention, one of the programs you mentioned was splitting time between some more leadership position while also teaching, so often our answer, our response, to teacher retention is moving them into non-teaching positions. We want you to be a teacher/mentor and we’re going to move you into an administrative position or a teacher/mentor position or someone leading professional development, that means that those best teachers are no longer in the classroom. And I think for a teacher retention program to truly work, the goal should be to keep our best teachers in front of students for a full schedule of the day. And that’s the big difference.
I think it’s important to note that this is not a story about Ballou, it’s not a story about DCPS, it’s not a story about me. My story is not unique and I talk to teachers time and time again that say, “I need to figure out how to make this job sustainable because I want to keep doing it and I want to keep working with these children. But, I’m tired.”
When so many people ask me about how I handle my job, they would assume it’s because of these “terrible kids” but they are just wonderful, they are my favorite part of my job, was. Any teacher will tell you that working with children no matter how challenging they are is the best part of my job. I feel like in order to improve teacher retention, there needs to be, especially for teachers working in high-risk communities, there needs to be a very deliberate break where teachers have an opportunity to still work in the field of education as a teacher’s assistant. Right? So that I’m given the opportunity to support another teacher and what they’re doing but don’t have the nightly responsibilities of lesson planning and filling out paperwork and making phone calls and all of those things. But also to reinspire them, to reignite them, to send them back to their schools that same idealistic excited change maker person that I was my first and second year.
Part 2 of this post raises issues of what can be done to reduce such losses to students and the community.