Viral TikTok paves the way for future teacher reforms following the COVID-19 pandemic

TikTok (Photo by Solen Feyissa/Unsplash)

By Emily Pauls, Grace Knoop, Rusty Gorelick, and Venette Simon
Boston University News Service

In a viral TikTok video with over 700,000 views, Samantha Laney, a teacher at Holmes Innovation School in Boston, shed light on the fact that Boston Public Schools teachers have worked without a contract since Fall 2021. 

Teacher turnover rates rose across the country since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has hit Boston Public Schools particularly hard.

“The world, society treated teachers so poorly during the pandemic, that there aren’t any of us anymore,” Laney said. “It’s clear that there is significant trauma in students and staff members that just has not been dealt with.”

Laney says that her school has not seen much turnover, but turnover in Boston Public Schools is “terrifying.”

“The jobs website … will show you all the available jobs [at Boston Public Schools]. It is a terrifyingly long list and it is only April,” Laney said. 

Dr. Elizabeth Bettini, a special education assistant professor at Boston University has done research on teacher shortages, specifically special education teachers. As a whole, she noted that this problem is not a new one. 

“This has been a crisis for years in certain schools and certain domains of education,” said Bettini. 

Although turnover did increase over COVID-19, this does not represent the “feared mass exodus of teachers,” according to “Two Years Later: COVID-19 and the Composition of the Massachusetts Teacher Workforce,” a March 2022 analysis done by BU Wheelock College of Education. The report compares data from the first six months and the first 18 months of the pandemic. 

Teacher turnover rates were “no higher than pre-pandemic levels,” according to the analysis. Turnover only started to increase 18 months into the pandemic, which began to “paint a picture of turnover increases into the 2021-22 schools year.”

“COVID-19 has obviously exacerbated the stressors for teachers,” Bettini said. “I think there has been a lot of change to navigate.” 

From navigating zoom classes, carrying the stress of keeping their classroom healthy, communicating with families during this unprecedented time, and more, teachers are left feeling overwhelmed. 

Students may also feel overwhelmed, and they may take it out on teachers, fueling the turnover cycle. One-third of teachers reported experiencing verbal harassment or a threat of violence from students during the pandemic, according to a National Education Association report. Over 15% of school employees, 18% of school psychologists and social workers, and 22% of other school staff members reported a violent incident.

COVID-19 precautions varied greatly between districts throughout the pandemic, according to data compiled by MCH Strategic Data. Masking policies vary in and around the Boston area, too. Boston Public Schools requires masks for all students and staff, while the Watertown Public School District and Newton Public Schools do not require masks.

Another obstacle teachers have been facing in Boston Public Schools is with their teaching contracts. In her viral TikTok, Laney discussed a meeting teachers had with the district about this issue. 

Samantha Laney’s TikTok went viral, amassing over 700,000 views.

“The teachers of Boston have been working without a contract since Fall 2021,” Laney said on the TikTok. “They believe I should work an extra 90 hours a year for no extra pay … Boston Public Schools would like to remove class size limits.” 

Teachers in Boston have to renegotiate their contract every three years and negotiations can take a year or more, according to Laney. This round of negotiations has been centered around COVID-19 regulations so the conversations around their “baseline contract” have just begun “very recently.”

“Boston Teachers Union has had their proposal for the new contract out for close to a year now, if not a year now, and Boston Public Schools just came out with some counter proposals,” Laney said. “After flat out refusing every single piece of our contract, except for a singular line. They said we can guarantee … that all nurses’ offices will have working sinks and the district said we’ll agree to that but we have to take out the word working.” 

The BTU’s priorities for its new contract include modern school buildings, fully-staffed special education and English learner programs, and fair pay that “allow[s] educators to live and raise a family in Boston.”

The BTU did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The toll of continued renegotiations of contracts combined with the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a trend of teachers leaving their profession soon after entering which could be due to the demands they are facing, according to Bettini. 

“Let’s prepare teachers better,” Bettini said. “But let’s also keep track of what demands we’re placing on them and ensure that they have resources to meet those demands.

During the fall of 2021, early education teachers left in high numbers, according to the analysis by BU Wheelock College of Education.

Authors of the study, Andrew Bacher-Hicks, Olivia Chi, and Alexis Orellana note that if this trend continues, there could be a pipeline challenge in the future. 

“There was this real fear that teachers were going to leave in large numbers,” says Bacher-Hicks. “We as researchers often want to look at the data and see what the data says, rather than, you know, hearing a story or two.”

With the first analysis, released in October 2021, research showed that overall teacher turnover in Massachusetts remained stable over the last five years. In the early stages of the pandemic, teachers — newly hired or not — were generally staying in their positions. Eighteen months into the pandemic, teacher turnover increased by 15-20% according to data from the second analysis. This turnover increase, unexplained by the analysis, has led to concerns about a mass exodus of teachers.

“In the first report, the main conclusion is that there’s definitely no mass exodus of teachers at least six months into the pandemic. If anything, it looks like business as usual,” said Bacher-Hicks. “But then in the second report, given that we found no change really whatsoever six months in, it was a bit surprising to see increases in turnover that should definitely be monitored. It’s certainly not what I would say reaches the mass exodus level.”

According to the March report, turnover increases in Fall 2021 were largest among white teachers and early-career teachers — teachers who had been in their positions for about a year. Since 2019, there has been a 31% increase in total turnover in early-career teachers. If the increase continues, this could potentially negatively impact the teacher workforce in future years.

“We need retention at all points in the career, but especially in that early point, otherwise, you just can’t build a sustained, long run workforce,” said Bacher-Hicks. “These are teachers who were hired during the height of the pandemic and one can only imagine how difficult it is to start a brand new job. It’s going to add a lot of pressure to the job and I think that those high rates of early-career turnover, hopefully, will return to the pre-pandemic levels, as schooling itself returns to more typical pre-pandemic forms of schooling and interaction.”

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