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Portland teacher discusses her decision to resign amid pandemic, staffing shortages

Former middle school teacher Emily Shultz said the pandemic was her tipping point but issues have been building for years.

PORTLAND, Ore. — All week KGW has been looking into the school staff shortages, addressing how we got here as well as possible solutions and answering your questions.

Now, we’re hearing from Emily Shultz, a teacher who resigned this school year.

Shultz had been a teacher for more than a decade and made the difficult decision to resign in October from George Middle School in North Portland.

“Things have really been building. This is not something that happened overnight,” she said.

But Shultz said the pandemic was the tipping point, specifically when she was exposed to a COVID-positive person on the third day of school and had to quarantine at home.

“If I did test positive, at least I would have 10 days to rest. I'd have 10 days to lesson plan. I'd have 10 days to catch up and get a break. And really, at that point, I realized it wasn't healthy for me to continue on in the profession,” Shultz said.

RELATED: Survey shows Portland teachers are overwhelmed and overstretched

However, the years-long buildup to that moment was just as pivotal in her decision to leave.

“Class sizes have continued to grow. When you're teaching, you're often teaching with inadequate supplies, inadequate facilities,” said Schultz. “Curriculums change constantly. Resources are taken away from us. We're given more and more to do with less.”

In addition, during the pandemic, she said students are having a hard time coping.

"Students are very dysregulated. Their attention spans are lower. We're seeing a rise in violence among students,” said Shultz.

Safety, she said, isn't guaranteed and there's just not enough time in the day to do a good job. She said she struggled to differentiate instruction for students, come up with a game plan for behaviors that were preventing learning and in general struggled to keep up despite her more than 10 years of experience. So, teachers often sacrifice their personal time and mental health just to keep up.

“Many teachers, like myself, will spend at least two to three hours a day beyond the school day […] to get work done,” she said.

RELATED: Portland teachers propose 1 self-taught day at home per week for high schoolers

That means many teachers work unpaid overtime, said Shultz. She has colleagues who are resigning at the end of the year or retiring early.

“I also know of future teachers who have decided to no longer pursue that career as a choice. The writing's on the wall.”

Some teachers who love their jobs at a breaking point

As for her teaching career, Shultz said she’s always wanted to be a teacher. When she was in middle school, she said a couple teachers helped her through a tough time. They fostered her love of reading and writing.

“I thought you know what, I’d love to go back to middle school and do that exact same thing,” said Shultz.

But now Shultz, who felt called to teaching, is grieving a loss and missing her students.

“I really felt that I was letting them down by leaving. But I also felt on a daily basis that I was letting them down by what I was able to produce,” said Shultz.

Shultz said but she hopes her story helps advocate for teachers whose voices aren’t being heard.

“There is a lot of stigma surrounding a resignation. Some may see it as no longer caring about students, but I cared too much to continue on – I knew I didn’t have the tools to succeed,” said Shultz.

“Many teachers are at an absolute breaking point. Something needs to give.”

Possible solutions

Looking ahead, trying to fix what made her leave the profession won't be easy. She said the issue is multifaceted.

“To keep and retain teachers, I don't even think raising pay is enough,” said Shultz. “I don't know how to stop the madness because it's gotten progressively worse, more and more piled on our plates, and nothing more given.”

RELATED: Here are some possible solutions to staffing shortages plaguing school districts across Oregon, Washington

One of the things Shultz mentioned could make a big difference: smaller class sizes.

“When you have 28 students in front of you and every one of them has severe academic needs and socio-emotional needs, you know, I can't do the students service in 45 minutes. I have friends that have over 180 students that they see in one day,” said Shultz.

She also advocated for more time for teachers.

Shultz said teaching is a complex profession that involves serving the whole student. Planning to address the varying student needs in one classroom takes time to get it right.

Shultz also said more mental health supports are needed as well.

“We can no longer have a social worker for 1,700 students, a mental health professional for 1,700 students. It's absurd. We're not doing right by kids and teachers are seeing this and we can't fix it,” said Shultz.

She said in her view, lawmakers will need to make changes to system that’s not working.

Portland Public Schools weighs in

KGW reached out to Portland Public Schools. In a statement, deputy superintendent Shawn Bird and chief human resources officer Sharon Reese said in part, "School districts nationally, including ours, are experiencing staffing shortages that have had a significant impact on our educators, students and school communities."

The district said the Portland Association of Teachers requested that the district implement a uniform process for parents who want to volunteer in schools, so district officials are working toward that to help alleviate stress on teachers.

The statement also said that according to district data, it is not yet seeing an upward trend of resignations and retirements.

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