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Marshalltown teachers cite various reasons for uptick in resignations

T-R PHOTO BY ADAM SODDERS
Lenihan Intermediate School saw six teachers announce their resignations from the district in 2019. The same number also resigned from Marshalltown High School and Miller Middle School. In all, 29 teachers announced their resignations in 2019.

The number of Marshalltown Schools teachers who announced their resignations since January is more than double the number of teachers who did the same last year.

In all, 29 teachers have announced their resignations from the district since January, compared to 13 last year and 17 in 2017 over the same period of time. The Marshalltown Education Association noticed the uptick and got feedback from some departing teachers.

“We surveyed people through March, April and May, and we wanted to know kind of in an informal way why they were leaving,” said Brad Weidenaar, Marshalltown High School instructional coach and MEA member.

While the reasons the teachers decided to leave varies for each person, the 17 survey results the MEA got back showed a few anecdotal trends.

Weidenaar said difficult student behavior was a major factor for many teachers to leave the district, as were travel distances and moving because of a significant other. Another contributing factor for some of the teachers was major changes to the district’s insurance plan approved in March.

Sue Walsh, former Lenihan Intermediate School music teacher, said the insurance changes were one of many factors that influenced her decision to leave at the end of the school year.

“I still cover my 24-year-old daughter on my insurance. The cost of insurance and cost of commuting from Ames adds up,” she said. “I want to make it very clear that it is not because I don’t enjoy working with students who are bilingual or come from poverty. I enjoy the opportunities those students present. It is also not because I didn’t feel successful at my job.”

Weidenaar said based on the survey results returned to the MEA, no single issue caused all 29 of the teachers who have resigned since January to leave.

Student behavior

Difficult student behavior was among the many contributing factors to several teachers’ decisions to leave Marshalltown Schools this year, per the informal MEA survey results.

Weidenaar said while dealing with such behaviors comes with a career in teaching, he said many of those who left cited “not feeling like building-level administrators were supporting those teachers dealing with those student behaviors.”

District Director of Special Services Matt Cretsinger said teachers have a tough job when it comes to providing both academic and socio-emotional support to students.

“In every class, there is a group of kids always asking questions, who are always talking, they’re always out of their seats,” he said. “They’re always doing these little things, and over time those little things can really build up.”

In a district where many children deal with pressures and challenges outside of school such as poverty, language barriers, lack of food and more, Cretsinger said those students carry those burdens with them to school, which can feed into behavioral issues.

“More and more kids are coming to us with a variety of mental health needs, and I don’t think that is uncommon based on what you’re hearing across the state,” Cretsinger said. “When you’re working with kids who are having stress reactions, anxiety, emotional outbursts because they’re not sure how to express themselves in a different way, that’s really challenging as well, and that can wear out anyone over a period of time.”

He said the district is using a new approach that trains teachers to work with students having behavioral issues to find solutions.

“The way we tend to describe this to many of our new teachers or people learning about this is think about taking a bottle of soda and shaking it up over and over again,” Cretsinger said. “At some point, that lid is going to pop off and that’s when we’re going to see the behaviors that worry us. So, we need to figure out how to keep them calm so it doesn’t get to that point.”

One key is also for teachers to remain calm. He said when all parties are calm, problem-solving can happen.

“Most behaviors are communicating something to us, and we’ve just had to get better at understanding what they’re telling us,” Cretsinger said.

He said teachers nowadays are tasked with more things than ever, from providing traditional academic learning to helping children navigate socio-emotional learning.

“It’s a lot, it’s really stressful,” he said.

According to student survey results collected in November 2018, many students also feel difficult student behavior impacts their learning.

The survey showed data about weapons and drug use. While the majority of kids surveyed felt safe at school, between 5-7 percent of those surveyed said they had been threatened or injured by someone with a weapon at school or at a school event.

Bullying was also a reported problem for some students, with more than one-third of sixth-graders, nearly half of eighth graders and about a quarter of juniors surveyed reporting they had been verbally bullied. Compared to the answers of students of similarly sized districts, fewer Marshalltown sixth- and 11th graders reported verbal bullying, but more Marshalltown eighth graders reported bullying than their peers at other districts.

About 20 percent of sixth- and eighth graders reported being physically bullied as well, compared to 8 percent of sixth graders and 10 percent of eighth graders at similarly-sized districts.

Insurance changes

The changes to the district’s self-funded insurance plan had an impact on many teachers in the district. The changes included eliminating a low-priced plan and increasing expenses for many teachers while also creating a health insurance system that more closely resembles those of similar districts.

“It was distressing to teachers. Our insurance mirrors, now, what you might get in a business position, it mirrors what you might get in a lot of the larger districts around here, so it’s not a selling point now,” Weidenaar said.

He said the changes may have contributed to driving some teachers away. Meanwhile, the changes did not drive out the vast majority of teachers at the district.

Weidenaar said making such sweeping changes shows a willingness to take advantage of teachers’ desire to serve their students despite difficulties related to pay or benefits.

“That kind of assumes that because you have this moral core that you’re just going to go ‘Oh well, oh shucks.’ That’s just not the case. We’re going to vociferously advocate for ourselves, and why shouldn’t we?”

District Superintendent Theron Schutte said the insurance changes likely did impact some teachers’ decision to leave, but said the changes do not significantly hurt the district when it comes to competing for employees, as district Director of Business Operations Paulette Newbold showed earlier this year.

“Some of them have indicated that benefits or insurance was the reason, but Paulette demonstrated publicly how even what our benefits have been changed to still is above the norm or the average for area and comparably-sized schools in the Des Moines region and the state,” Schutte said. “So, it’s not that we’ve got a bad benefit package by any stretch. And our salary rates up there with the top ones, too.”

He said while the number of overall resignations is up this year compared to 2018 and 2017, a similar amount of turnover happened in the 2015-15 school year, right before he arrived at the district.

“It’s disappointing to have that degree of turnover, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily uncommon,” Schutte said.

Marshalltown Schools leadership, just like public school leaders across the state, have seen relatively low growth in state funding over the past several years. The legislature determines how much additional per-pupil funding schools will get from the state and the governor passes that amount into law each year.

Those funds are used in part to pay school staff and administrators as well as for curriculum and other key educational materials.

Commuting from out of town

Difficulties of traveling from out of town every week day for most of the year is another factor at play when considering a move away.

Schutte also said commuting from out of town can impact employment trends. He said about a quarter of the district’s employees live outside of Marshalltown.

“You always wonder if it’s a case of getting closer to home,” Schutte said.

Teachers are not the only professionals who drive dozens of miles to get to work every morning.

In 2015, about 15,700 people worked in Marshalltown, of which 41.3 percent also live in Marshalltown while 57.6 percent commute from out of town, according to 2017 housing study for Marshalltown and Marshall County.

The study shows more than half of those commuters lived within 10 miles of the city. About 14 percent lived 10 to 24 miles away and 12 percent lived 25 to 50 miles away. More than one-fifth of Marshalltown workers lived more than 50 miles away.

Communities workers come from vary from those relatively nearby, such as Newton, Tama and Toledo to those in the Des Moines metro area.

Marshalltown Schools was listed as employing the third most people in the county, after only Emerson and JBS, in the 2017 study.