Helen Westmoreland: Welcome to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm Helen Westmoreland
LaWanda Toney: And I'm LaWanda, and you're listening to our, our Teacher Talk, miniseries, where we hear teachers' perspectives on key issues in education.
Helen Westmoreland: That's right. Over the last two years, we've heard a lot of public discourse about teachers. Some folks really grew to appreciate the profession more as they had to dive into a home learning others classed with teachers over in-person learning and safety protocols.
LaWanda Toney: In addition to that tension, the day-to-day responsibilities have changed rapidly, as teachers have been frontline workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It's not surprising that teachers are struggling with burnout and on a more systemic level, schools are struggling with teacher shortages. For example, in response to these issues, school districts in Texas recently made the news for reducing their school week to four days, and they're not the only ones. But is that the best solution?
Helen Westmoreland: That's a good question, LaWanda and I am incredibly excited to welcome Sofia Gonzales today, who will talk to us about these issues? Sofia Gonzales is a high school AP English teacher, college adjunct, and published poet from Illinois.
Sofia serves as a Teacher Fellow with Latinos for Education, Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms and Urban Leaders Fellowship - Washington, DC cohort. She's also the Mentor Director for Edifying Teachers, a nonprofit focusing on creating mentor support system for teachers of color. She is also a virtual mentor coach for incoming diverse teachers, with the Illinois state board of education. Welcome to the show, Sofia.
Sofia Gonzalez: I am so excited to be here. Thank you so much.
Helen Westmoreland: Oh, thank you so much for joining us. So we like to start off just hearing a little bit about our guests and their journeys. So what made you want to become a teacher?
Sofia Gonzalez: Before I entered the classroom, I was doing some non-profit work, within the inner city of Chicago, which is where I live around and where I was born, working with the youth in inner city at-risk programs. And then I eventually went into the classroom as a guest speaker, and it was there where I felt like, man, this is something that I want to do just being in front of students and feeling that energy and just really having an opportunity to pour into young people, I was something that I felt like this is kinda like my sweet spot here. So I entered the classroom a little bit later in life, at 30 years old, but I've been here ever since. This is my 13th year in the classroom.
LaWanda Toney: Well, congratulations.
Sofia Gonzalez: Thank you.
LaWanda Toney: Yeah. My parents were both educators. My mom was a high school English teacher. My dad was a middle school science teacher. And I'd say back then, I don't think they used the term teacher burnout. I don't think they were allowed to. But what do you think about the term teacher burnout and what do you think contributes to teacher burnout?
Sofia Gonzalez: Teacher burnout is definitely a term that resonates with so many teachers across America and probably even internationally. To burn out is almost like this idea of a candle burning at both ends. Teachers have so many hats and they are doing so many things at the same time. I once saw something on social media that said that teachers make as many quick, and fiery decisions as brain surgeons, if not more. And that just really resonates with me. So specifically now, since we're still within the pandemic, teacher burnout is growing at an increasing rate. If you think about what teachers had to undergo within the past couple of school years, it is off the charts.
I remember March of 2020 that Friday, before everything shut down. I remember telling my students, I don't think that we're coming back. And that was a prophetic message that I gave my students and right away all across the globe, we were all just expected to be thrusted into this world of virtual learning. Thankfully, we as educators, now that we're in the 21st century classroom, we have been fortunate enough to integrate a lot of technology. But to flip your classroom, literally within like 48 hours was no easy feat. And I think that teachers were really feeling and are still feeling that extra burden of having to compensate.
And then to top it all off, we were asked, depending on what district, depending on what state, to go all virtual or to go hybrid or to come all back in person. And that really does something to a person's psyche having to jump back and forth between different modes of teaching and learning. And that really put a lot of districts and a lot of students on the margins and exacerbated some of those issues in terms of that digital divide and some of those disparities that districts were facing.
And just a toll on a teacher's mental health. I don't think we talk about the mental health, that, you know, teachers really need to focus on. I think we need to normalize teacher burnout and really that exhaustion that goes into really good teaching. And as I have mentioned, it goes without saying the pandemic has really compounded some of those dynamics that really make a teacher, for lack of a better term, just tired.
Helen Westmoreland: This spring Ed Week did some polling, how teachers spend their time. And I think that they're finding was teachers work in average of 54 hours a week. It's like a pretty big number. How Sofia are you seeing in your schoolteacher burnout? How does that show up? What are some things that you and your colleagues are doing to combat burnout?
Sofia Gonzalez: Yeah, so how it's really surfacing here, specifically in my district within the Chicago land area, is a teacher absences. And seeing that sub sign on the door is sending a clear message to us as their colleagues that, obviously there are different reasons why teachers are absent in any given day, but there has been an increase in teachers not reporting to work due to other issues that they're facing, mental health days, taking care of sick parents and just different dynamics like that. And really just not being able to make it through a school day. And so that's of how, we're seeing not just in our building, but just in so many buildings statewide, that teacher absence and obviously leaning into those teacher shortages, people leaving the profession, mid-year.
Studies are showing that teachers are more likely to quit their jobs either during the school year or at the end of it, even prior to when they were planning or waiting to retirement. And that's what's really putting us in a teacher shortage and ultimately a teacher crisis. That you compound with the demoralization of how teachers are viewed, for so long, we were viewed as superstars and rock stars, but then as of late, public opinion has oftentimes changed on us and has really put us in a position where we have felt like we're not being valued.
How we're dealing with it here, building wide, is really putting an emphasis on some of the best practices that we have been given, in terms of like mindfulness. I do what is called a Feel Good Friday. There's a mindfulness app, that's on my promethium board called Stop, Breathe, Think. And what it does is it walks our students through actual meditation and mindfulness exercises where they stop. and we focus on breathing, we focus on visualization, we focus on gratitude. And what it means to just really stop and identify where we're at. And if we lose focus, we come back to it, focus on the breath and that calm and that relaxation.
And I got to tell you, I didn't think in the beginning that my students were going to like it, I'm like, man, this isn't going to feel easy, but man, they were loving it. They were like Ms. G, cause I go by Mrs. G, in the classroom. They're like, where's our Feel Good Friday. Where's our mindfulness meditation. I'm like, oh, okay. I mean, we had to get to presentations, but do you want me to bring it back on Monday? They're like, yes. And what I've been noticing is that they're really appreciating those brain breaks and quite frankly, so am I.
Helen Westmoreland: Yeah.
LaWanda Toney: That's really, really great. How do you prepare yourself to walk into the classroom every day and have the energy that your kids need from you?
Sofia Gonzalez: Sure. So I engage in my own best practices and I have my own self-care disciplines, that I do not deviate from. So every morning I've been doing this for almost 20 years, I get up and I meditate and I journal and I read something that really inspires me. I'll read a scripture and I'll just sit and I'll meditate and I'll write out what I'm grateful for. I'll say a quick prayer for myself and my students, and that really grounds me. And it really helps me to just center myself, center my thoughts, because I know coming into any given school day is going to be tumultuous, to say the least. Because you never know who's going to be absent, who's in quarantine, who needs to isolate. You have these new issues that are interrupting the learning and the school day that are unprecedented, that we've never had to experience before. So those are just of the things that I'm really passionate about, and it has helped me get through some really stressful school years.
Helen Westmoreland: Oh, those are good best practices. I'm like, I'd have to take some notes on that, no matter what your job.
Sofia Gonzalez: Thank you. Yes.
Helen Westmoreland: So can we as individuals meditate our way out of this crisis? You said we're in a teacher burnout, teacher shortage crisis.
You've talked about things that we as individuals can do, thatteachers, as individuals can do to help alleviate some of the burnout. What are you seeing as some of this more systemic changes that need to be made to address some of the root causes of burnout?
Sofia Gonzalez:. Within the past two years, we as educators, we really had an opportunity to assess and to reassess our professional goals and our teaching journey. So as a Latina and as a woman, I'm at that intersectionality, where I personally have faced many systemic barriers. And I have really been very focused on arming myself with the information that I need. In addition to that, getting a mic in my hand and getting a seat at the table.
I really think that some of these issues that we're facing systemically need some policy impact. So, I'm on a journey to engage this policy and practice dynamic. I consider myself an education activist, because I believe that what I'm doing here is not only political, but it is a form of activism victim and resistance. I teach in a Title One school, and a lot of my students lack those additional resources that their counterparts have. And I also teach in my own neighborhood. So this is also very personal for me. So with that being said, I'm really trying to get into the room with some folks that can actually impact policy and that could actually hear from teachers. I think the time is coming and it needs to come as quickly as possible for teachers to be part of that narrative.
There are so many stakeholders that are making decisions for us as classroom teachers, along with our students and families, and they're lacking that teacher narrative and they're lacking that student narrative. And those are some of the things that I really feel can be part of that change, is to get those authentic, raw and real narratives into these decision-making rooms. So that we could really aim for and amplify these voices that have the stories. I mean, my first five years of teaching, I was teaching in an inner-city school in a gang infested neighborhood in a very, very toxic and dangerous environment.
In the Chicago streets and some of the disparities that I saw, my students, specifically, students of color facing, were just out of this world. I was bearing more students than I felt like I was graduating to gang and to gun violence. We're talking, these kids didn't have registered addresses. Some of them were being picked up by undercover cops coming throwing themselves in my classroom, yanking my kids by the collars. And really thinking about the multiplicity of these systemic issues that aren't limited to the classroom. And just really being a voice for some of the things that I have seen as a teacher teaching in really high needs areas within the field of education and really amplifying some of those needs and really pushing the envelope. And now more than ever, I feel like I have an opportunity, with our current secretary of education, that is really pushing equity with the American Rescue Plan. And just, really pushing some of these issues that I feel are urgent, like teacher representation, like those additional resources to close those gaps, because it's not just about an achievement gap, as much as it is an opportunity gap. And just really providing those opportunities for our students that are often left on the margins to really close in on some of these issues that are really impacting our kids and our nation's school system.
LaWanda Toney: When you talk about your seat at the table and the different challenges that people of color face, what can schools or districts do to help? What do they need to hear from you and others?
Sofia Gonzalez: Sure. I could speak on behalf of the Latinx community, right? Because obviously there are different, ethnic backgrounds, that we could really speak to. But just to speak to the Latinx narrative, which is where I'm nestled in over 90% of the student population is of Latinx descent. Again, just looking at the resources. So this is just an example, we're a title one school, and right now wish me luck, I have an interview with the US Department of Education for their school Ambassador Fellowship, this Thursday and so let's go.
And so, one of the things that we have to bring as an applicant, is a capstone project idea. And I wanted to focus on title one funding, in addition to teacher diversity and teacher representation as one of the priorities for the U S Department of Education, closing that achievement and opportunity gap. And those are some of the bullet points, title one funding reform, and teacher diversity. And one of the things that we can do is, take a look at how these Title One funds are allocated. And having a conversation with my building principal. We spend most of our title one funding, if not nearly all of it on two things, professional development for our teachers and technology for our students. We're a one-to-one school.
Those are two things, right? Two items. I do believe that those are important items. Yes, I do believe that professional development is critical. Although, I can argue that we also need to diversify that professional development. And of course, I want our kids to have technology. We are one-to-one we integrate a lot of technology. Our kids need those devices, yes. But that's it, so, again, even circling back to your other question, why can't we allocate funds towards the mental health of our teachers and students? Why can't we reallocate some of those funds to really talk about teacher diversity and teacher retention?
Why can't we incentivize teachers coming into our district and using some of those funds to incentivize and draw in a more diverse teacher force, which by the way, represents our student population. Within the United States, 26% is of Latinx descent, our student body, and a dismal, 9% of the teacher force are of Latinx descent, that is a huge discrepancy There's something to be said about mirrors and windows. There's something to be said about having a teacher in front of you that looks like you, that could speak your language, that vibes with you that understands your cultural background and where you come from.
And in addition to that, can elevate that and amplify that and say, we don't have to suppress our identities in this space and as a matter of fact, it's your superpower. When I started saying that to my students, they're like, where are you coming from? I mean, they're like, yo, whoa. I’m like, raise your hand, if you could speak Spanish, and like everybody raised their hand. I’m like, you are at an advantage. You're bilingual. Some of you are bilingual, bicultural and future employers are going to ask you, can you speak a second language? So again, really having these conversations, really looking at are our budgets, really getting into those rooms and spaces in places amplifying the teacher narrative, amplifying the student narrative and just speaking truth.
Helen Westmoreland: I want to pick up on what you said about equity in terms of today's conversation around burnout. Could you talk about, some of what you've seen as the challenges for, particularly educators of color, Latinx educators, when it comes to being recruited and retained in a profession. And what are some of the things that we need to roll up our sleeves and, and change when it comes to practice and policy to address those?
Sofia Gonzalez: Teachers of color and even just speaking to the Latinx teacher, right, we experience unique challenges that really requires specific resources. And building to building, state to state. It is obviously clear that we are lacking those unique resources. So one of the things that I am learning with this work that I'm doing with a nonprofit called, Edifying Teachers, as a Mentor Director, just really looking at those unique challenges and really creating a bit of a mentor program and systems that would support tailored specific to those unique challenges. For example, we are often one of the only ones in the room, whether it be a professional learning team, whether it be a professional development session, and we are among the minority.
And I personally do not like that word, we are minoritized, but just for the sake of this conversation, there are not many of us, in the room. And with that comes its own ramifications. Where we often feel like, well, who do we go to? We often feel siloed. We often feel undervalued. We often feel overlooked and sometimes uncomfortable, because some of the conversations and some of them leans into the curriculum that we're teaching oftentimes do not resonate with the teacher of color. And so, it's some of those different dynamics, oftentimes we're asked to translate without compensation.
Helen Westmoreland: I was thinking of that, because I know that happens in PTAs and with parents too, it's like one or two people that you find all of a sudden they're carrying the burden of all of your translation interpretation needs.
Sofia Gonzalez: I mean, obviously of course, for many of us, if not nearly all of us, of course we'll translate and we'll make sure that our Spanish speaking parents or stakeholders understand what's happening in the conversation. But those are just some of the pieces that we really face on a day-to-day basis. Case in point, I'm the only Latina on the junior AP language and composition grade level in my school. And we're looking at a 99% Latinx student population. That can be problematic. And, and gratefully and thankfully I'm in a building where I receive a lot of support and I am nurtured. And I have a school principal he's Mexican and he is a fireball and he is just so great with me. He's like, you're an anomaly and your fireball, and I'm going to support you as much as I can.
LaWanda Toney: So at PTA, we like to focus on the family. We want to get your perspective on what do you think families misunderstand about the teaching profession in general?
Sofia Gonzalez: Sure, as a mom and as a teacher, so coming from that perspective, I think that partnership needs to be a lot stronger beyond parent-teacher conferences and your occasional email. I think that we need to create more opportunities for teachers and parents to come together and join forces and lock in that best line of communication between the parent and the teacher and use it.
I love to stay in touch with my kids' teachers and just even check in and see how my kids are doing. And I would love for parents that are listening to know that we want that. We want more communication with you. We want more interaction with you, and sometimes we need you to meet us halfway. And I think that that would really just solve a lot of the chasms between the classroom and, you know, house door and just kind of bring us closer together because when parents and teachers come together, that is such a strong unit and that could really just increase that student's success by dividends.
LaWanda Toney: Awesome. And do you think that there are things that families can do to help teachers reduce burnout? Are there things that they can do?
Sofia Gonzalez: Man yes. I mean, starting with just sending us, something sweet. Like, Hey, I just wanted to stop by and, , send this message. And there are so many modes in which you can communicate with your teachers., Like there's remind text 101. There's an app. There's email. There's the school phone. There's Google classroom. There's Microsoft teams, just sending us a message, letting us know, you see us and that we're together. And I think that just makes such a difference. So, not being afraid to build relationships with us, I think is something that could be beneficial and it could help that student, that child in the long run. Because then there's that open line of communication. There's that reciprocity of friendship and it really creates more of a team working dynamic as opposed to you know, us just really not staying in contact throughout the school year.
LaWanda Toney: Thank you. I think that makes a lot of sense and I hope a lot of our listeners take some of your advice. Ms. G thank you so much for joining us, we've really enjoyed listening to your insights. Is there one thing that you want our listeners to know or one takeaway that you want them to take with them about this episode, in particular?
Sofia Gonzalez: Sure. I really want the listeners to know that for the most part, I feel like every teacher is doing the best that they can. And, to really continue to come alongside your child's teachers and whatever way that you can continue to show up and continue to support us as we aim to support you.
LaWanda Toney: Do you have any social media handles or places where audience can go to learn more about you and your work, that you want to share?
Sofia Gonzalez: I am co-founder and lead visionary of a non-profit called Project 214. Project 214 promotes education provides resources and improves lives in classrooms both locally and internationally. So I can be a sought after at www.project214.net. That's my website. And in addition to that, I am on Instagram and Twitter, you could find me on IG at Mrs. G _Speaks. And you could find me on Twitter at Mrs.G_p214, as in project 214. I would love to hear from you all.
LaWanda Toney: Awesome. Thank you, Mrs. G and thank you for your time today. It's really appreciate it. And you shared lots of great insight that I think our listeners will love.
Sofia Gonzalez: Thank you, PTA. It was an honor to be here.
Helen Westmoreland: And to those of you listening in at home, thank you for joining us. For more resources related to today's episode, check out notesfromthebackpack.com.