Ashley Mangone was a teacher at Pittsburgh Public Schools for 11 years until one day she decided she did not want to return. The reason: She was mentally and emotionally exhausted from working in the classrooms.
Mangone is not the only one. Kelly Jane Walker, who had been a teacher in the district for 14 years, left her job this year, citing mental and intellectual burnout.
“I think we are on a decline. And I don’t know if they are going to be able to fix it,” said Walker.
Teacher morale has decreased significantly since the pandemic, according to a 2022 survey of 1,324 public school teachers in the nation conducted by the EdWeek Research Center and commissioned by the Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College.
Roughly two out of five teachers said they were unsatisfied with their jobs. Of the teachers who said they were satisfied with their jobs, the number who said they were “very satisfied” dropped from 39% in 2012 to 12% in 2022.
While the pandemic has deeply impacted the mental health of teachers, some teachers and other educators attribute the burnout and low morale to factors that have long been prevalent in the Pittsburgh school district and many others. Three issues that most frequently emerged in conversations with PublicSource were low pay, lack of decision-making power and the effects of how students are assigned to neighborhood schools.
Pre-pandemic struggles still plague PPS students
James Fogarty, executive director of the A+ Schools advocacy group, said there are numerous structural challenges that can impact teacher morale.
If a student is part of the district, they go to a school based on the neighborhood they live in or can apply to a magnet school. This concentrates students from high-poverty and economically disadvantaged communities with less access to early childhood resources and students with disabilities, according to Fogarty.
“And then we take the teachers who are the least experienced, and they usually get those buildings first because of how the contract allows for teachers to transfer,” Fogarty said. “So as you get seniority, you’re allowed to put in when there are openings in other buildings. So we have more senior teachers located in buildings — not all — but located in buildings that have fewer concentrations of poverty.”
In schools like the Downtown arts magnet Pittsburgh CAPA, about 20-29% of students are economically disadvantaged and only 9% of students have an individualized education program, or an IEP. While in others like Pittsburgh Perry High School in Observatory Hill, over 70% of students are economically disadvantaged and more than 30% of them have IEPs.
“We’re so segregated here,” said Sean Means, a teacher at Pittsburgh Westinghouse Academy since 2014. Some of that segregation is because people with options send their children to other places.”
More than 80% of Westinghouse Academy’s student population is living in poverty.
“With this type of system, the great schools may stay great but the schools that are always struggling will continue to struggle,” Means said.
The district acknowledged its budget deficit and uneven needs, but there are no plans to move children between the schools. Director of Public Relations and Media Content Ebony Pugh said the district’s goal would be to better support schools with higher numbers of economically disadvantaged students.
Could more money for teachers keep them in classrooms?
Enrollment in teacher education programs has been declining for the last decade. A 2022 report by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education said the number of students completing traditional education programs dropped by 35% between 2008 and 2019.
In Pennsylvania, the number of undergraduate education majors has dropped by 66% since 2010, according to the Department of Education.
The declines are significantly hitting high-needs specialties such as math and science and foreign languages.
“Our applicant pools are much thinner than they used to be for particularly teacher positions as well as for paraprofessional or other support staff positions. You can name any employee classification, and we have fewer candidates in the pool,” said Margaret Rudolph, chief human resources officer at Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Educators locally and nationally have said relatively low pay is a contributing factor to more people not opting to teach as a career.
“I think that there’s a lot of things that [educators] do that they don’t get paid for and then when teachers ask for more money, it’s kind of, like, frowned upon,” Means said. “Because it seems like you don’t care about children. I think that people that can go into higher paying professions a lot of times do because the respect isn’t there and money matters.”
Pittsburgh Public Schools is among the better-paying school districts in the county. About 50% of the district’s teachers earned between $90,000 to $100,000 in 2021. It takes about 11 years to start earning the maximum base salary of $99,000.
“You come out of college to make $40,000 at a really tough job with little support and little chance for growth,” Fogarty said. “Why would I do that if I could come out of college with similar education and make $80,000 to $90,000 as a consultant or make it in another field?”
If teachers’ salaries started higher, Means said he thinks colleges would see heightened interest in teacher education programs and schools would see more job applicants. He thinks that while people are aware of the problems, he has seen few efforts to fix them. “I don’t think people address the why… Nobody really wants to change it.”
PPS teachers must go beyond instruction, content
For teachers like Walker, money was not the issue. It was the emotional toll of not being in control amid student behavioral issues that made her leave her job.
“I honestly think it’s such a deep-rooted problem. Nobody’s in control of the school. The principals are in and out all the time. And the teachers are also in and out,” said Walker.
“…I was gonna make six figures. I walked away,” she added.
Esohe Osai, an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education, said that because the education system in Pittsburgh Public Schools is highly segregated by race and income, certain areas have higher concentrations of students with more needs. This results in teachers having to go beyond their role of just teaching.
“Teachers in this day and age really have to have many skills beyond just pedagogy and instruction and content knowledge. They have to have skills to navigate people in ways that I think social workers are better trained to do,” said Osai. The reality of teaching today includes “working with students who may have challenges with just being hungry and coming to school. And so all of those realities can lead to behavioral challenges, can lead to conflict, can lead to heightened interactions.”
Mangone said that as a teacher, she had no say over how to handle these behavioral challenges. Decisions to ban suspensions or how to address students’ behavior, she said, were made by the district board, many of whom have not worked in classrooms.
“When you hear every day the constant struggles that these children are going through, kids having mental and emotional breakdowns — it’s just a 24/7 crazy environment to be in,” said Mangone.
Who leads classroom decision-making?
Teachers like Walker and Mangone said they would have felt more supported if they and the building leaders had more autonomy in the handling of their schools and the students’ behavior.
Mangone transferred to another school district because she did not feel supported by an administrator.
Osai emphasized a collaborative building-level infrastructure that can help teachers feel more supported.
“If we had different support personnel in the buildings who are trained and able to do kind of behavioral supports within the schools, if we had folks in the building whose job was specifically to work with students who were in those kind of crisis situations and provide them with a space to still be in the building, teachers might feel more supported,” she said.
The school district is trying to create a better working environment for its staff. Rodney Necciai, assistant superintendent of the district’s student support services, said they are looking at best practices and Superintendent Wayne Walters is keen on moving intentionally.
“I do think we have work trying to figure out how we’re going to be able to best position the district for the next generation of kids,” he said, “to ensure that we are paid our resources in a way that’s going to best serve students and give staff the capacity that they need to be able to do.”
Lajja Mistry is PublicSource’s K-12 Education Reporter. She can be reached at email@example.com
This story was fact-checked by Aavin Mangalmurti.
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However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.