This story is part of (DIS)Invested — a longterm Reader investigation into Omaha’s inequities.
Editor’s note: At the time this story originally published in The Reader‘s June print issue, the Omaha Public Schools district had not allocated ESSER, or Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, funds toward teacher pay. The online story has been updated to reflect the district’s June 1 announcement of a proposal to offer two-year stipends for all staff members funded with ESSER relief money, pending OPS Board of Education and bargaining unit approval.
Adam Byers didn’t have “a fraction of the support” he feels he should have had as a first-year teacher in his Omaha Public Schools classroom this year. That’s why he’s resigning from the district, he told the Omaha Public Schools Board of Education, Superintendent Cheryl Logan and a room full of OPS staff and community members May 16.
“A single school year in this environment has destroyed the 20-year-long love I held for teaching,” Byers said, speaking into the microphone at the Monday night board meeting. “I have never experienced such a toxic work environment in my life.”
Byers is one of 497 teachers the district projects to resign by July 1, according to OPS data that has been revised since the Omaha World-Herald reported 585 teachers were set to resign. OPS officials project approximately 230 certificated positions will remain unfilled across the district in August and anticipate the number to adjust as the district continues to hire qualified staff.
The departures aren’t just occurring in Omaha Public Schools. More than 1,250 teachers are leaving metro-area districts, reported the Omaha World-Herald. For months, masses of teachers in public schools across the country have said the pandemic was pushing them to leave the profession sooner than planned, according to a survey conducted by the National Education Association, a national union representing nearly 3 million educators.
The compounding challenges of covering for colleagues during staffing shortages and caring for students’ behavioral and mental health, all while trying to teach lessons, has many teachers feeling burned out, including those resigning from the OPS district.
As the largest and most diverse public school district in Nebraska, OPS identified recruiting and maintaining highly qualified staff members as a top priority in its strategic plan before the pandemic. But while training programs and other initiatives are strengthening the pipeline of future teachers, many current teachers say they need more support from the district now.
“Morally, I can’t do this anymore”
One teacher feels he barely got to teach his English-language-learner students English this year. As some of his Hispanic high schoolers struggled with truancy, food insecurity and mental health after deaths among peers and their families, he felt ill equipped to truly address the issues impacting them.
“I left because, morally, I can’t do this anymore,” he said. The teacher spoke to The Reader on the condition of anonymity, since the district has not authorized him to speak with the media. “I’m not a mental health therapist; this is actually malpractice,” he said. “I need to teach them their language.”
Omaha’s Latino community was one of the most heavily impacted by the pandemic, according to reports by the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Office of Latino/Latin American Studies (OLLAS) and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Meanwhile, concerns for both student and staff mental health are alarmingly high across Nebraska schools, according to a statewide survey by the Nebraska State Education Association.
“I can’t keep coming in every day, ignoring the fires that are everywhere, and then being told that I’m not doing my job good enough,” he said.
He isn’t alone. According to a survey of 700 OPS teachers sent out by the Omaha Education Association, 68% said they do not “feel valued as an employee and professional by the district administration,” while 61% said they do feel valued by their individual school.
When the survey was sent out to the OEA, no resignation numbers had yet been reported, said Robert Miller, OEA president. The number of teachers leaving is an indication of larger issues left unaddressed, he said.
“This is the outcome when staff doesn’t feel valued, or supported or heard — they turn in their resignation,” Miller said.
Superintendent Logan said in the same May school board meeting that while recruiting and retaining future teachers is critical to strengthening the district long-term, she recognizes more solutions are needed to address the challenges impacting current staff.
“We acknowledge the lived reality of our staff, and while we are leading nationally and developing future talent, it does not fill every position tomorrow,” Logan said. “We will rise to meet the challenge and the need together.”
District Proposes Stipends Through ESSER Funds
One such solution may be on its way for OPS staff members.
On June 1, district leaders announced a proposal to offer two-year stipends for all staff by harnessing ESSER, or Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, funds provided by the federal government during the pandemic. If approved by the OPS board of education at a meeting Monday, all full-time staff would receive $4,500 and part-time staff working 20 or more hours a week would receive $2,250 per school year in 2022-23 and 2023-24.
“It is heartening to see a response from the district,” said Michelle Settlemyer, incoming OEA president. Still, Settlemyer said, more must be done to support teachers.
“We hope this is a harbinger of things to come in the form of real listening and working together to improve compensation and teaching and learning conditions for the staff of Omaha Public Schools,” Settlemyer said. “Our students and their families deserve nothing less.”
The decision to allocate some ESSER funds to teacher pay comes after a school year of teachers feeling overworked and underpaid while covering for their colleagues throughout the pandemic.
In September 2021, the OPS Board of Education allocated the district’s $280 million in ESSER funds. Student and staff well-being remain one of five areas of focus in the allocation, along with teacher recruitment and student academic programs. Money for the proposed staff stipends will be taken from funding the district previously allocated for infrastructure needs, Superintendent Logan said in a press conference June 1.
While the stipends are welcome news to many struggling teachers, the money is only available for two years. The need for a permanent solution still exists.
State Sen. Lynne Walz, who chairs the Nebraska Legislature’s education committee, told The Reader teachers across Nebraska deserve and need to be paid more, without a doubt. It’s an issue she wants her committee to explore further.
“We really need to elevate the profession of teaching again,” Sen. Walz said. “How we go about increasing pay for teachers is something we’re going to continue to work on and continue to research.”
While no new legislation passed in the 2022 legislative session regarding teacher pay, lawmakers did pass LB1218, which eliminated the requirement to pass a basic examination in order to apply for a teacher education program, offering a more holistic assessment instead. It also adopted the Teach in Nebraska Today Act, which will give new teachers $5,000 a year for up to five years for student loan assistance.
Empowering Young Teachers
While it’s too soon to say how many new teachers will be recruited and retained through the new legislation and stipends, OPS says some existing programs are already helping those who want to grow in the profession.
Fabricio Hernandez teaches fourth grade at Chandler View Elementary, an OPS school in Bellevue. He said he first realized he could be a great teacher in high school when he tutored his Bryan High School soccer teammates.
Now three years into teaching at OPS, he plans to participate in LAUNCH, a year-long leadership development program that aims to strengthen teachers who want to pursue leadership roles with OPS in the future. The support from the program fits into his long-term goal of working in the administration.
“I want to make the biggest impact I can,” he said. “That’s why I love OPS, and that’s why I stay in OPS, because I want to inspire and motivate those kids that look like me.”
Although staffing shortages and the burnout hitting some of his colleagues are very real issues, Hernandez said positive moments happening daily in his classroom reinforce his passion for teaching.
“I’m seeing a lot of growth in my students just being here day in and day out,” he said.
Nebraska’s universities are also removing barriers to get passionate future teachers the experiences they need to grow.
Andrea Reyes was a senior at Omaha South High School in 2020 when she opened an email congratulating her on being selected for the Teacher Scholars Academy, a program of the University of Nebraska system that has cohorts on campuses statewide.
The program affords students up to 120 credits of in-state tuition per year, partial room and board and funding for books and fees, according to its website.
“I called my mom immediately, and I’m like, “Mom … I got the full-ride scholarship,” Reyes recalled. “Now she’s crying, and then I’m crying.”
Reyes is a first-generation sophomore at UNO. Although she’s open to working in any metro area school district after graduation, she’s already spent multiple semesters observing and co-teaching in OPS schools through the program.
“I have a lot of pride as a former OPS student,” she said.
Gerry Huber, who leads the Teacher Scholars Academy at UNO, said 66 students are currently involved in UNO’s program, which has a 96% retention rate.
Since the TSA began in 2019, there’s yet to be a graduating class of scholars working full-time in schools. The first cohort graduates next spring and will start working full-time in schools for the 2023-2024 school year — although many of the students already work part-time as paras and substitute teachers in metro area districts, according to Huber.
“(Students) leave here with a network of peers that they can always rely on and turn to if they have questions,” Huber said.
TSA students also work with community members and nonprofits in neighborhoods they teach in. In one class, students spent part of the semester working together with fifth-graders in an OPS elementary school to learn about the history of redlining in Omaha neighborhoods and how it has shaped communities today.
Although the recent teacher departures are concerning, Huber is hopeful for the future when she works with her TSA students.
“I continue to learn so much from the students, as I watch them grow into the wonderful educators that I know they will be,” Huber said. “They’re resilient, and they’re going to take that with them into their classrooms. Our students just give me hope that we’ll be OK.”