Several former Bayfield Middle School teachers and staff members cited high stress and little support from administrators as central reasons for leaving the school, which has faced fierce turnover this year.
Five teachers and staff members left Bayfield Middle School in October alone, which was announced at a school board meeting Oct. 25. And from January through August, 11 teachers resigned and two retired.
Former teachers said they were tasked with long hours, felt school administrators made decisions that put their health in danger during the pandemic and were unresponsive when concerns were raised. The 11 teachers who resigned earlier this year represent a 59% turnover rate among the teaching staff.
Alex Meisner, a former sixth grade social studies and English language arts teacher at Bayfield Middle School who left the school in August, said his biggest reason for leaving was a lack of teacher support by the district administration.
“It was apparent that building and district leadership did not care much about what teachers thought, or they weren’t seeking their input in pretty much any type of decision-making,” Meisner said in an interview with The Durango Herald.
Meisner, 28 and an alum of Fort Lewis College, taught at the middle school for two years and now teaches at the Roaring Fork School District in western Colorado. The COVID-19 pandemic brought many changes to school operations, which Meisner said is understandable, but teachers were expected to adapt with little support, he said. The job is taxing in general, Meisner said, but this situation caused more stress than usual.
“When it’s something that you don’t have a say over and yet it absolutely impacts us very directly, I think that was an unnerving combination of feelings,” Meisner said.
For example, teachers were told to open classrooms 20 minutes earlier than normal to avoid large crowds, Meisner said, even though large crowds would form at lunch. When teachers asked the administration to forgo the staggering, staff members were told the administration didn’t want to change the schedule for the parents. That added an hour to the teacher’s schedule each week.
Communication between the administration and teachers is lacking, Meisner said. While he was never reprimanded, Meisner witnessed many teachers get in trouble for their teaching style with little warning.
“There were a whole lot of new teachers this last year, and I think there's even more this year,” he said. “And rather than a guiding hand showing how to manage the classroom best to create a culture that was helpful for learning ... teachers were just reprimanded as opposed to actually be shown, ‘this is how we would like you to do it.’”
Expectations of teachers at Bayfield are unclear, overall, he said.
“The general idea is that we aren’t quick to judge students, and we don’t just expect them to know things and be able to do things without being shown how or … given some guidance,” Meisner said. “So I think it’s ironic when we treat our peers, our professional staff, almost opposite of the way that we know, scientifically, is best to treat the kids.”
Because of the national substitute shortage, teachers were often forced to cover each other’s classrooms during planning periods as well, Meisner said. Teachers were expected to be unrealistically flexible, he said.
In November 2020, Meisner and about 40 other teachers drafted and signed a letter asking the administration for the middle school to return to remote learning because of a spike in COVID-19 cases at the time. But those concerns were ignored, Meisner said.
“Anytime that teachers were trying to let district leadership know how we were feeling, we were either ignored or shut down,” Meisner said.
Several other teachers who recently left the middle school attested to similar issues, but they declined to speak on the record, saying they have spouses, family members or children still working or attending Bayfield schools, and feared repercussions.
One former teacher cited student behavior as a reason for leaving and the administration provided little guidance or support in addressing the issue. Most of the students were there to learn, but a handful would consistently disrupt with little punishment, the teacher said.
Another said the administration would listen to parents rather than teachers, especially when it came to reopening the school. The teacher felt powerless in the classroom, the person told the Herald.
Kira Wennerstrom, a candidate running for the Bayfield school board, said she’s surprised teachers haven’t gone on strike.
“Teachers aren’t even allowed to speak about what’s happening to them for fear of termination,” Wennerstrom said in an interview. “I can’t even believe what’s happening.”
Bayfield Superintendent Kevin Aten said he plans to address the workplace culture and sit down with teachers and staff members in November and December. There will also be a statewide survey this spring to better gauge what needs to be addressed, Aten said.
“This is a very difficult year for educators across Colorado and the nation. There’s just no other way to say it,” Aten told the Herald. “It is complicated and things do change quickly.”
Teachers are also paid an additional one-seventh of their salary when taking on extra classes and covering for colleagues, Aten said. The school is still one core teacher short, Aten said.
“I overwhelmingly acknowledge how difficult this is to be able to do that,” Aten said. “But also we went out at the beginning of the year and said, ‘We know it’s going to be a tough year.’”
Aten said he doesn’t recall the letter from teachers in November 2020 asking for a return to remote learning, but he said the decision to continue with in-person learning was a “difficult decision.”
“That was not a popular decision,” Aten said. “In-person learning was best for our children.”