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Why teachers are managing more student needs — and struggling to pay for their own

New teacher strikes and walkouts are making headlines this year, but the issues they are raising are familiar. Educators are especially concerned about pay, school resources, growing responsibilities, testing policies and the role of charter schools. John Yang talks to two of the 2016 Teachers of the Year, Nate Bowling and Shawn Sheehan, about challenges and frustrations facing their profession.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The wave of teacher strikes and walkouts is building once again in 2019.

    Just in the past few days, teachers in South Carolina have said they plan to walk out for a day next week. The largest teachers union in Mississippi is considering taking a sick-out day.

    While the strikes started in red states, like West Virginia, they have now spread across the country to cities and blue states too. Many of the issues are the same: pay, spending, lack of support, testing, and, increasingly, the role of charter schools.

    John Yang has a look for our regular education segment, Making the Grade.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, every year, state education officials honor the best of the best in the National Teacher of the Year program.

    Recently, an essay by one of the four finalists from three years ago caught our eye: "The fate of the 2016 Teachers of the Year."

    Today, only two of the four finalists from that year are still in the classroom, and only one is still at the same school.

    Nate Bowling wrote that essay. He is a government teacher at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Washington. And his fellow 2106 finalist Shawn Sheehan is now on a fellowship on Capitol Hill. When that ends, he intends to return to teaching algebra at Lewisville, Texas.

    Shawn and Nate, thank you very much. Thanks for joining us.

    Nate, I want to begin with you.

    And I want to quote something that you wrote in that essay. You said: "Teaching is a profession, and great teachers need to feel respected and empowered. If they don't, they will leave, and should."

    Respected and empowered, tell — talk about that. Why are teachers not feeling respected and empowered?

  • Nate Bowling:

    There's a host of reasons that contribute to the condition of the teaching profession.

    For me, there's three issues. There's pay, there's work conditions, and there is lack of professional respect. And if you look across the country and look at the strikes that are happening and protests, there's upsetness around the country.

    And particularly here on the West Coast with housing costs, simply for a lot of teachers, the pay hasn't kept up.

  • John Yang:

    Nate, you also mentioned — you talked about pay, but you also mentioned work conditions and professional respect.

  • Nate Bowling:

    The conditions that teachers have to go through and we have to work through, I think, for the public are difficult to understand.

    Particularly if you're working in a low-income school in urban area or rural area, the needs of your students are more than academic. So, as a teacher, I end up being sometimes a social worker, a counselor, a surrogate parent.

    And all those jobs take a toll. Like, I love my students and I love the work that I do with them. But the workload we ask students to — we ask teachers to do in low-income schools is unsustainable.

  • John Yang:

    Shawn, you were teaching in Oklahoma when you were a finalist. You're now teaching in Texas. Why?

  • Shawn Sheehan:

    Well, it wasn't an accident.

    During — after I was selected as teacher of the year, I really wanted to advocate for improving teacher pay and making the working conditions better. I actually ran for Oklahoma State Senate, unsuccessfully.

    And after that new election cycle came around, and folks that had campaign on promises of funding public education better didn't make good on those promises, my wife and I decided to call it, and we made the move south.

    By driving two-and-a-half hours south to North Texas, my wife and I gave ourselves combined about a $40,000 raise.

  • John Yang:

    Nearly double your take-home pay, as I understand it. Is that right?

  • Shawn Sheehan:

    Yes. Yes.

  • John Yang:

    And you said — you wrote at the time, you said that teaching in Oklahoma is a dysfunctional relationship. What do you mean by that?

  • Shawn Sheehan:

    It is, because there's kind of that component of guilt. You're made to feel guilty, as if you said, well, listen, going into this job, you should know — should have known that it wasn't going to be lucrative.

    And I said, sure, I knew that it wasn't going to be financially rewarding, but it's also not even financially stable. And so what — our perspective changed significantly when my wife and I welcomed our first daughter.

    Now we have got to consider someone else's future. And now we have got to worry about putting more food on the plate. And that was the game-changer for us.

  • John Yang:

    Nate, you wrote the two of the — I'm sorry — that you were the only teacher who is still in the same place. Jahana Hayes has also left teaching. She's now in Congress.

    And you have got some news. You have made a decision within the past couple of weeks.

  • Nate Bowling:


    At the end of the school year, my wife and I will be stepping away from Lincoln High School, where I have been the last decade. I love my students at Lincoln High School. And I love that school and that faculty.

    But we have chosen to move abroad. And we will actually be teaching at the American Community School in Abu Dhabi next year.

  • John Yang:

    And I heard you talking about this explaining this decision.

    You said one of the things you — that made this decision for you is that you will be able to focus on just teaching in Abu Dhabi. You mentioned all the other roles that you have to fill. How has that changed? How have those additional roles been added?

  • Nate Bowling:

    Too many students in America are going into school without their basic life needs met, and essentially school ends up filling that gap for them. School ends up being a place that feeds them, that clothes them.

    I maintain a drawer in my classroom that has ties, so my students have like ties for job interviews. And so many of the hours that I spend at my school are about meeting my students' needs and, like, taking care of circumstances in their life that prevent their learning.

    I don't actually get to focus on teaching. When I make this move, my job over there is going to be to teach. My students' life needs will be taken care of, and I'll just be able to teach.

  • John Yang:

    Shawn, do you find the same thing, both in Norman and in Lewisville, I mean, things that get in the way of actually directly teaching the kids?

  • Shawn Sheehan:

    Absolutely, yes.

    I would say most folks don't know how many things we educators have to juggle, right? We do have to be, as Nate said, parents and mentors and counselors and handle all these different aspects of the whole child.

    And now even — you know, some folks are even asking us to consider security as part of our job duties, one of which I am — absolutely refuse to do.

    So, it is. It's like continually being asked to do more with less. And at some point, teachers are calling it. And they have made their voices clear. We have seen that in the teacher strikes and walkouts.

  • John Yang:

    I want to get to the strikes in a little bit.

    But you when you moved to Texas, you talked about how it improved your pay, your take-home pay, for you and your wife, who's also a teacher. You got a reaction from a fellow teacher in Oklahoma, who said: "I'm just in this for the students. If you're not in it for the kids, don't let the door hit you on the way out."

    How do you respond to that?

  • Shawn Sheehan:

    Those responses are few and far between.

    It does feel — it's a dig. It's definitely a dig for folks who maybe don't experience the same financial constraints as we do. The fact that my wife and I are — both are educators living off of Oklahoma teacher salaries, that was pretty unique.

    There are a lot of teachers who don't share that same struggle, who maybe their spouse is the primary breadwinner. And, for them, teaching can be a pastime, it can be a hobby. They are not quite as invested in the struggle that educators face.

    But for a two-teacher couple trying to raise a family on those teacher salaries in Oklahoma in 2016, it's absolutely not doable.

  • John Yang:

    Nate, Shawn talked about the teacher strikes, which we have seen a lot of last year and continuing into this year.

    You have been out on the picket line, I think, twice in your career. What's that like for you?

  • Nate Bowling:

    It's a miserable experience to be on strike, because I got into this because I wanted to make a difference in students' lives.

    But what I can say is that we see during strikes that the public rallies to support teachers. We had wide community support. Parents came out and honked horns, brought food to the picket lines and supported us.

    What I see happening in my community is, whenever I make an ask of the community for materials for my classroom or for equipment for students, they're 100 percent behind it. Like, really, the problem to me seems to be state legislators. They're not allocating the funds to districts in order to fund schools at the level they need to be funded to provide wraparound services, to provide social workers , to provide after-school programs that are needed for students.

  • John Yang:

    Shawn, in Oklahoma, you campaigned for an increase in the state sales tax to try to fund increase funding for schools. It lost.

    Given that experience, how do you — what's your read of the public support for schools?

  • Shawn Sheehan:

    The public very much supports public schools. They just don't know how to support it. And, oftentimes, they get lost — the message gets lost in the shuffle.

    Legislators in our state, in my home state of Oklahoma, are great at kind of twisting and bending the message. And so they get confused. And so that was the case that we saw with the penny sales tax. They said, well, listen, you know, it's going to discourage businesses from coming here and setting up shop.

    And our counterpoint was, you know what also is discouraging businesses from coming and setting up shop is underperforming schools and teachers that are vacating the state at enormous rates.

  • John Yang:

    Very quickly, Shawn, you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of teaching?

  • Shawn Sheehan:

    I'm actually very optimistic. I do feel good.

    So I — this year, Oklahoma has taken some steps to provide raises for educators. Just — the governor just needs to sign off on a $1,200 raise. So that'll bring the average up almost by $8,000.

    But the state of Texas is also boosting teacher pay raises. And so they're — the challenge to stay competitive in the region is going to be Oklahoma's biggest battle.

  • John Yang:

    Nate, what about you, optimistic or pessimistic?

  • Nate Bowling:

    I'm optimistic about the profession and optimistic about the near future.

    I think that parents and communities really support schools. It's really about policy-makers in state capitals who aren't doing their share.

  • John Yang:

    Teachers Nate Bowling and Shawn Sheehan, thank you very much.

  • Shawn Sheehan:

    Thank you.

  • Nate Bowling:

    Thank you.

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