Today, Ali and JoDee are chatting with Rachel Watanabe Tate, a learning specialist with a focus on autism and behavior. She has over 12 years experience working in both public and private school systems. In this episode, they will be discussing ways in which school systems can retain teachers, how teacher pay is a localized issue, and transitioning from the classroom to different careers.
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Teachers are natural innovators, entertainers and problem solvers. They dream of growing old into the profession, teaching their kids kids. But sometimes career goals shift or change, and that makes opportunities outside of the classroom seem intangible questioning who am I, if I'm not a teacher? I'm your host, Alexandra Simon.
And I'm your co host, JoDee Scissors.
This is The Great Teacher Resignation.
Today, we're joined by Rachel Watanabe-Tate. She is a learning specialist with a focus on autism and behavior. She's worked in education for over 12 years in both public and private schools. Thanks for joining us today, Rachel.
Thank you for having me.
So we're looking forward to our discussion with you today because you bring a wealth of knowledge from both public and private education, specifically within special education. So what can we do to retain teachers? And why is this important to the special education community?
I think one of the things that special education teachers wor k very hard in everything that they do, and they do their best to be effective. However, at the same time, there's so much paperwork, and your caseload constantly grows and grows and grows without a maximum number that can legally be put on teachers in order to teach. So I think one of the key steps in order to retaining teachers, especially not to burn out, would be offering them the resources that they need in order to do what their job strictly is and just to teach. By taking away and removing some of the paperwork by having a administrative assistant or one of the paraprofessionals be taught how to complete the paperwork. And give the ability and that space for the teacher to step back and to just do their job and to teach the students, especially because of the years have gone on, I've only seen case loads get larger and larger and larger instead of smaller and smaller and smaller. And that way, the teachers would actually have time to dedicate to their students in order to meet all their service hours they have to legally meet when a child has an IEP that's in place. The second thing that I could think, to really offer to teachers, in order to retain special education teachers is incentives, whether it be financial, childcare, public relocation cost. Teachers don't necessarily, they're not paid as much as they should be. And I think we can all agree to that. And one of the things you know you find yourself is that you have a really tough job. But when it comes to just the ability to be able to live, especially if you are in the DMV area, we need to be able to meet teachers where their salaries really should be. And so I think if there is such things, or they're just different incentives for them to come in to teach in specific counties, then they'll come and they'll stay there. Because they want to be in that area where their school system is in which they're teaching at.
I know in the news lately there has been a huge discussion about teacher retention and how there are teachers out there, but teachers are in record numbers not applying for jobs. They're not applying for certifications. And that's going to impact students. And so this issue, especially in our local area, honestly, it's nationwide. Those are really big concerns. You know, I read those and I... it makes me have a stomach ache thinking about one, why teachers are not wanting to go? And that's a problem. And how our systems going to address that issue? I'm thinking about how professional development is coming up for new school years. What are they doing? What are they saying to their teachers to make them want to stay? What changes are they specifically making to foster like healthy environments, flexible environments, well paid environments? What are people actually doing? Because as we've seen in the past, that a lot of these hot topics and education get talked about, but there's no action. And so what I would really like to see is actual things like you're mentioning.
Yeah. So one thing I kind of just wanted to speak on for a second was you had mentioned that in great numbers teachers are being reduced. One of the things I just wanted to hit on, especially with special education community is you know, I came back to school last year and I didn't necessarily have an idea of what bringing back an entire student population would be like. And I was at a private school during the pandemic, and we were open for our little kids, but for our middle schoolers and high schoolers, we only started school in March and April for some of them. And they were scattered. So they were only coming back a couple of times a week. And some of them chose not to come back at all. So when we walked into our school year, I went in with no expectations, because I didn't know what the school year was going to be like. And I think I had somewhere in the back of my head, this expectation that it would never be as bad as it was in COVID. And I was completely wrong. Being involved in the public school system, like I had been for the past year. I serve as the Montgomery County Council Special Ed chair, which is I'm was in charge of getting together the 206 schools there, special education committees for their PTAs, and providing services and just knowledge about special education settings, as well as teaching special ed last year. I have never felt more overwhelmed, and I think a sense of like sadness in my career, after coming back into the pandemic. And I did not realize what an effect it had truly on our like, not necessarily on our little kids, but on our tweens and on our teenagers. And it was such a heavy year, I feel like I was running around most of the year with like my hair on fire. And just trying to put out one crisis after another because there was so much social, emotional, physical, and things that just went on, that you just couldn't fix after coming back from the pandemic. And what the kids went through is going to take a long time to fix. And teachers are just overwhelmed. And so one of the things that I think that's a great incentive that made me want to stay at the private school that I'm at, is they offer for my children to come to school with me. My children get free before and aftercare. We have a nine week summer camp program that they get to go to for no cost at all. And when I have certain professional development days, or if I have new teacher orientation week, we also offer free childcare as well. And that is something you can't put a price tag on because my children are right next to me. Talk about convenience, right? Because it's a huge sense of convenience when they're on the same property I'm on. And as well, they are in a safe, healthy environment in which they can thrive and get a lot of attention from adults. Because it has the ability to be a small school. And I think one way you could help to retain teachers, or even recruit them, especially in that field, is we talk about childcare a lot, for those of us that are mothers, is offering a stability for childcare. Maybe for our kids to go to school with us. So we're not Those financial incentives to really help teachers, especially special education teachers. I know in some charter schools, those teachers get bonuses if they take on an extra caseload, or if they are a service coordinator of some type. Those incentives that are meaningful and can financially be beneficial to help you also just to help your overall wellbeing, truly do mean a lot to us. So I think that would be a great way to help retain the teachers you already have, but also incentive for new teachers to come on board.
There's a lot to unpack there that you shared with us, Rachel. And I think I'm going to start with really what you described during the pandemic for the students. And also how you felt about supporting these students as their educator. What you didn't say, but I'm going to read between the lines is that all of those things that those tweens and teens are going through as adults, as educators, we also went through them. I heard from some of my closest teacher friends, that last year was actually the worst year ever. It was the most difficult year ever. Because the first year when we started phasing students back in from the pandemic, there was a there was a lot of attention. There was a lot of support. There was a lot of concern. And then all of a sudden you expect everyone to go back to business as usual. But it wasn't business as usual. And yes, I do think that there are more supports out there for young people right now. I've seen a lot of trainings, a lot of webinars, a lot of resources, a lot of programs, COVID relief money that's going towards schools. But what I don't see is who's taking care of the teachers? Who's supporting them? That they just had probably the toughest year of their entire teaching career, whether they've taught for three years, for five years, for 25 years.
That's a great question. And I have to completely agree with you. Last year was the hardest year I have ever taught in my life. And I have taught kids for majority of my life that are severe to profoundly disabled and I considered that a feat in itself. But last year was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I am not a crier of any capacity. But there were times where I would literally just go into my office and just have to cry because the emotional toll that it took on me in order to keep myself together for my students. And to keep them healthy and them going, meant that I had to always have it together and present, like, I could keep calm, cool and collective. But that wasn't...I don't think the scenario for a lot of teachers. We didn't know what we were doing. There is no handbook. There was nothing written. And we were all flying by the seat of the pants. And like you said, it's like, we're gonna go back to business as normal. But we shut these kids in their houses for almost a year and a half. And that year and a half of development, that they didn't have access to their community and to their peers. It really showed. And the world expected them to, you know, like, make these gains and not be behind in any sense. And to really have, you know, made a leap forward within a year. And I was like, no, that's, we should be backtracking a year. And every kid that's like a rising first grader, should be on a rising kindergarten level. And every 11th grader should actually be on a rising 10th grade level. Because you can't assume that the masses actually took in that virtual education. And also that social, emotional, pivotal time for them to grow in which they didn't have access really, outside of their homes, or they were left at home a lot alone because their parents had to work. What strategies could we, should we, what did we put in place in order to make it successful? And we really couldn't, because we had no idea what we're getting ourselves into. And I can't imagine how overwhelmingly large high schools felt. I teach at a really small high school where it was manageable, because we have a small population of kiddos. But what I really feel is for the teachers that are inside the giant public school, high school is what they had to go through and what they had to carry. And that is a great question like, what are we offering to teachers in a social emotional capacity to help hold space for us, when we almost want to break? Because it's so much on our shoulders as well.
I just have to say this, I really don't want this school year to be business as usual, either. Because that also means, in this really challenging year that just passed, and we did business as usual, it did not work. So this is what makes my gut wrenches that when we go into this year, will there be change?
Well, and I think to your point, JoDee, and really what you said Rachel earlier, a lot of the policies, a lot of the things that get put into place for educators, they're very reactive, right? So okay, now we don't have enough people to fill these teaching roles. Well, we're just going to lower our standards, you don't have to have a bachelor's degree in some states now to be a teacher. That's not the right solution. We need to be proactive. We need to get in front of this and say, okay, this has been very difficult, we know we're going to lose people. What can we do to keep the people that we have? Because I can say that you Rachel, as a veteran educator, you hold a lot of value. And I would not want to lose someone like you on my team. Because those years of experience that you have, you can't put a price tag on that, right? And working with the population that you work with, of severely disabled students. I mean, you can read a lot of textbooks, and you can learn a lot of information about how to work with special needs students, but you cannot get what you get in the classroom from a textbook and from your real world experience as a teacher. Like I know, I learned so much more being in the classroom than I did when I was preparing to go to the classroom. So I just think we have to really be careful with what we're giving up when we create policies that are reactive. That are just trying to get people in those seats or in those classrooms. Instead of being proactive and saying, what's our long term plan? How are we going to support these teachers now in this school year? And then the future school years? Because like Rachel said, those gains, students don't just magically gain a year's worth of knowledge in a few months. So I think we have to look at it for more of the long term and where are we going? And it's just difficult because we are in a crisis right now.
I think one of the great things that Montgomery County was doing and has been doing is the ability to look forward 20, 30, 40 years where they have this act that they wanted to put into plan, but it didn't pass which was called the Thrive Act of Montgomery County. And it's really building affordable housing for everybody but also for teachers that are able to stay in the county in which they teach. And something that I find that would have been great is that if Montgomery County had incentives for teachers to afford housing and own or even to rent, it would be a more feasible sustainable career to have. But when you are paying for your rent or your mortgage plus food and childcare and a car note, and all those things that come into life, we have been priced out of the county that we live in. So really looking at those incentives of what the teachers need, by building partnerships with whether it's current childcare providers that could provide through county funding money with the public schools to offer free before care and aftercare for teachers, or paraprofessionals or those people that are working in the school system that leverage to help them stay. Also helping them pay back student loans, and just putting them through the process of how they pay back student loans. I recently just got my student loans paid off by the federal government. But that process, I had to go through on my own. I had to walk step by step and figure out how to do it, which honestly, is really time consuming and takes a lot of effort to do it. And it's a lot of paperwork. But if local school systems taught the teachers step by step by step, and at the end of the day, it was literally just filling out two forms and was like, here's the two forms, fill these out, and we will get you through so you can get your student loans forgiven. That's another thing teachers have to worry about is their cost of payment back that you're constantly planning out each month. So what are some saving plans that you can get that also help teachers as well? There's so many different things that we could be doing that I don't know if we are doing in all public systems around us that I wish we would be doing to really help sustain, like the livelihood of teachers around us.
Well, and I think you're right there, Rachel, that this is really a localized issue. Teacher pay, it's a local problem. Because some school districts do pay competitively in the Northeast or even other parts of the country. But there's other areas where that's not the case. I'm in New Orleans, and they just put forth a new option to give teachers who are homebuyers additional funding. So there are some local solutions that are being proposed. But I guess the question is, what can we do on a greater scale to encourage these types of local solutions to provide even like a roundtable? I just think so many individuals really don't understand the trials and tribulations that educators have. And that's why JoDee and I started this podcast, because we wanted people to know.
Ali, I think you're spot on that it is a localized issue. You know, when you bring up Montgomery County Rachel, and it's one of the highest paid school districts in the nation. But what is that in relation to cost of living? You know, we live in one of the most expensive areas in the nation as well. So is that really a solution? And it also ties educators into not wanting to move along because it is higher paid. And so when they try to make a career pivot or a career change, it bogs people down where they can't, because they can't go to a surrounding county because they're not going to get paid enough. And so a lot of educators feel restricted in certain parts of the nation because of what they make or what they don't make.
I think you're absolutely right. One of the things that I really have struggled with as an educator and from already finishing my degrees, and someone who's not gonna go back to school is I majored in special ed for my Bachelor's. I majored in special ed again for my Masters. And then I created this niche where I have experience, specifically in autism and behaviors. However, if I wanted to pivot in my career, it's kind of like I pigeon holed myself. Where, what else am I gonna do? And I genuinely have asked myself, like, when I've tried to look at other jobs, or get out of the game, basically, my question is, where do I go? I listened to your other podcasts about the scrum master. And I was like, I can absolutely do those things. I was like, I can delegate. I can be positive and like, you know, like, get the team moving. Like, I can do all that stuff. But how do I frame that in my resume? Because when it's like, you say something like held social, emotional care of all students well being, it's like, okay, well, that's great, but that doesn't sound like the person that you had on your podcast, when I'm able to like delegate tasks and lead meetings and stuff. And so in a job where you major in education, and then you may drink, like most teachers get their master's degrees, right? And we have certification. And it's very specifically like a niche area. How do you move out of that world? But that's a question that I asked myself, like, especially living in Montgomery county, just like you said, when it's all about local, and it's all about localized politics. I'm very involved with the County Council, and the Board of Education, and the union. And I think one way teachers can really protect themselves and move forward to make sure they're getting the rights of what they deserve, is by getting involved in local politics, knowing who their county council members are, and also knowing their union contract role and regulations. I can't tell you how many teachers I have met, that don't even know what their contract means or what they have the right to when certain things happen. And so just educating yourself on those different little things, I think is very powerful to help teachers protect themselves in their careers as well when hiccups might happen.
So Rachel, you brought up a really good question. When I was thinking about leaving teaching, I had a lot of the same thoughts that you did. Right? I'm very specialized, like my degrees in Spanish, and I studied Spanish at the graduate level. And that's what I was trained to do. And I think that we have to give ourselves more credit than we think others might just see. Because we do have all of these teacher brain skills that translate into so many different fields. And so I think part of it for me was changing the narrative in my head. It was changing the thoughts that I had thinking, Well, I'm only going to be a teacher. And when I would look for jobs, I'd only look for teaching jobs. What it really took for me personally was someone outside of teaching, giving me a break. And so for me, I was looking for something super specific because of what you mentioned, with like child care in school. I wanted a part time position where I could take two different kids to two different schools and balance all of life. And I was looking for something really difficult to find in education. There's not a lot of part time work. And so it took time cultivating a resume, but also working on cover letters, which some places still want, to really share what I thought I could specifically bring to the role that actually wasn't just my teaching experience. It was the volunteer work that I'd been doing outside of my community. It was experiences that I'd had volunteering at my synagogue, like it was things that I also did. Which I'm sure every teacher we have outside lives, too. And you need that one break, right? If you're the one person to say yes. And when that person says yes, then your resume is no longer only a teacher resume. So it is a struggle, I think, to one get over, at least for me, it was like, this is all I'm able to do. This is what I trained to do. That was my first obstacle. The next obstacle was, okay, who's gonna give me a chance? And how do I get that chance? And those are the things that we try to sprinkle here and there, like, how to craft your resume, how to work on your LinkedIn page. Like we're gonna get deeper into those topics because once you get out of your head, and you can get into these concrete things, you just really have to put yourself out there. And it is hard, and people will say no. But all it takes is one "yes."
And how can we cultivate a culture of appreciation towards teachers who want to be outside? So it's not just us, like this can't just go back to the teachers trying to make all the things happen. It has to be the community that understands that, like teachers are willing to put forth the effort to mobilize their careers in the way that they wish and desire for, for their life for their professional life.
But it's also people that hire, companies understanding, parents understanding of what teachers are capable of, and how we can cultivate that understanding through avenues like this. Through a podcast, through literature through whatever it might be, because it's going to take more than just the teacher to solve the problem.
I agree with you. I've been lucky enough to have people in my corner that have given me different opportunities, whether it's volunteering, or just paid side gigs, that I can dabble in other fields. All relate back to either diversity and inclusion or some type of special education field. But having those people just look out for me that are in my tribe and in my community has really helped me move the ball forward in my own resume building.
Rachel, thank you so much for your time today. We've learned a lot about you and your field. And for our listeners who want to connect with Rachel, you can follow her on Instagram at REW B A B Y 07. Thank you again.
if you liked The Great Teacher Resignation, give us a five star rating and follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon, Music and Audible. Today's episode was written and recorded by me Alexandra Simon, and my co host JoDee Scissors. Executive produced by Teacher Brain. Produced and edited by Emily Porter. Original Music: Emoji by Tubebackr. Special thanks to our sponsor, Paper Planes Ed.