When freshman Claire Sampson tells her friends and relatives she wants to become a teacher, they give her “that look.”

“They say, ‘Oh, I feel so bad for you,’” Sampson said.

Sampson is preparing for a career teaching high school English or history. She and her classmates feel like it’s them against the world. Trusted peers are telling them that it’s not a good idea to go into education despite their passion for teaching.

“The consensus among us is that we know we’re not going to be making a lot of money, and we know it’s not an easy field to be in right now,” Sampson said.

Over the past few years, educators have experienced intense school board meetings, debates about COVID-19 precautions and increased political attention on classrooms. This atmosphere has been attributed to worsening the state’s teacher shortage and have left some Franklin College education students and alumni feeling pressured.

 In the Field

Chaz Hill, a 2019 Franklin College graduate and current Franklin Community High School teacher, attended a school board meeting last summer to speak about critical race theory, or CRT. Hill, a third-year social studies teacher at the school, had to Google what CRT was. He likely found a definition stating that it is a law school framework that examines the intersection of race and law in order to explain social inequalities.

He explained at a school board meeting that CRT was not taught at Franklin Community. During that same board meeting, a parent was willing to be carried out in handcuffs because they wouldn’t put a mask on, Hill said.

This is just one incident in a stream of many where teachers and administrators were antagonized by parents concerned about COVID-19 protocols and CRT. These instances of tension are believed to have at least partially inspired bills in the Indiana legislature that threatened to require educators to post all classroom materials online, limit what can be taught in schools and complicate teachers’ ability to provide mental health help to students. The bill also encouraged parents to seek civil suits for violations.

Neither of the two of the highly controversial education bills passed out of the Indiana General Assembly.

Testifiers at the Indiana Statehouse worried the legislation would stifle teacher speech. Even without the legislation in place, Hill said he felt this pressure in his own classroom.

In November 2020, Joe Biden won the general election. Hill said that there may have been a certain fear among social studies teachers nationwide to say these results as fact, since pro-Trump parents may argue that the election was “stolen.”

In January 2021, Hill heard a complaint. Following the Jan. 6 insurrection, Hill used class time to discuss and unpack the event, similarly to how he recalls his teachers discussing 9/11. A parent contacted his boss. The student was pulled out of his class.

Hill said that if he ever feels he can’t teach true facts in his classroom, that would be his breaking point.

“I love my job. I don’t see myself doing anything else,” Hill said. “But the day I can’t do my job effectively because of external pressures or external factors like that, then that would cause me to think twice.”

The parents angry about CRT and COVID-19 protocols are a loud minority, Hill said, with more parents reaching out to express that his students enjoy having him as a history teacher.

Education advocates were concerned the recent proposed legislation would change the way history was taught. During public testimony, comments by Sen. Scott Baldwin, R-Noblesville, landed in a Stephen Colbert monologue and a Washington Post story after he told a teacher that educators would have to remain neutral when teaching about Nazism during WWII. 

Facing the Shortage 

At Franklin College, the implications of this legislation were uncertain. Cindy Prather, director of teacher education and teacher licensing advisor, said the legislation is troubling due to the teacher shortage in the state. But she said this hasn’t stopped Franklin College students from becoming educators.

“It is encouraging that, despite some of the public discourse, we continue to have bright, talented individuals interested in pursuing careers in teaching,” Prather said in a statement. “Unfortunately, there are so many demands placed upon the public schools and their teachers, every time issues such as these arise, more people are discouraged and lose enthusiasm for the teaching profession.”

 In a survey conducted by the Indiana State University Bayh College of Education, 96.5% of participating school districts reported teacher shortages. The survey included 199 of Indiana’s 290 public school corporations.

 When Hill thinks about peers that have decided to leave the field, he thinks of Meghan Yencer-Sargent, a fellow 2019 graduate. Hill said he sat next to her in education classes for four years and witnessed firsthand her passion for education.

 “I could tell as soon as she left to go to a different job, it could happen to anybody,” he said.

 Yencer-Sargent taught at different schools for almost three years. She said the work-life balance in teaching is often unhealthy and was worsened with the stress of navigating COVID protocols, standardized testing and the increase of political attention on the profession.

“Teaching just ended up not being the right fit for me,” Yencer-Sargent said. “I think I would have come to that conclusion whether I taught through the chaos that has been the last two years or if I had entered the field twenty years ago.”

Even though she decided to move on, Yencer-Sargent said she wouldn’t discourage others from pursuing teaching.

“Ultimately, if you truly want to teach, I would not discourage you from doing so,” she said. “Kids are always going to need teachers who love them and value their education. The stress of it all can be managed in the right environment.”

At Franklin Community High School, Hill has seen at least two educators leave. If the legislation had passed, he predicted that many more would have left due to the increased workload, especially teachers who may not be well-versed with technology that would have to upload classroom materials.

 Impossible Preparation

Hill said his Franklin College education gave him a “buffet” of teaching methods to choose from and his background studying history helped him examine the world from different perspectives. 

But for Franklin College’s future educators, nothing could have properly prepared them for a pandemic and increased scrutiny.

Sampson said the firsthand accounts from teachers, news coverage of the legislation and increased attention is disheartening.

“It’s a little bit scary knowing that there’s only so much time before I’m gonna be the one doing it and I don’t think a lot is going to change for the better in that time period,” she said.

Sampson is one of many future teachers in the state receiving The Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship, which is a 4-year scholarship going to 200 Indiana education majors.

While she’s grateful for the grant, it requires recipients to teach in the state for five years or be required to pay back the loan money—Yencer-Sargent is in that situation now. Because of this, Sampson said she feels a little trapped going into the under-attack field. 

“Before I came to college, I was like, this is probably the only thing I’ll ever want to do. This is the only career I’ll ever want to have,” Sampson said. “And now I’m kind of like, what are my other options?”

Regarding the legislation, senior Quinn Bailey said the thought of having to post lesson plans so far in advance when she had never been in a real classroom before was intimidating. 

“Seeing all the things teachers were kind of under fire for and that there was a potential that teachers needed to put out an entire year’s worth of lesson plans before school even started was just terrifying… and to do that as a first year teacher was so scary,” Bailey said.

Bailey said that after finding out the state legislation didn’t pass, she spoke with friends from the department. They were all relieved. 

“The amount of relief I felt—it was like a weight. I know that’s so cliche to say but it really was,” she said. “It just took a whole load of pressure off of me.”

She said that sometimes the average parent doesn’t realize how many things fall under a teacher’s daily job description and forget that teachers want the best for their children too. To her, this is just another reason people are leaving the profession and will likely continue to leave. 

“We’re doing so many things that after a while a person—a teacher, can only handle so many things,” Bailey said. “And when you try to get a person to balance that many jobs it’s just too much.” 

As a future kindergarten teacher, sophomore Kylie Brattain said the most concerning part of the now-dead legislation was that parents took aim at social emotional learning, or SEL. 

“Social emotional learning is really important to teach those kids how to interact with each other and how to accept each other,” Brattain said. “So it’s just worrisome that people disagree with that.”

Brattain said SEL involves teaching kids to resolve conflicts, manage emotions and accept one another. This is where she says some parents may misconstrue the teachings to be CRT-related.

“A lot of that has to do with like, ‘Oh, they don’t have the same color skin as you but that’s okay,’” Brattain said. “Just those kinds of things that aren’t really blatantly taught in a lesson but sprinkled in here and there.” 

 Teachers as Political Targets

In an education law class, Brattain said the group discussed how CRT is a hot topic, but that it’s used to discuss general beliefs rather than a specific issue. For an assignment, she attended a school board meeting in Whiteland. At the meeting, Brattain said a parent spoke for 20 minutes about a book she disagreed with.

“It was just odd because it almost seemed like she was confirming her racist views while also trying to make it seem like the book was bad for students to read,” she said.

Hill said teachers are easy targets to win political points. But he questions if these parents would treat the educators that had a positive impact on their lives the same way they’re treating teachers at school board meetings and in legislation.

“Things that people were saying at the school board meetings, I can’t imagine they would tell their favorite teacher that,” Hill said. 

For now, Bailey says Franklin College professors are doing their best to prepare students for the changing field.

“I love all the education professors here and I think they’ve done so well advocating for us and, you know, guiding us through this time,” Bailey said. “It’s not easy to be a teacher right now.”

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