Overworked, underpaid, under attack: Survey shows Colorado teacher challenges

A silhouette of Denver teachers walking the picket line during the 2019 teachers strike.
Districts around Colorado have raised teacher pay since 2019, when Denver teachers seen picketing here went on strike, but teachers still feel underpaid. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Colorado educators feel overworked, underpaid, and under attack, and they think students’ education is suffering as a result.

Those were the findings of the Colorado Education Association’s most recent survey, completed in late 2022 by more than 1,600 of the union’s 39,000 members and released Tuesday.

According to the survey, 85% of educators say the shortage of classroom teachers in their school is worse than in previous years and 90% say the shortage of support staff is worse. 

Two-thirds of educators worry about a mass shooting at their school. Just 34% feel that elected officials respect them. 

Sixty percent of educators said they’re thinking about leaving the profession in the near future, with 21% saying they could be driven out by politically motivated attacks on curriculum and teaching. 

That’s actually an improvement from last year, when two-thirds of respondents said they were thinking about leaving the profession soon, but a CEA spokesperson said the union doesn’t know if morale has improved or if some of those thinking about leaving last year have already left and didn’t respond to the survey.

“We obviously didn’t see 67% of our educators leave the profession [last year], but it is a warning sign that people are feeling defeated and deflated and burdened,” CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert said. 

Burnout and high turnover lead to higher workloads for the staff who remain, which lead to more burnout and turnover, local union officials said on a press call about the survey results. It also means teachers can’t teach at the level they’d like to or work together to improve instruction.

David Lockley, president of the union in Adams 12 Five Star Schools, said dozens of vacancies in special education mean 30% higher caseloads for special education teachers. And when instructional coaches have to fill in on special education, they aren’t available to help newer teachers refine their craft. 

One survey respondent told CEA, “We don’t have enough aides to support our special needs behavior students. We often lose support staff in the middle of the year. Subs do not fill most of the time. … We have had to cancel every team planning day for the last year and a half because of lack of subs.”

For the first time, the union asked LGBTQ educators how safe and supported they feel at work. The results were alarming but not surprising, union officials said.

The vast majority — 85% — said they did not feel safe being out at school, and 80% said there was not a gender-inclusive bathroom in their building. Forty percent said they had witnessed students being discriminated against due to their gender identity or sexuality, and 45% said that equity work at their school didn’t include LGBTQ perspectives. 

Kasey Ellis, president of the Cherry Creek teachers union, said LGBTQ teachers have received derogatory notes and comments. When parents call for books with LGBTQ characters or themes to be removed from school libraries, as has happened in Cherry Creek, it also makes educators feel unsafe and unwelcome. 

When educators aren’t out, that also affects students, the teachers said. Last year’s Healthy Kids Colorado survey found that fewer than half of LGBTQ students felt safe at school.

“If an educator is not accepted, what does that mean for me as a student?” Ellis said.

Lockley said many districts have anti-discrimination policies in place, but administrators often aren’t trained in how to support LGBTQ staff or navigate conflicts. The message ends up being that it’s better to stay in the closet, he said.

Baca-Oehlert said political rhetoric that casts teachers as “groomers” who indoctrinate students has made the situation worse. She said there is work to do at the state and local level to build more welcoming communities.

“That’s something we’ve really seen wear on our educators, that they aren’t trusted to teach in an age-appropriate way and teach appropriate content,” she said. “We need to work harder against those attacks that teachers are indoctrinating our children.”

The teachers union’s annual survey represents a snapshot of the concerns and hopes of educators around the state. Colorado Education Association also uses the results to support its legislative agenda. This year that includes more school funding — always a priority for CEA — plus affordable housing, gun safety regulations, youth mental health and more. 

The survey found that while educators are worried about violence at school, a large majority said arming teachers would not make them feel safer. A fifth of teachers supported policies to beef up physical security, such as adding metal detectors and better locks, while 39% said their top priority for enhancing school safety was better mental health support.

Baca-Oehlert said it’s important for school districts to hire more professional counselors rather than ask teachers to do more. They said the state needs to fund those efforts along with bolstering community mental health resources. 

Gov. Jared Polis has proposed a new Office of School Safety. Baca-Oehlert said CEA hopes those efforts don’t lead to more students being ticketed and arrested, and don’t focus on “hardening” schools without attention to student well-being.

Baca-Oehlert said there is also more the state could be doing to address the teacher shortage. They’re backing legislation to increase stipends for student teachers and make it easier for teachers from other states to get Colorado teaching licenses. They’re also backing affordable housing policies that would make it easier for teachers to live in the communities where they work. 

Increased school funding in recent years has helped fund raises in many school districts, but they haven’t kept pace with the rising price of housing. And Colorado teachers pay a big penalty for going into education, earning almost 36% less than other workers with college degrees, the widest such gap in the nation.

Baca-Oehlert said she would like to see more political will to find new revenue and increase school funding dramatically.

“What we’ve been doing for many years is putting Band-Aids on a gushing wound,” she said. “We would love to see [lawmakers] get behind a systemic fix.”

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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