Nicole Patin has been teaching English within the Los Angeles Unified School District for 20 years, starting at Pacoima Middle School before going to then newly opened Arleta High School in February 2007.
She was inspired from a young age to be a teacher by her aunt, who herself was an elementary school teacher. When her mother passed away from breast cancer, Patin chose to be a teacher, finding a sense of community with her coworkers and students.
Throughout her career, Patin said that she never once considered the idea of leaving her profession — but that changed last year when the stress from the pandemic took its toll.
“I definitely felt very exhausted, and the term I would use is battle fatigue,” Patin said. “I felt like everything that we had worked and fought so hard for was being pulled out from underneath us.
“I actually met someone over the weekend who had resigned after 13 years, not from my school site but another area, and it was the same thing, it’s battle fatigue. It’s the feeling that we don’t have any more left to give.”
Although she said she was able to recharge during the summer, Patin is far from being the only teacher in LAUSD who considered leaving due to stress and the current working conditions.
Teachers Under High Stress
In a recent report by the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) titled “Burned Out, Priced Out: Solutions to the Educator Shortage Crisis,” nearly 70 percent of teachers within the union said they have seriously considered leaving the education profession due to the material conditions in the district.
After the onset of the pandemic, when more opportunities opened up with the economic recovery underwritten by the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan, the number of public school teachers in the US fell by 6.8 percent from 2019 to 2021 — around 220,000 teachers.
“We did have a lot of teachers retire in the past couple of years, especially due to the pandemic,” Patin said. “It’s hard to replace someone who has decades of experience in the classroom, and especially when not a lot of fresh, young people are attracted to the profession.”
The report said that the wage gap between the average LAUSD teacher and the average bachelor-degree holder working in LA is 22 percent — also known as the “educator wage penalty.” Over the past five years, the average annual salary for a bachelor’s degree-holding worker was between $94,000 and $101,000, while the average annual salary for a LAUSD teacher was between $74,000 and $79,000.
In a June 2022 survey by UTLA, nearly 60 percent of educators with 20 or more years of experience can’t afford to live in the community where they teach.
Twenty-eight percent of UTLA teachers work a second job. Nationally, 56 percent of teachers take on additional paid work during the school year. Before the pandemic, teachers who quit the profession were more likely to be working second jobs than those who stayed.
In addition to being the UTLA chapter chair for her school, Patin also teaches an advanced readiness class at the University of California, Los Angeles for high school students on Saturdays, as well as working on the side with her brother at his gym.
Although she said she is not under significant financial hardship, Patin did say she did not have a “significant amount of savings,” that the rising cost of rent and inflation was making it very expensive to live in her area — around 12 to 15 minutes away from Arleta High.
“I can’t buy a house in that community,” Patin said. “My rent alone this year went up $250 a month, and it’s a struggle. I’m a single person … I’m not making a comfortable living off of the amount of work that I put in and that I do.”
It’s not only teachers who are taking a toll, but students as well. More than 84 percent of students qualify for foster/homeless services, free and reduced price lunch and/or are students identified as English learners in a district where resources vary from campus to campus.
The report said more than 80 percent of LAUSD schools do not have a full-time nurse, and 15 percent of schools in South LA have no allocated nurse whatsoever.
Additionally, 70 percent of UTLA educators don’t believe that LAUSD values their students’ learning conditions due to its historic underinvestment in equitably funding education at all school sites regardless of zip code and student demographics.
“I want to continue to fight for my students and for all of our students, not just the kids at my particular school site, but for all of the kids and all of the schools,” Patin said. “We’ve asked for exactly what we need in order to provide for our students. … It just feels like this [is an] ongoing battle that we keep on begging and asking for just what we need in order to continue to do this job and to improve and to grow and to continue to meet the needs of our students.”
When it comes to improving conditions in the district, Patin’s advice is simple: listen to teachers. She said the same things that teachers are asking for now — such as a nurse on every campus, more types of psychiatric social workers and better compensation — are the things educators have been asking for decades.
“When we tell them [LAUSD] what we need for our students, we’re the experts,” Patin said. “We are the people that are in the classrooms. We are the people that are on this campus, with the students. They need to listen to us when we tell them what our students need.
“I also want to make sure that it’s understood that when we ask for things for ourselves, our working environments are our students’ learning environments. … They’re one in the same.”
Finding Time for Self-Care
Denisha Jordan, a physical education instructor at Valley Oaks for Enriched Studies in Sun Valley, has been teaching for 20 years at LAUSD. She previously taught at Lawrence Middle School in Chatsworth for 14 years.
She initially was an athletic trainer but gravitated to being a teacher after finding that building relationships with student athletes was the most rewarding part of her job.
Despite having to deal with large class sizes and a lack of support from both the district and administration, Jordan has not considered leaving her job or leaving her students behind.
“I remember why I became a teacher, which was to make an impact on students,” Jordan said. “I feel like, now more than ever, it’s more important.”
Jordan’s husband is also employed, so she doesn’t feel the same financial strain other teachers face, but she said she has seen coworkers who are single or have young children struggling to make ends meet.
“I do have colleagues that could have taught at least another 10 years but decided to retire early,” Jordan said. “I have colleagues who came into the profession as new teachers and decided that it wasn’t going to work for them and so they left before they were fully invested and committed.”
Teaching became extremely difficult for Jordan at the onset of the pandemic — when she was still working at Lawrence Middle School. She had to rework her curriculum to accommodate teaching remotely, such as infusing ethnic studies during her class.
She said she had never worked harder than during this period, and it was here that she saw firsthand the disparity in equity among her students, which she said was hard on her emotionally.
“Seeing their actual homes and then their internet access, or lack of, some of them were caring for younger siblings, and then just the pandemic itself, just having to deal with those issues,” Jordan said. “A lot of my students, their parents were essential workers, so during the pandemic, their parents were going to work every day.”
Jordan said she takes counseling twice a week to deal with the emotional toll and the worsening working conditions. While she said maintaining your mental health is important, she also knows finding the time for it can be difficult for many teachers.
“It’s really hard to focus on self-care, and I feel like the majority of my colleagues, myself included, we’re always putting our students first, and so it’s hard to get self-care when your priorities are your students,” Jordan said.
She said the best way for LAUSD to improve the situation for both students and teachers is access to counseling, reducing class sizes to allow teachers to make connections with their students and tackling the equity issue among students and campuses.
“I teach in the valley now, but when I taught in the inner city … the funding is not equitable, the access to resources is not equitable and I think it’s the most marginalized students that are suffering,” Jordan said. “I think, if nothing else, that’s what we should focus our attention on. If we just center on their [student] voices more, I think that this district will be better off.”
For more information on the UTLA report, go to https://utla.net/resources/shortage-report/.