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More than half of U.S. teachers considering leaving profession amid shootings, COVID, and poor pay

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, explains why so many teachers are either leaving or considering leaving the workforce with reasons like recent school shootings and the pandemic response.

Video Transcript

[AUDIO LOGO]

- Well, we often talk here about the labor shortage in this country, whether it's pilots or truck drivers and its impact on the economy. But given the recent school shooting in Uvalde, the toll that the pandemic took on teachers, and now politics spilling into the classroom, what about the future of education in this country?

A recent survey found that 55% of educators say they plan to leave the field earlier than they originally planned and that study was a year ago and things look arguably a lot worse. Let's talk about it with Randi Weingarten. She's the President of the American Federation of Teachers. Joins us now. We always appreciate you being here, Randi.

It's never an easy profession to be an educator, in this one it is very, very difficult. Teachers are afraid. They are concerned. What are you hearing the most from your members?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: So first off, let me just say, it's amazing to be in your studio today as opposed to being on Zoom. And that may be some glimmer of evidence that we're starting to be over the pandemic. So that's good news.

I was just on with teachers from Texas this afternoon. And they had just done a survey of members. And we're out in the field right now with a survey. But what they said was what I've been hearing, which is 90% of teachers are basically saying-- they're really thinking about what happened in Uvalde and what that means for them. It doesn't mean that they're going to leave. It doesn't mean that they're not going to stay. But the impact has been huge across the country.

An what they really want is they want us to do the common sense gun safety precautions that are being talked about in Washington right now, that Governor Hochul did in New York state just with the legislature just a few days ago, that GOP governor Baker did in Massachusetts a few years ago, and that the overwhelming number of Americans Republican, Democrat, Independent, want us to do. They want something done. We need to keep our schools safe for our kids and for our teachers. They can't be human shields. They got enough that they have to do. We have to keep guns out of schools.

- Randi, from the conversations that you are having, clearly this is by far from the first shooting that we have seen inside the school. But do you think that at this time are you starting to see the conversation change? Are you more confident that we will see actual change and that we will potentially see gun control?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: So let me say gun safety and common sense gun prevention rules, because nobody's talking about taking away guns from responsible gun owners. The smearing of saying that we're going against the Second Amendment, that's not anything that I've heard from the majority of both my members and the conversations around the country. David Hogg and I and others were in Houston a few days after Uvalde. David is part of who started March for Our Lives from Parkland.

We had survivors from Parkland and from Sandy Hook with us doing a roundtable in Houston. And all of us-- and that's where the NRA convention was. And there were more people protesting than were in the hall in the NRA convention. But what we both felt that there was a change. There was a difference.

That this time there was an awakening that we have to do something. And in fact, when I was in Buffalo just last week honoring the victims of the Buffalo murder, there was a young woman and her daughter that with chalk just drew a beautiful American flag and then with chalk in bold letters said do something. And that's a sentiment that I'm hearing from people across the country. That this is not a Republican or Democratic issue, this is an issue about safety for our kids and about having the gun safety that we need.

Look, we do it with airplanes. We do it with motor vehicles. None of the amendments are absolute. Why are we not doing the kind of gun safety that other countries have done that will reduce the people who ought not have guns having them. And particularly these weapons of war, which Matt McConaughey said in graphic detail from the White House, it is just insane.

So let's actually do what other countries do. Let's actually do what New York just did, what Massachusetts has done. Background checks. Red flag laws. I believe in a ban, a moratorium on assault weapons, but at least get the age up to 21, which is what the age is to get a pistol and safe storage. Let's do something that will save one person's life.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: And Randi, Rachelle here. I want to talk about the impact this is having on perhaps new teachers who want to come in the field and they see between the shootings and between what they saw with the pandemic. Research the U.S. mentored about 200,000 new teachers every year back in the '70s, and that's now fallen to below 90,000. Tell people what's at stake if we continue to see these sorts of trends and people don't support teachers in the ways that they're calling out for.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: So I'm so glad you raised it. We have about 300,000 teachers who actually leave every single year, many before retirement. So it's not just about new teachers, it is also a retention issue. Because I don't know about anybody else, but I know I taught for several years as a substitute teacher in Brooklyn, New York. I was far better in my third year than I was my first year. And so we need to retain teachers.

And we are facing a retention crisis as well as a recruitment crisis. And the bottom line is this, if we don't make the job-- like let me say two things. Number one, the job is important. Every one of these issues we go back to teachers. How do we make sure that schools are in person? How do we make sure we're dealing with the social emotional needs of kids? How do we make sure we deal with learning loss? How do we make sure we deal with shielding kids in these moments of great trepidation and fear?

Schools and in-person learning are really important. So if that's the case, let's make sure that teachers who teach in schools are really important. Give them the latitude to teach. Trust them. Like stop with the trusting them about carrying guns, trust them to do what the stuff is that we're supposed to do like teach kids.

So it's really a matter of, what are the conditions? Do we have low enough class sizes? Do we have the guidance counselors and the social workers that we need to help with emotional social issues? Do we have the pay that's commensurate with being able to raise a family? Can we deal with student debt? And most importantly, can we get the politics out of the classrooms?

Teachers and parents want to work together. Trust us to actually teach kids what we need to do instead of banning books and instead of censoring us every word we say. That would help.

- So teachers do not want to get involved in politics. And yes, Randi, we have seen politics spill into the classroom across the country. I'm curious, what's the biggest evolution in the profession given the last couple of years and what we've seen with remote learning? And is there any positive that has come out of the difficult circumstances in the last few years?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Yes, there's a lot of-- look, there's a lot of positives that came. I mean, let me say it this way, thank Ukraine. If we had not had remote learning and those platforms and learning about those platforms, think about all those kids in Ukraine and in the outskirts of Ukraine, all those refugees who every single day for the rest of this particular school year from February to now have been engaged with their teachers on remote education.

Remote education is necessary in times of great strife, but we should be in-person. In-person learning, developing the relationships, having the give and take obviously it's most important. And our union has tried to get us back to being in school since April of 2020. But the bottom line is, we, at the beginning of the pandemic when there was no standard operating procedure manual, we gave teachers great latitude to figure it out.

And parents were really, really grateful. In fact, they've been grateful for the whole time about what their kid's teachers have done. So give teachers the kind of latitude, the kind of freedom to do what they did at the beginning of this pandemic. Teachers want to make a difference in the lives of kids. Let's actually try something new. Let's give them the conditions to do what they need to do to help kids. And let's give them the latitude to do that.

When I say don't let politics interfere, take the issues of just what happened in terms of Buffalo. Do you know how many teachers have said to me, I don't know if I can teach what happened in Buffalo, the terrible shooting in Buffalo, which we had racist motivation. Given these new laws in so many of these states, they don't know if they can teach it.

To me, as a social studies teacher, what am I going to do when a kid asked me a question about what happened in Buffalo? What did this young man do? Why did he do that? How do I not teach about the Buffalo manifesto that kid did? So give us the latitude to actually teach. If you trust us enough to hold guns, trust us enough to do the stuff that we have been trained to do.

- Randi, in terms of what you can specifically do, because teachers it's an extremely, extremely tough time. We were just talking about the shootings, the political discord, COVID, the changes that we have seen in the classroom with school from home, just exactly what that's going to look like going forward. What are you doing to better support teachers today?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Thank you for that question. Well, we're doing a lot of things. Number one, we put together a trauma benefit for all of our members. We made it available for everyone for free. So any of our members who need that benefit, no questions asked, they have it. And if you're a member of ours, go to AFT.org, you'll find out all about that benefit.

Number two, we started a few years ago something called Share My Lesson, which is a sharing platform for anyone. And we made it for free. We're almost at 2 million members for Share My Lesson. For anybody who wants it, it's called ShareMyLesson.org. Just go there for free. And there's lots and lots of lessons on everything. And we have that.

Number three, we just did a shortage task force. And we're going to release all the recommendations at our convention this summer. And number four, it's the relationships. What a union does is creates relationships and working together and people need those relationships. And we need to be working with members and with parents. And that's what we're trying to do going into next year.

And number five, another thing for the public as well as our members, we have something where we're giving out a million books throughout the country. We call it Reading Opens the World. We're doing it in book fairs throughout. And the joy that we see when we put books in the hands-- books that people choose, because they'll choose from 11,000 or 40,000 books in some of these book drives.

We want to recreate the joy of reading. So we're fighting for common sense gun laws but we're also fighting to get the fundamentals done in schools so that every single public school is a place where parents want to send their kids, educators want to work, and kids thrive.

- Randi, it's great to have you. Extremely important topic. Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers President. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us in our first in studio guest here on the show post COVID.