NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) – Throughout February, News 8 is taking a closer look at why the teaching profession is in crisis, with many educators leaving the classroom. A survey says burnout is the number one concern for teachers in Connecticut.

We are looking into the issue of teacher burnout, the reasons behind it, and possible solutions.

Sitting at her piano, Sheena Graham is right at home. Her love of music is visible, and so is her passion for teaching it.

“I decided to become a teacher when I was already in college,” Graham said. “I wanted to be a piano major and study classical music.”

Graham did just that, laying the groundwork for a storied career in Connecticut. She has taught music for more than 38 years, most of those years in Bridgeport Public Schools.

Her talent for teaching even brought her and her students to the White House in 2014 and 2016.

“There was a White House talent show, and we were invited back to sing, and it was amazing,” Graham said. “Both times, they were original songs I had written.”

Three years later, she received the honor of a lifetime.

“Being the 2019 Teacher of the Year was something I never could have imagined in a million years,” Graham said.

While at the top of her game, it may be surprising to learn that this Connecticut Teacher of the Year decided to retire in 2022 and says burnout was a factor.

“Some of the burdens were getting a little too heavy,” Graham said.

Burnout is exhaustion from prolonged emotional, mental and physical stress. A survey by the Connecticut Education Association shows that 98% of teachers consider burnout a serious concern, and 68% say their level of burnout is higher now than ever before.

“There are so many issues, so many things that teachers deal with outside of their subject matter,” Graham said.

Graham says teachers constantly make split-second decisions to ensure every student gets what they need while navigating a pandemic and spending thousands out of pocket for supplies.

“But on top of that, you’re dealing with your classes are too large, rather your working conditions are safe, and that’s everything from ventilation to security,” Graham said. “You are also dealing with the fact that most people don’t treat you as a professional.”

For Graham, the pandemic proved to be the biggest challenge of all.

“When COVID hit, it just brought all the inequities, everything to the forefront, and you had to deal with all of it at the same time,” Graham said.

She says she also saw a change with politics entering the classroom.

“At one point, I had a kid that just jumped up and said, ‘Miss, you need to get it through your head. There’s no such thing as COVID.’ And then you have the kid next to that person who lost five members of their family to COVID,” Graham said. “I think that is what finally broke me because I felt like a protector of my students all my career, and I could not, this was something I could not solve. I could not protect them. I could not make everyone feel comfortable.”

Before retiring, Graham held many thoughts inside.

“You cry in the shower, or you cry in the car on the way home, and you get it all out like that,” Graham said. “You don’t actually talk to anyone else.

She says it’s easier to speak now outside the profession because she couldn’t talk while in it.

Another teacher experiencing burnout is Stephen Staysniak. He rides his bike to Metropolitan Business Academy in New Haven where he’s taught English and Social Studies for the last 12 years.

“Teacher is a really hard job,” Staysniak said. “It’s really demanding, and it’s a full-bodied experience, and you give your all every single day.”

While burnout isn’t pushing him out of the profession, he says the pandemic presented new challenges and exacerbated existing ones.

“I think when teachers are naming burnout, they’re talking about stress, they’re talking about not having enough resources, they are talking about being overworked,” Staysniak said. “They are talking about working with students who are experiencing challenges outside in the community like we’ve never seen before.”

That includes many social, economic, and mental health challenges while playing catch up from months of remote learning. Staysniak believes the number one issue regarding teacher burnout is staffing shortages.

“I think the first thing that we want to see happen as teachers are we want to see the promise of fully resourced, fully supported schools realized,” Staysniak said. “Give us what we need to do the job. I think you would see some shift in the conversations around burnout.”

To retain good teachers and attract new ones, Staysniak says compensation is critical, especially in urban districts.

“I think we want to make sure that our teachers are well compensated,” Staysniak said. “I think we want to make sure that our teachers have autonomy and respect in our workplaces.

Fear may keep many teachers from talking publicly about experiencing burnout, but Staysniak is hopeful for change and finds strength in numbers.

. . .

On Tuesday, Feb. 7, News 8’s Eva Zymaris closely examines school security. Changes have been made to keep students and staff safe, but is it enough? To answer that question, we went straight to the teachers and leaders in your communities.