116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Teachers are leaving in droves. 126 resigned positions with the Cedar Rapids Community School District at the end of the 2021-22 school year. Des Moines is losing nearly 300.
The exodus has been described in vague terms as a result of “the pandemic,” and certainly there are several related factors at play. The quick transition to virtual instruction, pulling double duty to cover the kids who showed up in person, managing your own family needs as COVID claimed one victim after another, the throngs of people threatening to sue the school district over the thin masks protecting you from the germs in their children’s saliva … It was a lot.
But the teacher shortage began long before the pandemic, and a binding theme among the stories flooding my inbox relates far more to the political vitriol and frankly, the dangers of teaching than to the coronavirus. Current and former educators have described being harassed at home, experiencing racism at the hands of administrators, and facing disciplinary action as a result of advocating on behalf of students.
I spoke with Gregory Wickenkamp, an 8th grade social studies teacher who ended his contract with the Fairfield School District at the end of this year about his decision. A 10 year teaching veteran, Wickenkamp requested a meeting with his superintendent seeking support and guidance related to the discussion of “divisive topics” in the classroom. “Is it acceptable for me to teach students that slavery is wrong?” he asked her.
The response from the superintendent, in part, was: “To say is slavery wrong — I really need to delve into it to see. Is that part of what we can or cannot say? I don’t know that.”
Wickencamp was frustrated by what he felt was a lack of administrative support. “I had asked for this meeting for clarification for months. I met with her for probably 40 minutes and laid out my concerns. Ultimately, I was unwilling to be neutral when I teach about slavery to these young people … I don’t think that’s right.”
However, he was also quick to acknowledge that the hesitance by school administrators is both widespread and largely due to political pressure. Last year, Iowa signed a convoluted and subjective bill into law barring public educators from delving into divisive topics like structural racism, even while discussing the institution of chattel slavery. This lack of support amid a hostile political climate led to Wickenkamp’s resignation near the end of the year.
“I applied to a phD program at the university. I am going into that next year. I feel bad walking away from the classroom, and I hope to return someday.”
How did you come to the profession of teaching?
“Prior to teaching, I worked at a nonprofit with people with disabilities, and some of that work led to working with high school youth. I had always been interested in being an educator, so I went back to school and got a teaching certificate. I love teaching and I don’t want to leave teaching — this is a temporary thing, I hope to return to the classroom. I really enjoy teaching, it’s just that the political context pushed me out.”
The difficulties of teaching in the current climate is multiplied for those who are both teachers and members of marginalized communities.
“I think the teachers being driven out are the ones we really want — they’re the ones approaching each day with the goal of educating future citizens. Parallel my school year I had a colleague who was a Latina teacher. She was pushed out because of hostile treatment. The strain and hostility she faced was much worse than anything I faced. I don’t know if she’ll return to teaching or not, but she was the first generation in her family to go to college — her case is markedly more challenging because of systemic factors.”
Would you say within the 10 years you have been teaching that you have witnessed disparities coming into play within your peer group, within staffing in general, or within the student body?
“One-hundred percent I have noticed disparities in how students are disciplined related to race and gender, how the few staff of color I have worked with are treated — and especially in the guidance or professional development teachers are given as relates to race or gender or class. The guidance is often embarrassingly lacking and affirming this sort of Iowa racism that we have here. The ‘let’s not see color’ kind where we don’t acknowledge the hard stuff.”
What should people understand about teachers or teaching that is missing from the conversation right now?
“I’ve come to realize that teaching requires a lot of skills that I wouldn't have thought about prior to entering the field. The motivation of teachers is typically for the greater good. This idea that teachers are indoctrinating kids is so misplaced -it doesn’t take into account any of the intention and the professionalism with which teachers generally try to operate.”
You’ve had a really challenging experience with teaching — what part of the profession makes you want to continue?
“There was a trans student this year and they were having a hard time with their identity. They sought advice, and I was able to sort of be there for them. It was challenging, but just to be there as a caring adult when a student in need is really powerful. I led an impromptu drama club, and it kind of became the de facto LGBTQ club. These students created a discord they all shared to support each other … to see them do that was so inspiring.”
And isn’t that what the role of teacher is — to lay down the framework for what exists, and then students take that framework and create what is possible?
“Yes. Exactly. Because we want them creating an even better world than the one they are currently in. To see them achieve that gives me hope.”
What do you hope to see in the next 10 years?
“I really hope to see a revitalization of public schools rather than this constant eroding away … and even more critically, the social supports. If we invest in the future, in programs of social uplift as opposed to serving the status quo it’s gonna give young folks in the future a better chance.”
Sofia DeMartino is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: email@example.com