Teacher Roundtable: From safety to virtual learning, educators explain what it’s like to walk in their shoes

Four Central Virginia teachers join a roundtable discussion about teaching during unprecedented times.
Teachers discuss a variety of issues ahead of the 2022-23 school year.
Teachers discuss a variety of issues ahead of the 2022-23 school year.
Published: Aug. 11, 2022 at 10:43 AM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - If you ask any teacher who has been in the profession for a while, many will tell you that a lot has changed compared to a decade ago. From navigating the virtual world during the height of the pandemic to grappling with the reality of mass shootings in unlikely places, teachers have had to adapt to a new way of life in their profession.

NBC12′s Mikea Turner sat down with four teachers across four school divisions: Richmond Public Schools, Chesterfield Public Schools, Henrico Public Schools and Richmond County Public Schools to get a sense of what it is like be an educator in 2022. Hanover County Public Schools is also included in data about local schools.

In the first part of this week’s special edition of Building a Better RVA, a group of local teachers discusses school safety with our Mikea Turner.

Part One: School Safety

Classroom Procedures: “Be prepared, not scared.” – Kelley Perrotte, Chesterfield County School Teacher

With a new school year around the corner, the walls inside of Kelley Perrotte’s classroom will soon be adorned with decorations for her mass communication and English students at Manchester High School in Chesterfield County.

It is something she looks forward to every year as she enters her eighth year of teaching after a decade as a substitute. While decorating her class has been the norm for years, where she decides to arrange classroom equipment is somewhat new.

“My classroom is designed for safety situations,” said Perrotte, who started thinking outside of the box in the wake of school shootings like the one in Uvalde, Texas. “I’ve taught in classrooms without windows, I’ve taught in classrooms with windows, so where you are in a building determines the conversation you have with your students.”

While describing her classroom, Perrotte painted a vivid picture of her arrangements. She explained that her filing cabinets are carefully placed at the entrance of her classroom.

Should there ever be a lockdown or situation that jeopardizes anyone’s safety, she said the two strongest people in the room will be tasked with pulling the cabinets in front of the door. Since she is on the first floor, there is a window to “jump out of” and get to safety. Other non-disclosed plans are in place for “what if” situations.

“My best friend since I was in high school has always said ‘Be prepared, not scared’ and that’s just what I always instill in my kids, " said Perrotte, who has a 4-year-old son and treats all of her students as if they were her kids. “It’s sad that we have to be prepared for things like that, but it is a reality.”

There is also a new protocol that is a part of her new reality too.

“We have to teach with our door shut and locked,” Perrotte said. “We’re not allowed to teach with open doors anymore.”

Rasheeda Ogburn was a special education teacher at Richmond County Middle School during the 2021-2022 school year. She did not have a classroom of her own, but said she met with the teachers she worked with to understand their procedures.

Like Perrotte, classroom equipment like podiums and filing cabinets are also seen as possible tools for survival. Students’ whereabouts during school hours are more of a priority too.

“We’ve even changed how the kids go to the bathroom,” said Ogburn, who explained some of the school’s newer protocols to make sure students are accounted for. “You have to sign in or sign out in a computer so the admin knows who is in the hallway and who’s not just in case something happens.”

“We’re tracking them at all times, and we make sure not too many students are in the hallway at one time, " Ogburn said.

Reaction to Uvalde, TX Massacre

Perrotte’s mantra, “Be prepared, not scared,” kicked into high gear in the final days of the 2021-2022 school year when 19 children and two teachers at Robb elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, were tragically killed by a gunman who entered the school.

Ogburn said her students raised a lot of questions like whether something so tragic could happen there. Coping with her own masked fear, she says that teachers leaned on each other as an increase in the presence of law enforcement around school quelled those fears.

“Right after Uvalde happened, we were shaken up,” said Ogburn, who was concerned over potential copycats. “The day after we put on our game face, and we went out there for the kids.”

Hakeem Stephens is a math teacher at George Wythe High School on Richmond’s Southside. It is also his alma mater. In the wake of the shooting, Stephens took the advice of Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras and started his class with something called “community circles” where students would take the first five to 10 minutes of class to pick a topic and unpack what was on their mind.

Like the other teachers, Stephens emphasized the importance of creating emotional safe spaces in the classroom.

“I know a lot of times they deal with a lot of emotions and go through things socially outside of school, so I want to give them that space,” said Stephens, who explained that classroom discussions are “strictly confidential.”

“It’s a way to let them know that we care about them outside of just teaching and it helps us transition into the lesson because they feel the love, support and care,” Stephens said.

Arming Teachers

In the wake of the Uvalde massacre, fierce debate reignited over arming teachers in the classroom and fortifying schools. It was a hotly contested topic in 2018 when a 19-year-old took the lives of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

According to a 2020 RAND Corporation study, at least 28 states allow armed teachers under certain conditions. Virginia is not one of them, but NBC12 asked the group of local teachers if they would feel comfortable carrying a firearm in class. The answer was unanimous.

“I don’t see how my classroom would have a safe space if I had a gun on my hip,” said Michelle Landon, who teaches Family and Consumer Sciences at Varina High School in Henrico County. “I don’t even feel comfortable being around a gun in my life outside of school.”

“Me personally, I just couldn’t see myself walking around with a gun on me, especially as an educator,” Stephens said. “It comes off as we’re a threat.”

“Thinking about the role of an educator, that’s not our job and that shouldn’t have to be what we’re expected to do,” Ogburn said. “We wear so many hats throughout the day, but that’s not a hat that I want to have to put on.”

“I’m someone who really values emotional safety and I think that would hinder the family atmosphere that I thrive on in my classroom,” Perrotte said.

School Resource Officers (SROs)

While this group of teachers are against being armed in the classroom, they are in favor of having school resource officers (SROs) present throughout schools.

According to FY21 data collected from school administrators through a school safety audit survey, provided by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, 766 schools across the Commonwealth report having a full-time SRO, as 1,201 go without it.

In June, Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who wants to see SROs in every school across the state, signed the state budget which included $45 million to fund SROs. Nearly $7 million for local school resource and school security officers (SSOs) was also awarded as part of a grant by the Criminal Justice Services Board.

NBC12 checked in with several school divisions across Central Virginia to see if and where SROs, who are employed by the local law enforcement agency, are present. Chesterfield, Henrico, and Hanover Public Schools have SROs at all secondary schools. In Hanover, deputies are assigned to three elementary schools each, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Richmond County, which has three schools, will have SROs at all of them this upcoming school year. Richmond City Public Schools (RPS) has SROs at eight high schools and three middle schools, according to the Richmond Police Department. There are more than 40 schools in the division.

While past studies have raised issues against policing in schools, some teachers say it brings peace of mind.

“It makes us feel more comfortable knowing that we don’t have to look over our shoulders and that someone in the building is actually trained to do that job,” said Stephens, who has a school resource officer at his facility.

“That’s what they’re trained to do and that’s not what I’m trained to do,” Perrotte said. “So, I like that we have those trained professionals and students can also see the community working as a team in their building.”

Part Two: Teaching in a pandemic

“You have to remember to take care of yourself.” - Michelle Landon, Henrico County Public School Teacher

No doubt, the last two years in a pandemic have challenged us all in ways we could have never imagined. Teachers, students, and communities abound felt the discomfort of shifting from in-person learning to virtual instruction. It was perhaps the biggest test of all for everyone involved.

During the pandemic lockdowns, the teachers we sat down with said they had to learn quickly. Confusion, at times, was plenty.

“Nobody knew how to teach virtually, so we had to learn,” said Ogburn, who said preparation felt like a 24/7 job. “There were times when my family wanted to spend time with me, but I couldn’t because I had to figure this thing out.”

Perrotte said teachers spent most of their summer break preparing for the upcoming school year when many schools continued virtual learning. While there was some concern about adapting to new technology, Perrotte thought a lot about ways to engage and connect with her students virtually in a welcoming setting.

“It was a lot of self-reflection necessary in order to be successful during the pandemic for me,” said Perrotte, who is grateful for the support from other teachers and staff. “We had to take courses, do modules, teach ourselves a new way of teaching and we did it together.”

“Thank goodness for my team,” she said. “If we didn’t do it together, I don’t know if we’d be able to say it was a success.”

Not only was the task of learning new technology challenging for teachers, but Stephens saw the effect on students firsthand. At George Wythe High, which is located on Richmond’s Southside, some students have greater needs like internet access at home.

“A lot of our kids are house-to-house, they may be homeless, or their circumstances may not be the best,” said Stephens, in deep reflection. ”Students would email me at midnight apologizing for missing class, but (saying) ‘I just couldn’t do it today, the connection was going down.’”

Those challenges were felt far and wide throughout the pandemic as evident in a poll by the nation’s largest teacher’s union. According to the National Education Association (NEA), which has nearly three million educators, 55% say they will leave the profession sooner than planned and 90% cited burnout. School divisions across Central Virginia are no exception to the effects.

As a new school year inches closer, many are racing to fill teacher vacancies, which average upwards of 200 in some areas.

As of Aug. 1, Henrico Public Schools is facing 211 vacancies across its division. Chesterfield Public Schools has 243 vacancies. Richmond Public Schools is short 163 teachers and Hanover has just seven.

“I know teacher burnout is real, and in the pandemic, you really feel it‚” said Ogburn, who has decided to step away from the classroom this upcoming school year. “You want them to learn, but there are times where you couldn’t teach academics because you had to be with them where they were mentally, emotionally and spiritually. "

“It was a lot,” she said.

Returning to in-person learning

When students returned to class for in-person learning, some teachers noticed difficulty in their ability to re-adjust to routine.

“When they came to school, they had to re-learn what it was like to be a student,” said Ogburn, who says some students became used to logging off on their computers when they were virtual and now struggle with staying focused.

“The biggest challenge now is students coming to school and knowing what it means to have that routine vs staying at home,” said Perrotte, who noticed the same thing.

But despite it all, these teachers take pride in what they are called to do and share advice for others who may be struggling.

“You have to remember to take care of yourself,” said Landon, who teaches yoga outside of work. “If that means taking a day off, take a day off so you can show up the next day and be your best self because you can’t pour from an empty cup.”

“Lean on your co-workers because you’re not in it alone,” Ogburn said. “If you’re feeling one thing, they probably are too.”

Part Three: School Resources

“If you take the burden off of teachers who are just coming into the field, that’s one thing less they would have to worry about.” – Rasheeda Ogburn, Former Richmond County Public School Teacher

For most teachers, a new school year means digging a little deeper into their wallets. According to data from the Economic Policy Institute, teachers are shelling out an average of $459 of their own money on school supplies and other necessities for the classroom.

With five years of teaching under her belt, Ogburn said putting that kind of money out is especially difficult for new teachers. She recalls the struggle early on.

“When you’re coming in, you don’t have any money and so my mind was ‘How am I supposed to buy the things that I need?’ “Ogburn said. “How am I supposed to set up my classroom, make it inviting, make it engaging, make it a safe space?”

“If you could just take that burden off of teachers who are just coming into the field, that’s one thing less they would have to worry about because we’re already scared, we’re already nervous,” Ogburn admitted.

The teachers we spoke with said they spend an average of $500 a year on needs for the classroom, which has become the norm.

“It happens naturally,” Stephens said. “After a while you look at them (students) like family, so it’s like you don’t say ‘ah man,’ you just know to add it to your budget.”

To help offset costs, Perrotte launched a Facebook group called “Teachers and Community Helping Teachers in Chesterfield County” three years ago to create a space for teachers to network and communicate their needs. She said the idea was pre-approved by school officials and it is now nearly 4,000 members strong.

“Prior to the group, (I spent) $500 a year,” Perrotte said. “I keep snacks for my kids and feminine products for females.”

“I keep a lot of mindfulness tools in my room, mindful coloring books, the little pop-it fidget tools, breathing balls,” Landon said. “But definitely food and water bottles.”

Pencils, binders and bookbags are also in high demand.

“I don’t know how we go through pencils, it’s like they get eaten,” said Ogburn, as the group agreed and laughed in unison.

At George Wythe High School, Stephens said a math closet stocked with supplies has been a big help. Nine out of 10 educators will not be reimbursed for their back-to-school purchases, according to the NEA.

What keeps these teachers going?

“Teaching isn’t what I do, it’s who I am.” - Kelley Perrotte, Chesterfield County High School Teacher

For teachers, the challenges are endless, but over and beyond the need for higher pay, school resources and more educators to shrink the number of vacancies, some teachers will tell you this is what they are called to do.

Perrotte has dreamed of being an educator her entire life. At two years old, she would pretend to be a teacher using her dog as a student.

Laughing about that memory during an interview, she expressed how much real students and the teaching profession has changed her life despite working multiple jobs during summer break to make ends meet.

“I knew that I wanted to make a difference,” Perrotte said. “What I didn’t know then that I know now, is how much of a difference each individual person makes in my life in return.”

While Ogburn is taking a step back from the classroom which feels heartbreaking, she still loves what she believes she is called to do.

“I became a teacher because I thrive off of relationship building,” Ogburn said. “There are some days where I get emotional, and I have to walk out and I’m tearing up because you really do help the child holistically.”

For Landon, it is also about relationship-building and letting her students know they have her support, something that was not present in her classrooms growing up.

Stephens, who went back to teach at the same school he graduated from, is just proud to give back.

“When I started teaching that first week, I was like ‘wow, I loved it,’” Stephens said. “Even though we face challenges, knowing we had that kid that had a transition, a total 180 from ninth to 12th grade, especially the last two years with virtual, it’s rewarding.”

Supporting our teachers

In addition to more support when it comes to higher pay and school resources, teachers value the presence of their division’s school leaders.

Something I appreciate from my admin is I see them in the hallways in between classes and I hear them call students by name. They know the kids,” said Perrotte, who loves that about her school leaders and encourages others to do the same elsewhere. “Know the kids who go to your school. Know your community. Be present and keep that open door policy .”

“That’s something I value and one the reasons why I stay where I am,” Perrotte said.

Ogburn appreciated a similar experience.

“You see the assistant superintendent in the hallways almost every day,” Ogburn said. “Sometimes the higher up you get, you can forget what it feels like to be a teacher so it’s important to make sure you’re coming back to the schools, and you still have that connection,”

“If we all just talk, come to the table like how we’re talking now and just communicate effectively, it’ll help out with a lot of day-to-day transitions,” Stephens said. “Listen to our experiences, the students’ experiences and take that into consideration as decisions are made and have us all be a voice in that process,” Landon said.

If you would like to donate some of the items mentioned above like water, snacks and hygiene products, to teachers send an email to buildingrva@nbc12.com.

You can watch the full roundtable with these teachers below, which has been edited into two parts.

Part 1:

Teachers around Central Virginia discuss issues impacting their school system this school year.

Part 2:

Teachers around Central Virginia discuss issues impacting their school system this school year.

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