Department chairs voice wide-ranging concerns in open letter to district leaders and board

November 17, 2021 — by Victoria Hu
Photo by Victoria Hu
Teachers feel stressed juggling activities such as in-person teaching, advisories, and committee meetings.

In an open letter email sent to district leadership and the school board on Nov. 2, the school’s department chairs expressed their worries about the mental wellbeing of students and staff. 

Due to the stress of transitioning in-person while simultaneously implementing new initiatives like advisories and potential curriculum alignment directives, the department chairs called for more teacher and student inclusion in the district’s decision-making process and less of a top-down approach.

The department chairs who signed the letter were: Michael Tyler, English; Audrey Warmuth, STEM; Alinna Satake, Guidance; Hana Chen, Social Studies; Kristen Hamilton, Math; Natasha Ritchie, Media Arts; Jason Shiuan, Performing Arts; Rick Ellis, Physical Education; Kristen Thomson, Science; Brian Elliott, Special Education; Joel Tarbox, Visual Arts and Sarah Voorhees, World Languages.

In the letter, they chronicled red flags indicating high stress levels in the student body — such as recent surges in wellness center referrals, class drops, course changes and an increase in students battling anxiety.

Guidance department chair Satake attributes many of this year’s challenges to the drastic change from flexible online learning to structured, in-person environments. Students plunged back on-campus have to relearn classroom norms, she said.

“There hasn’t been the proper space and time for everybody to focus on wellbeing,” Satake said. “I see a lot of students coming in, and they’re sad and overwhelmed.” 

In addition, the department chairs reported that many staff members also feel “anxious, overwhelmed, frustrated and sad.” Swamped with the demands of post-pandemic teaching while juggling curriculum changes and district-pushed advisory committees, they have struggled to keep up with growing workloads.

This feeling of fatigue among teachers here comes amid a nationwide trend prevalent since the start of 2021: In a survey of National Education Association members, 32% of respondents said the pandemic caused them to plan quitting their profession earlier than expected. In the process of reopening for the new academic year, teacher resignation caused a dire shortage which the California State Board of Education president, Linda Darling-Hammond, called “a nationwide and definitely a statewide issue.”

Saratoga High is not excluded from this exodus of staff members: assistant principal Kerry Mohnike, administrative assistant Janet Verson, science teacher Jill McCrystal and librarian Kevin Heyman have retired since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. The open letter emphasized that SHS’s significant administration turnover and staff member retirements have increased work for those remaining, leading to a rough start to the new year.

For the teachers who have returned to the classroom, COVID-19 protocols have hindered their lessons. Math department chair Kristen Hamilton said she struggles to read students’ expressions through masks to decipher when they do not understand concepts. As a result of projecting her voice through a mask, she has lost her voice three times since the start of the semester.

Learning loss from the pandemic has also caused teachers to spend immense amounts of time making accommodations and adjusting curriculum pacing to support students.

“It’s all these little things adding up,” Hamilton said. “It’s really hard, and we’re tired.”

On top of pandemic-related challenges, the letter reported that staff feel the “crushing weight” of participating in ambitious new undertakings and committees that the district and board leadership have initiated for the 2021-22 school year, including reduced tutorials and advisory lessons. They attend meetings for curriculum alignment, Anti-Racism, Culture of Consent, bell schedule, GPA alignment and Portrait of a Graduate committees as well as PLC’s — professional learning communities.

Although Satake and other department chairs believe these committees have merit, they feel overburdened by what they feel is rushed implementation.

“I can’t even keep track of all the meetings I’ve been invited to or the all new initiatives that need a counselor on them,” Satake said. “There’s only so many spoons and emotional units we can put into activities, and we’re already depleted and exhausted.”

To communicate their concerns to district and board decision-makers, the department chairs met during several prep periods to draft the open letter. Each head provided input to represent their respective departments and ensured everyone was comfortable with the statements in the email, Satake said.

On Nov. 4, Los Gatos High School department chairs sent their own open letter to the district and board leadership in support of the opinions expressed by Saratoga High’s group. 

Both urged the board and district’s decision-makers to postpone huge decisions, such as employing professional learning communities and curriculum redesign in order to prioritize student and staff mental health.

“The staff has spoken up numerous times about the validity of these and other issues, and we do not feel heard,” the department heads’ email stated. “When community members/staff/students articulate concerns, it does not appear that stakeholder opinions hold equal value and more control than ever is in the school board’s hands.”

Across both schools, department chairs hope for teacher leaders to hold more influence in shaping policy. 

Hamilton and Satake recommend for district and board leadership to visit campus more often to see day-to-day activities and build a sense of community to bridge the gap between policy-makers and classroom level impacts.

“I think it would be helpful for [district and board leaders] to be observers,” Hamilton said. “If they really put themselves in the shoes of students or teachers, it would build some better understanding to inform their decisions.”

The open letter closed with hopes for productive discussion and collaboration among staff and policy-makers.

As a result of the letter, district leaders and two board members met with the SHS department chairs on Nov. 9 in a world cafe-style exchange of ideas. Los Gatos department chairs participated in a similar event a few days later.

 

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