Middle Level Division Column: Feb/Mar 2022

NAEA News Feb/Mar 2022

The columns for this issue of NAEA News were written prior to the 2022 National Convention. As such, you may find information about Convention sessions and references to past occurrences in the future tense.

Don’t Quit, Reprioritize

I have recently spent too much time counseling teachers who want to quit. In each conversation, there comes a point where the frustrated, soon-to-be ex–art teacher says something to the effect of “someone needs to tell the truth about what’s going on here.” In that moment, I feel I know what they mean. These teachers have some experiences in common. Yet, “truth” is a loaded term. A single monolithic “truth” is rare. I would like to honor their request—even more importantly, I want to retain these talented educators.

The middle-level art room has always been a challenging job to fill. Why? People often take jobs in the middle as a pathway to the elementary or high school teaching job they feel better suited to. There is always turnover. The middle-level job comes with more challenging behaviors. The expectations of parents, other teachers, and administrators don’t match best practices. Parents say things like “why didn’t she get a 100, art is supposed to be fun.” And other adults intentionally or unintentionally signal that your class isn’t important—after all, they pull kids from art class for all kinds of things like speech, testing, and assemblies. A crisis like a global pandemic amplifies all of these challenges.

The latest postpandemic research indicates that most teachers know someone who has called it quits or have considered leaving this year themselves. One recent survey found that since the start of the pandemic, more than 25% of all U.S. teachers have considered leaving.(1) That is much more than in a typical year, and it represents a higher rate of job dissatisfaction than any other group of employed adults nationally. While anecdotal, consider our small NAEA ML leadership cohort as a microcosm of what some have termed the “Great Resignation.”(2) We have lost or are in danger of losing more than half of our leaders. Some are leaving to start new careers or businesses, others are opting for early retirement, and some are considering abandonment of contract. Almost every single member of the team admits to having contemplated leaving. Some have even posted frustrations or looked for advice on social media.

Now for that “truth.” Most of our problems are financial. You may not realize it at first, but try to look at what is bothering you through that lens. On average, U.S. schools spend $12,624 per child, per year.(3) If we had declared 2020–2021 a mulligan and let everyone redo what they missed, it would cost more than $40 billion.(4) Instead, we moved almost everyone forward and said that digital and hybrid learning was an unqualified success. In reality, many children returned to us in person with educational and emotional deficits. Are challenging behaviors on the rise? Yes. However, challenging behaviors were never the number one reason teachers left—the lack of autonomy was. Teachers overwhelmingly left because the paperwork, bureaucracy, and the constant new initiatives kept them from doing what drew them to teaching in the first place. For art teachers, that is a love of art and of sharing art with others. The “truth” about what’s happening has many faces, but it all comes back to finances. Perhaps your truth is that you can’t get the classroom materials you need; they are either not available for purchase or your budget is gone. For others it is the amount of time spent enforcing new mandates—put on your mask, cover your nose and mouth, this hall has one-way traffic, use the social distance markers, and so forth. Perhaps it’s the lack of manpower. There are not enough bus drivers or substitutes. That means you arrive early and stay late supervising kids while a skeleton crew of drivers make multiple trips. And when you are absent you make two sets of plans, one for if there is a sub and one magical plan that without the use of a computer, art supplies, or too many photocopies will keep students engaged and self-directed for 2 hours as they are divided up and sent to other teachers. When you are not absent, you get to take on all the extra kids from the people who are absent. Sometimes you even get a whole class. Maybe you are lesson planning for yourself and others for days or weeks because another teacher quit or is quarantined due to COVID-19.

These examples may not be your examples, but whatever you are experiencing, it likely has finances as a root cause. Recognizing that these are financial problems is probably not enough to make someone who is on the edge stay. We have been working in crisis mode for over a year and a half. We cannot work this way in perpetuity. But eventually, we will recover from these financial burdens and achieve a new level of normality. Until then, keep in mind that your own value as an asset of your organization has gone up tremendously. There was already a teacher shortage. Now a crisis has pushed even more people out. I am not advocating that you try and get yourself fired—instead, I’m asking if you as an individual might be able to do some self-advocacy while saying NO to some things that are making it hard to stay. Frame your NO in terms of all the amazing extra things you are doing and have been doing to get through this crisis: “Despite the lack of technology and the unavailability of supplies, I put in extra work and found ways for our kids to make art and cover all the standards.” Include some of your personal goals while advocating. Perhaps something like “online learning really blurred the lines between my work and home life, so I am reprioritizing my work–home life balance this year.”

There are other things you can do to make it to our recovery. First, leave your problems at school. The most successful middle school teachers have always been those that can forget their problems on the commute home. When you get home, spend time doing things that matter to you. Make art. Be fully present with the people you love. If you are on your own, go find something in person or virtual that connects you to others. You will be a better teacher if your job is not your whole life. Second, recognize that mental health is health, not hooey! Apps like Headspace and Ten Percent Happier actually work. And if they don’t, talk to someone. If after talking to a mental health professional you decide you need to leave, then you’re leaving on your terms—for medical reasons. Don’t just quit. Don’t throw away your education and your teaching license. Leave the door open so you can return when you and the situation are better.

Aimee Burgamy is the NAEA Middle Level Division Director. She has taught middle school art for 17 years in Metro Atlanta.

  1. Steiner, E. D., & Woo, A. (2021). Job-related stress threatens the teacher supply: Key findings from the 2021 State of the U.S. Teacher Survey. RAND Corporation.
  2. The “Great Resignation.” Anthony Klotz, associate professor of management at Texas A&M University, in a now viral interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. May 10, 2021.
  3. Hanson, M. (2021, August 2). U.S. Public Education Spending Statistics.
  4. 3.2 million people aged 16 to 24 graduated from high school between January and October 2019 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Column by:
Aimee Burgamy, Division Director
Art Educator, Richard Hull Middle, Duluth, GA
Tel: 770-232-3200

Janis Stivers Nunnally, Visual Arts Educator, Putnam County School Board, Cookeville, TN.

Regional Directors:
Eastern: Hope Lord,
Southeastern: Margaret Skow,
Western: Jessica Jones,
Pacific: Rebecca Weeks,

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