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'Pouring from that empty cup': Teachers feel intense burnout, struggle with mental health

Many teachers are sacrificing prep time to cover other classrooms and positions throughout schools.

MUKILTEO, Wash. — Washington teachers say their mental health is suffering as schools across the state continue to deal with staffing shortages.

"This morning I didn't even want to walk in," said Sobia Sheikh, a high school math teacher for the Mukilteo School District. 

Sheikh said the pressure starts as soon as teachers walk into their schools, where in some cases, they are being asked to cover other classes in addition to their own due to lack of substitutes.

"Many of my colleagues, like, are crying," said Sheikh. "They are frustrated, they are overwhelmed, wishing [that] tomorrow wasn't another workday."  

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Sheikh said she's not sure if she will even return to teaching next year and other colleagues of hers are looking for different jobs. Many teachers said they are also stretching themselves thin, missing their planning periods to help out in the lunchroom and other classes.

Even school counselors are needing to fill in as substitutes, which only adds to their workload.

"Right now, our counselors, they are struggling. They have caseloads of, like, over 500 students," Sheikh said. 

Over in the Bellevue School District, kindergarten teacher Sheryl Elrod said constant COVID-19 exposures are creating more work for teachers.

"We haven't been able to get into a rhythm of progression of academic teaching because pretty much it feels like every two weeks, you're starting the school year over, you're reteaching all the routines, all the skills because half the class has been missing," said Elrod.

Elrod also said she constantly worries about exposure since she works with younger kids who are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

"My health is in jeopardy every single day and that puts my family at risk," she said.

Hattie Midboe is a 6th-grade teacher in the Lake Washington School District and she said kids are also suffering with less staff to go around to support their emotional needs.

"I am not a trained counselor, and yet I'm finding that I'm doing a lot of counseling day in and day out," she said. "Being a teacher demands a lot, and I know a lot of people who are who are going to go, 'I just don't have a lot more to give right now.'"

Sheikh said if the state and school districts don't do more to ease the heavy burden and stress on teachers, the staffing shortage is going to get even more intense.

"Many of us are pouring from that empty cup from last year, we are emotionally exhausted," she said. "We need to be looking at mental health support for educators."