Amid a growing teacher shortage in Iowa, attacks on teachers’ abilities to teach are driving more away from Iowa schools.
Neal Patel, a science teacher in the Johnston Community School District, announced at a committee meeting last Thursday that he plans to resign at the end of the school year. He cited the toxic environment as the reason.
“It’s not worth it to me to have parents emailing me back and forth about how I am pushing my views on students when I teach science,” he said. “We don’t even talk about politics. There’s nothing political about science that I teach.”
Last May, Patel was targeted on Facebook by State Rep. Steve Holt (R) who posted a picture of LGBTQ and racial-justice flags in Patel’s classroom and wrote in part, “Left-wing political activism taught through critical race theory and/or anti-racism training is inappropriate on the taxpayer’s dime. We will continue to work to stop left-wing indoctrination of our students.”
At last Thursday’s meeting, State Sen. Jake Chapman (R) said he will work on changing Iowa’s obscenity law to charge teachers and librarians with felonies if they allow children to access books he thinks are obscene.
Those books are often about race, LGBTQ identities, and sexual thoughts or experiences.
Teacher shortages are already having effects. Earlier this month, Saydel High School closed for a day because there weren’t enough staff. The same thing happened in the Rudd-Rockford-Marble Rock school district near Mason City. Last week, it happened in Central City, too. Teachers leaving will only exacerbate the problem.
Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek said the current crisis has been years in the making because of fewer resources for schools and more demands on teachers.
This latest push of targeting teachers over what books are in a school is one more cause for concern among teachers, he said.
“We fully believe that there should be constant communication between parents, guardians, and foster care providers and their schools,” Beranek said. “But as I said earlier, our classroom teachers are the ones who went to school for this profession, and they have the degree, and the materials they use are ones they view as important to help students learn and grow.”
He also pointed out curriculums go through a process and must adhere to standards set by the state.
For months, vocal conservatives have protested efforts to teach students different perspectives or systemic problems related to race and sex.
Those protests have led to backlash for the Ames School District’s Black Lives Matter at Schools Week, and a new law that bans the teaching of topics like systemic racism or systemic sexism in diversity training.
Most recently, there’s been a movement to remove certain books from school libraries around the Des Moines metro.
But Iowa students, Beranek said, need to learn about diversity and how to think critically about the world around them.
“We all are living in society,” he said. “And we need to not only prepare ourselves but prepare our students to live in the future Iowa. And that involves a good, solid understanding of the current affairs affecting society today and then to critically analyze and develop strategies to help address those unforeseen issues.”
Beranek said fewer Iowans are going into teaching, and that high percentages of teachers in their first five years of teaching are leaving the profession.
More seasoned educators, in the middle of their careers, are leaving too, he said.
“There are increased demands on our entire system and there is a strong possibility that when we end the school year and begin to look for hiring replacements next year that it could be even more of a crisis,” Beranek said.
To fix the problem, he said educators need more support from the state, their communities, and from parents. When he taught, he said having conversations with parents about how best to support a student was both successful and ultimately best for the student.
Especially if Iowa wants to hold onto its reputation for high-quality education.
“Iowa has long used public education as a recruitment tool for businesses and families to move to Iowa,” he said. “The more closed we get with our thinking, the more closed our borders will be to folks moving to Iowa.”