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Teachers express frustration, concern over new state laws

By Kirsten Adair, IPB News | Published on in Education, Government, Politics
Teachers from across the state gathered at the Statehouse on April 13, 2023 to protest education bills and demand higher pay. (Kirsten Adair/IPB News)

Educators throughout the state are expressing frustration with several new education laws that came out of this year’s legislative session.

Monroe County Education Association President Paul Farmer said many teachers are feeling let down by Indiana lawmakers because, despite dozens of teachers testifying in opposition, lawmakers passed bills that remove a defense against charges that school employees gave harmful material to minors, reduce teacher bargaining power and restrict the rights of transgender youth.

Farmer said some teachers feel like state lawmakers don’t care about their opinions or take their experiences into account.

“When you ask about, you know, do teachers feel appreciated? A lot of it is, from whom? And it depends,” he said. “When we talk about the legislative session, the answer is no.”

Farmer said many issues that legislators and some community members express concern about are overhyped on social media before they are taken to teachers and school administrators. He said this delays solving the problem and causes a breakdown in communication between educators, parents and the community.

Farmer points to a new law about books deemed harmful to minors as an example. Many schools already have a process for reviewing books when a parent questions their content. However, Farmer said it seems like lawmakers ignored testimony from educators about those processes.

“There’s a lack of communication,” he said. “People don’t talk to people. They just, for the most part, immediately go to social media. They immediately go out and post things. They immediately go out or they show up at a school board meeting. And they say they talk about some issue, whatever it is. And what you really want to do is go. Have you ever talked to your teacher or have you talked to the principal yet?”

Farmer said he has solved many issues by having discussions with parents as soon as those issues arise. Rather than making laws at the state level, he said people should speak directly with their local educators and maintain open lines of communication.

Additionally, some educators worry these new laws could lead to more people leaving the profession, exacerbating an ongoing teacher shortage.

Eighth grade history teacher Jon Bordeaux testified with dozens of other educators this session against multiple education bills. Now that those bills have been signed into law, Bordeaux said some teachers may choose not to renew their contracts next year.

“They could retire or they could decide, ‘You know what, I want to do a change in career,’” he said. “Some people might, now that school’s winding down, they might be like, ‘You know, I have a little bit of extra time. What else is out there? Is there a job in the community that I’d be qualified to do that might just be less stress?’”

There are approximately 2,000 open teaching jobs currently listed on the Indiana Department of Education’s online job portal.

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Bordeaux said poor working conditions and low pay will also prevent new teachers from joining the profession. He said the number of students graduating from education programs at universities and colleges is dwindling because students look at their own teachers, see their struggles, and decide to take a different path.

“What we’re seeing across colleges and universities are smaller groups of people going into education,” he said. “Ultimately, we’re also seeing people who go into those programs, but within a few years of teaching decide this isn’t something that they can do. It’s not sustainable. And being as young as they are, they probably feel a bit less trapped than some of us who have been doing this for over 15 years.”

Farmer has noticed higher turnover for those already in the profession. He said 10 years ago, it was common for his school corporation to hire between 70 and 80 new teachers at the beginning of the year. Last year, that estimate jumped to about 125 new hires.

Farmer said it is important to note that the teacher shortage is not due to a lack of licensed teachers in the state, but instead comes from teachers leaving the profession altogether.

“In the state of Indiana, we currently have some of the highest numbers of individuals that are licensed to teach,” Farmer said. “The problem is, we have individuals who are licensed to teach, but they don’t want to teach.”

Bordeaux has noticed the same problem in his school district and the surrounding areas. He has seen the problem get worse over recent years, and he said some of the new education laws going into effect this year will only make the problem worse.

“It’s not like there’s a shortage of people that are either interested and or competent to be able to do this job,” Bordeaux said. “We are pushing people out because the working conditions are so poor and the compensation is so poor that more and more of us every year are faced with the question of, ‘Can I come back?’ ‘Is this something that I could do again?’”

Bordeaux said the best way people can support teachers in Indiana is by listening to them and encouraging state lawmakers to do the same.

“We need the public to take this seriously,” he said. “The state legislature has done what they want. But it’s largely because every two years there’s an election cycle of which the public says, ‘Yeah, we’re pretty much cool with that with all of this.’ And that doesn’t change.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story referenced a bill that criminalized giving certain books to children. That was incorrect. The bill removes protections from schools for certain legal defenses against criminal action.

Kirsten is our education reporter. Contact her at kadair@wfyi.org or follow her on Twitter at @kirsten_adair.