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An Oakland charter school tries to avoid teacher burnout

Under CC license from Flickr user Marlith

Samara Shever is a second and third grade “looping" teacher at Learning Without Limits Elementary School. Looping means Shever stays with the same class through their second and third grade years. She's been teaching this way for six years.

“When I started, we had just founded our school as a small public school," says Shever.  "The reason we need a small school is because it allows us to have relationships with our students, and with our families in a way that if there are hundreds and hundreds of kids, you just can’t maintain.”  

Recently, class sizes started to swell, and severe budget cuts forced some teachers to be laid off. In response, Learning Without Limits made a dramatic shift. Shever says, “Just last year we converted to becoming a district-sponsored charter school.”

By becoming a charter school, Learning Without Limits is able to function outside of Oakland School District’s governance and maintain its independence.

Shever says being at a charter school can mean autonomy for teachers. “Autonomy over our staffing, autonomy over our calendar, autonomy over our budget, and curriculum, so we can decide what we’re teaching and when,” she says.

Before becoming a charter, Shever explains that there were many layoffs at her school.

“Most of the teachers at our school started their careers here or had one or two years before coming here. So, we were all pretty low of the totem poll. So, when layoffs came through we were disproportionately impacted," Shever says.

Being a school of mostly young teachers starting their careers, almost all of the teachers at Learning Without Limits were at risk of losing their jobs. According to Shever, within the district,  “the last hired are the first fired, so a lot of teacher at our school who had two, three year were getting layoff notices or threatened to get layoff notices every year.”

Now, the school can maintain stability, and its teachers aren’t threatened with a pink slip every year. As a charter, Learning Without Limits is able to circumvent the district’s policies on which teachers keep their jobs, and who gets fired; a choice that was ultimately made to provide the best education and the best resources possible directly to classrooms and to the kids.

Inside Shever’s classroom, the seven-year-olds are overly excited. Shever claps her hands to get their focus back to their reading assignment. Not only is Shever a really good teacher in her ability to have sevem-year-olds understand information and do other higher level thinking, she’s also extremely involved in each of her student’s lives.

Teaching is not always so easy to balance – and can overrun a teacher’s life. For example, as part of the charter school’s rules, Shever must keep her personal phone on until 9pm during the school week in order for families to contact her.

“Teaching is hard and it takes a lot of work and there is a high level of burnout, and I think we’re still working to figure out how, as a school, we can set our limits, and have boundaries as teachers so we’re not on a burnout path,” she says.

The very nature of teaching makes getting teacher off a burnout path extremely difficult. Shever thinks teaching is like a gas: "It’ll fill up as much space as you give it and so as individual teachers we need to decide what size container we want to make teaching in our lives."

Shever has been trying to find the perfect “container” for her teaching job, and the support of the charter is helping her with support services such as counseling for staff, and social workers to help handle behavioral issues within the classroom, as well as issues outside the classroom that require contacting and close work with the families.

Learning Without Limits is still trying to figure our how to help teachers set boundaries, while still keeping the focus on kids. They are also making exciting changes to help kids in the classroom, and to improve learning.

Skylar Crownover is a student reporter at Mills College in Oakland.