Jimmy Barbuto has seen a lot—fights, weapons on campus, stabbings—during his 10 years at Skyline High School. But even for Barbuto, a seasoned history teacher, what happened at the beginning of this year was difficult to process.
Within the first month of school, a gun was fired on the Oakland hills campus. The school went into a “lockdown,” Oakland police responded to the incident, and recovered a weapon. Classes were canceled the next day. The Alameda County District Attorney’s office later charged three minors who were allegedly involved in the shooting.
While no one was physically injured, the Skyline community—teachers, staff, students, and parents—was left reeling. Just a few days earlier, police had responded to a bomb threat at another OUSD campus, Chabot Elementary, which also canceled classes.
“I’ve been exposed to a lot of violence. I’ve built coping skills to just be able to survive in that environment and continue to be able to work,” Barbuto said. “I try not to be fully numb to it, but numb enough that I can keep doing my job and living here.”
While school districts and the state have rightfully focused attention and resources on student mental health during the pandemic, teacher well-being has arguably been less of a priority—despite chronic understaffing at many schools, which can lead to educators taking on more work while tasked with getting students back on track academically after months of distance learning. Add the stress of violence on school campuses, and you’ve got a recipe for teacher burnout.
“The number one reason you’re seeing massive [teacher] attrition in public schools… is because people are worn out, they’re burnt out, and they’re dealing with many of these crises,” said OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell at a recent school board meeting.
Oakland Unified has an employee assistance program that provides staff with several free therapy sessions, and the district recently began a partnership with Care Solace, a service to help OUSD families and employees find mental health providers. A resource page for OUSD teachers and staff also suggests therapy apps like Talkspace and BetterHelp, and includes links to clinics that offer low-cost therapy.
Last year, Care Solace had 327 cases with OUSD staff, said district spokesman John Sasaki. He added that the district’s restorative justice and behavioral health teams hold grief and loss sessions for principals, teachers, and staff, and hold individual check-ins with staff who request them.
Barbuto, who also serves as a teachers union representative at Skyline, said most OUSD teachers receive health insurance through Kaiser, which has come under scrutiny recently for the quality and accessibility of its mental health care.
Barbuto said he’s been channeling his despair into advocating for precautions that would make him and his colleagues feel safer. Lately, he and other teachers have been asking the district to provide functional blinds for their classrooms so that during lockdowns or other emergencies, they can cover the windows and intruders won’t be able to see into classrooms.
“A coping strategy for me is, we can’t stop every violent event but we can try to advocate for things to get better and get the basic tools you need to be prepared,” Barbuto said.
Dealing with ‘teacher guilt’
Daisy Acosta Ramirez is the kindergarten team lead at Aspire Monarch Academy, a charter school at 101st Street and International Boulevard. On top of teaching her class of 22 kindergarteners, she meets with her school principals on a weekly basis and leads lesson planning with the other kindergarten teachers. Soon, she’ll be taking on another role as a coach to newer teachers. She’s also a mom to a 10-year-old and a 1-year-old.
Striking a balance between work and personal life during the pandemic has been challenging, she said. She nearly lost her voice last month, after a week of marathon parent-teacher conferences.
Now in her fifth year teaching kindergarten, Acosta Ramirez said that having more flexibility and being empowered to actually take advantage of the resources that are available, would be helpful for teachers.
“Being able to ask for those resources or being able to have that time off without feeling teacher guilt,” said Acosta Ramirez. “Even asking for time off, you feel guilty, because you know there’s such a shortage of substitute teachers.”
Acosta Ramirez added that she has picked up some wellness practices from what she teaches to her kindergarteners. In her classroom, she has a poster on the wall of 12 “tools” that students can use if they’re feeling overwhelmed, like taking deep breaths, going to a quiet place, and having patience.
“Those 12 tools are the ones that I teach my scholars,” she said, “and I keep them for myself as well.”
Who heals the healers?
That’s one of the questions that Lindsey Fuller and her team at The Teaching Well are trying to answer. Established as a nonprofit in 2019, The Teaching Well is an Oakland-based organization that partners with schools and school districts to offer professional development, training, and mentorship to help educators stay mentally well.
“Everyone’s talking about the [teacher] shortages, but nationally, these educators are not leaving because of kids,” said Fuller, the executive director. “I’m not saying misbehavior isn’t bad or that more pay wouldn’t be nice, but they’re quitting their bosses and toxic adult culture.”
Staffing shortages and turnover have led to a pattern of teachers sometimes being promoted to principal roles without adequate support or first serving as a dean or vice principal, which in turn can contribute to burnout and interpersonal challenges, Fuller said.
“All of a sudden, they are responsible for complex people management, which can then contribute to challenging dynamics in supervision or in coaching and feedback.”
The organization’s “mindful mentoring” program has been one of the most in demand, Fuller said. It offers educators one-on-one coaching and nonclinical therapy a few times a month. During the sessions, teachers learn strategies for managing stress, roleplay difficult conversations, and practice mindfulness.
But the demand for these trainings sometimes outstrips what a school or district can afford, Fuller said, despite the existence of funding the nonprofit can sometimes offer through its philanthropic partners to offset the costs for schools.
The Teaching Well has recently been developing its grief counseling program for schools, and piloting a clinical service where educators can be matched with trained therapists.
Among the 40 schools, primarily in Oakland, that The Teaching Well is currently serving are La Escuelita Elementary, Redwood Heights Elementary, and three Aspire charter schools, where the organization will be embedded for up to five years to help improve work culture.
Fuller echoed Daisy’s concern about teachers feeling like they can’t take time off because it might strain schools in other areas.
“There’s this build-up of chronic ailments, untended-to mental health issues … there’s this snowball effect, and folks are taking huge amounts of mental health or PTO days in ways that are destabilizing school culture,” Fuller said. “How do we get our educators well and not get them to the point that they’re breaking and need to go on mental health or medical leave?”
How can OUSD think outside the box to improve teacher well being?
Sean Gleason in 2023 was named one of OUSD’s teachers of the year, recognized for his work at Rudsdale High School, an alternative school for older teens and recent immigrant students. After accepting the recognition at a school board meeting last month, Gleason called attention to the mental health crisis affecting Oakland educators.
“I think that we have a really, really urgent need to prioritize mental health services for teachers. I think Oakland does a really good job of recognizing the importance of mental health services for students,” he said to district leadership and the school board. “And I think that ‘thriving students’, which it says on the wall behind you, can only happen if teachers are thriving too.”
In an interview with The Oaklandside, Gleason emphasized that it’s not just teachers at his campus—where a mass shooting last year killed an OUSD employee—who need support.
“The concern shouldn’t just be for people who are directly impacted by these kinds of incidents, but educators across the board,” Gleason said, citing school closures and teaching at resource-deprived schools as additional stressors.
In May, members of the school community at Rudsdale created a memorial on the campus for David Sakurai, a buildings and grounds employee who was among six people shot in September 2022. Gleason praised his school leadership for holding space for everyone on campus to process what happened.
Gleason, who teaches English and a bike repair elective, recognizes that the district isn’t a healthcare provider, but is urging district leaders to think outside the box, not unlike the way he and other Rudsdale staff do every day at the alternative school. He pointed to the behavioral and mental health specialists whose role is to serve students, and wondered whether they could also be a resource for teachers and staff.
“I’m at an alternative education setting, so my mind is always on, ‘What else can we do other than what’s been done?’ It’d be nice to see the district and the state also approach the well-being of educators with the same perspective.”
Barbuto, the Skyline teacher, feels that improving safety at school facilities and investing in more conflict resolution staff could significantly improve teachers’ well being and campus safety. Staying mentally well is crucial for teachers, he added, so they can be there for students when they’re dealing with trauma in their personal lives. The vicarious trauma can impact teachers as well.
“We have students who have unstable housing, tumultuous relationships at home where their safety is not guaranteed, or who are not living at home. We have students who struggle with substance abuse, self harm and mental health struggles,” he said. “I feel like all teachers, regardless of age or which school they’re at, are carrying a lot of that.”
“Then the bell rings and we have to do some grading, do some planning, and then go home.”