NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The teachers are not OK.
One after another told the School Committee Tuesday night they were feeling defeated, depressed, stressed, and begged for mental health support.
They’d been through the disruptions of the pandemic, adapted to distance learning, and then the return to classrooms that had changed. They saw how their students struggled with their mental health. They’ve struggled with their own.
Last fall, they reeled after learning a trusted and respected teacher and basketball coach had been taking teen boys aside for private “naked fat tests” in his office since the 1990s. They felt the shame of the accusations against former coach Aaron Thomas and questions about why no one did anything to stop him. They felt betrayed by the lack of communication from their own school department.
Then last month, a beloved teacher died unexpectedly. Alicia Biros, 42, had taught math at the high school for 18 years. Her obituary said Biros had “lost a long battle with mental illness.” Her colleagues learned of her death in an emergency staff meeting and then were sent out to teach as usual.
That was the moment that finally broke them, they said at Tuesday’s meeting. They were speaking openly for the first time since the Thomas scandal became public. It was Biros’ death that prompted at least 10 teachers to tell the School Committee about how bad things had become.
High School math teacher Lisa Hanson Garcia, the Rhode Island Teacher of the Year, told the committee about how her friend Biros had become overwhelmed by stress. Garcia said Biros had taught courses that required students to engage in productive struggles, but the community’s distrust with the school system left her open to attacks from parents about her methods and abilities. Biros had felt defeated and demoralized, Garcia said. And she was not the only one.
“Teachers are overwhelmed, tired, depressed, frustrated, and overworked. We have been working in crisis mode for too long, and this is negatively impacting our health. Many are experiencing thoughts of hopelessness, and want to leave the profession,” Garcia said.
Math teacher Jordan Abernaz told the School Committee they learned of Biros’ death in an emergency staff meeting at 6:30 a.m., and then were sent to face the students arriving at 7. There was an announcement at 7:15, and then the teachers were back in the classroom, as if nothing was different.
“We’re asked to go from [being] grieving adults to students learning as if nothing happened,” Abernaz said. “At some point, there is a breaking point. I feel like we are at it.”
In the days leading up to Biros’ funeral, the teachers were left out, said Sue Warburton, ELL teacher at the high school and president of the teachers union. The union wanted to know how to handle the day of the funeral, and had no answers until the day before. Their grief was handled dismally, she said, and became one more moment of disrespect, Warburton said.
Interim Superintendent Michael Waterman ended up deciding to close the high school on June 3, the day of Biros’ funeral, to give students and staff the day to mourn.
Biros’ loss has illuminated the pressure they’ve been under. One after another, teachers begged the School Committee for wellness programs for teachers, mental health support for students, and open communication and accountability.
The high school may be among the top-ranked in the state, but inside, the teachers say they are struggling.
It was something that retired Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl noticed when she visited the high school three times to interview teachers and coaches for her report analyzing what happened with Thomas and recommending changes.
“North Kingstown High School is, by all accounts, an excellent school,” McGuirl wrote. “I have been impressed by the excellent and caring teachers, faculty, and staff that I have met. They are sad, embarrassed, angry, frustrated, and upset by the events.”
But even she took note of the pressure the teachers were under — the strains of dealing with two years of upheavals caused by COVID-19, being mindful of their students’ mental health issues, being aware and prepared to deal with threats to school safety, include a shooter.
History teacher David Avedisian told them about the morning of May 26, when they found out Biros had died. The emergency meeting, the cold announcement, then running into a student who had been kicked out of her home, and another who was drunk or high, and how he searched to find the right person to help them.
It was the same week of the massacre at the elementary school in Uvalde, Avedisian said, but the school resource officer wasn’t at their high school and couldn’t be found. There was no school psychologist since the last person had retired. Avedisian finally found an assistant principal to help. He later wondered if he’d done everything right.
“The best crisis team you have in the building is us,” Avedisian said, but there is no training and no communication among school officials to know if they have managed the crisis.
Committee members and the superintendent listened quietly to each of the teachers. A few residents also offered support for the teachers.
The teacher’s contract is expiring in two weeks. Warburton said the union sent a formal request last fall to bargain, with dates, but have heard nothing.
“You cannot expect more and more from teachers while providing less resources. We cannot lift our students up when we are feeling beaten down,” Warburton said. “We need additional resources to handle the mental health needs in our community. We need to be heard.”