Podcast: Budget Cuts, Burnout, and Self-Care with Georgette McClain on Teachers in America

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On the podcast today, we have our seventh episode of the Teachers in America series.

Our guest is Georgette McClain, who is a Life Sciences teacher at Blanchester High School in Blanchester, Ohio, where she has taught for twelve years. Georgette holds her bachelor’s degree from Wilmington College in Wilmington, Ohio, where she studied Biology and Secondary Education, and earned her master’s degree in Teacher Leadership from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. In 2015, Georgette added a Principal license to her teaching certification. Outside of the classroom Georgette, who is also a voracious reader, enjoys birdwatching, camping, and traveling.

Below is a full transcript of the episode.

The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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Onalee Smith: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments. I’m Onalee and for today’s episode of Teachers in America we sit down with Georgette McClain, a life sciences teacher at Blanchester High School in Blanchester, Ohio, which has a population of 4,000. Now, let’s jump in with Georgette.

HMH: Why did you decide to teach?

Georgette McClain: Since I was in first grade I wanted to be a teacher. So I loved school. I enjoyed learning and I see education as the key to a bright future for people. I think learning, even if it's a trade or a skill or wherever your passion is, learning is the key to having a better life.

HMH: So do you remember that moment when you were six. I can barely remember anything from when I was I think probably you know before third grade. But do you remember the moment when you were in first grade, and what sparked that feeling?

Georgette: I think a lot of it was in first grade I had this wonderful teacher, her name was Miss Stahl, and she was just a wonderful teacher. She made learning fun. I still remember doing the little phonics workbooks and things and I loved going to school. And so it was almost like at that point in my life I wanted to be like her. I wanted to come in and make kids happy. I wanted to make them excited to learn.

HMH: So you continued that because I think we have a lot of feelings and aspirations when we're six years old, but that continued. So what was another moment that you recall that sent you on that journey to study teaching?

Georgette: It was just something that I was passionate about all the way through school. And then of course I didn't go to school to be a teacher right out of high school. Circumstances didn't allow that. But I did go back later in life because I went on. I always worked. I always had a job and things, but I never felt like what I was doing was what I was passionate about or what I wanted to do with my life. So when I was probably about 27, I decided this isn't what I wanted for my life. I mean, I had everything I needed and I was going to work every day. But my heart wasn't in it. So that was when I made the decision to go back to school and get the certification to become a teacher.

HMH: Do you think being a teacher kind of later on in life has sustained you? You had the maturity of being in the workforce and then really choosing a path. How do you think having a career beforehand or jobs beforehand helped you when you went to the classroom?

Georgette: Well, I think the maturity thing you mentioned is a big part of it. I think it would be very difficult or it is difficult for people who graduate from college and go straight into teaching at a very early age because you're not that much older than the kids you're teaching if you teach high school.

HMH: Right.

Georgette: It also gave me a lot of life experience. Some of those jobs were where you deal with people and how to handle difficult situations and things, which has come in handy quite often in teaching high school. How to deal with someone who's very upset with you. It's just I don't know how to explain it. It's just the life experience of interacting with all different kinds of people and different situations.

HMH: And dealing with conflict, right?

Georgette: Exactly. Yes, if you work in customer service you're dealing with conflict.

HMH: And if you work in teaching, classrooms or not conflict-free environments, and we’ll talk a little bit more about that. So, what do you remember specifically about Miss Stahl and what made her a great teacher that inspired you at age 6.

Georgette: I just remember she always smiled. She was always happy to see us. I always felt welcome with her. I felt safe with her and I felt like she cared about us and she loved us. I remember walking home from school the last day and just crying my eyes out. I thought I would never see her again.

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HMH: One of the things you mentioned about Miss Stahl in first grade for you as a child was that you felt safe. I think more and more we understand that the role of a teacher is not just about teaching and learning, but is very much about keeping safe in all its meanings. As you think about the issues circulating in the media about school shootings, and in 2018 there were over 114 people either shot or injured in school shootings in the U.S. How does that affect you as you go to school every day.

Georgette: Certainly when it's in the news and stuff when something happens it's more in the forefront of your mind. Some days you don't think about it as much, but it's always there. It's always a concern because when Columbine—of course I wasn't teaching when Columbine happened—but you know when Columbine happened, the date when this seems like it all first started, they were so far apart. It would happen. It would be a big deal and then it would kind of die back down and you wouldn't think about it. And you always thought, “Oh, it won't happen here. It won't happen here.” But then when you see it happening more and more and then just any school anywhere, then that's always kind of there in the back of your mind that this could happen anywhere. And it could happen here. And then sometimes you'll have a student in class that you know is troubled and you think, “I'm concerned about that child.” Sometimes you know they need help.

HMH: I mean most of the kids that are at school today given when Columbine happened have been having lockdowns for active shooters their whole school career. How do you think that affects kids?

Georgette: I think it also concerns them. I don't know that they may be expressing it as much to us, but sometimes they do when we have at our school, we have what's called ALICE. ALICE training. So when we have those you know it is kind of. . .

[ALICE training stands for "Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate"]

HMH: You want to just describe what it is?

Georgette: Yeah. And so we'll have what's called a lockdown drill, but it's based on ALICE. When all these school shootings and stuff first started, the instructions were to lock your door and hide in your room. Well, I think it was after Virginia Tech they finally realized that locking your door and hiding in your room, it leaves you like a sitting duck. Okay? So, if someone comes in they’ll mow you down and so they finally said okay now we fight back. So if somebody comes in the school, so if there's an active shooter, they will get on and tell you what part of the building they're in. And if you can get your students out of that building, that's what you're to do. If you cannot get out of the building then you are to fight back because it's very hard for a shooter to aim and shoot someone if things are being thrown at them whether it's textbooks, chairs, whatever. Then that's what you do is you fight back because people are less likely to get killed if the shooter is being pelted with whatever you have in your room.

HMH: Does that scare you?

Georgette: Yes.

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HMH: I know there's discussions around in some states, and I think Ohio is one of them, around more guns for teachers or for adults in the building to protect the school. What are your thoughts about that?

Georgette: I think we do need some type of protection in the schools. We definitely do. But I don't know that I'm the person to do that. I don't know. I mean I would do anything to protect my kids and to save all of our lives. But I don't know that I'm the person to arm. So there are some people who, with the proper training, who are more comfortable with that, that want to do that. And you know if that works for them that's wonderful. I don't know that. . . I mean I grew up, my family had guns. So I'm not necessarily anti-gun person, but I don't know that I'm the person who wants to have, you know, have a gun. That’s the scariest part of all of this to me is you think it could happen, it could happen anywhere, and you're trained on what to do and when we have a drill the kids are like, “I would do this and I would do that.” And I try to explain to them that in a moment of crisis you have no idea of what you will do, because you don't know how you're going to feel, because it's going to be way different than a lockdown drill. Your heart's going to be racing and your adrenaline is going to be pumping and you're going to be basically freaked out. No, you don't know. I mean everyone's been in some type of emergency situation and you think, “Well, I'll just do this this and this.” Well when the situation arises oftentimes it's not what you planned it would be anyway. That's why it's called an emergency. And so you don't often react in the way that you later think, “Well, I should have done this, I should have done that,” because you're not thinking clearly when you're in that kind of emergency situation that you weren't expecting to start with.

HMH: Right. So we talked about some of your hobbies earlier. I'm assuming that things that are really calming like bird watching are ways that you reduce stress. I think people don't realize just how stressful teachers’ jobs are. Obviously, I'm not going to get into the particular kinds of stress that each person experiences. But you know nationally that has been an increase in not just mental health concerns for kids but also for teachers. So what do you do to keep yourself kind of well and able to go to do the work every day.

Georgette: Well, one thing I found that was very important is to exercise on a regular basis. When I first started teaching I would run a lot and then I started working a lot of extra stuff outside of just being a teacher. I was doing it because I was paying off my student loans at the time. So any extra thing I could do to make extra money I took it. So I worked basketball games, football games, any sporting events selling tickets. I was on all kinds of committees and treasurer of the Union. I did as much as I could. I paid my student loans off about a year ago. And so at the beginning of last year I sat down and made a list of all these extra jobs. I thought some of this has to go because it was wearing me down. I had no free time. As far as a list of priorities, I was at the bottom. So I was taking care of myself last. And I knew I could not sustain that much longer. So I sat down and made this list. I ticked off the jobs that I could get rid of or stop doing or give to someone else. And so I basically did that. So last year when school got out I was at a pretty low point because I was just so burnt out. And I was not taking care of myself. So in June I joined the YMCA near where I lived and I started exercising on a regular basis, going to the group exercise classes. And that is the most wonderful stress relief in the world to just go in. I know this may sound strange, but I look forward to Mondays because no matter how tired I am at the end of the day when I leave school I know when I go home and I'll take care of my dogs, change my clothes, and I'll go to the Y. I do a cardio class and a TRX class and when I leave there I'm energized. So I moved myself back up on that list of priorities because I realized if I didn't take care of myself I can't take care everything else. I just couldn't. I wasn't going to do it any longer.

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HMH: Now that's really really smart. You know obviously last year we saw a really large school districts starting to strike. Groups of teachers starting to strike in quite large school districts around the country. Salaries for teachers are at about a 20 year low in terms of how they’ve grown in relation to inflation. There used to be about somewhere around a 2 percent gap between similarly educated professionals and teachers. That gap is now more like 20 percent. So if you think about you have a master's degree and think about people who have that kind of equivalent education. They’re being paid at least 20 percent more, and that’s in the first year out after that degree. How does that kind of affect you both in terms of your life but also how it makes you think about teaching?

Georgette: Well, I knew when I chose teaching that you weren't going into it for the big salary. I do think that we should be paid equivalent to our education. I think a lot of people have the idea that teachers we work from 7 to 3, we’re off in the evenings, we’re off on the weekends, and we’re off all summer, you know? And I don't think that a lot of people understand the amount of work outside the classroom that goes into being a teacher. That you have to take classes to renew your license every five years. There's all the grading . . .

HMH: Endless, right?

Georgette: Yes, endless grading.

HMH: I'm sure that's why I ended up leaving teaching is I couldn’t handle the grading.

Georgette: So, yeah, I would say that's probably my least favorite part of the job. Because you have to stay on top of that.

HMH: Yeah, and it's an important feedback loop, right? It's not just for compliance.

Georgette: And they want feedback as quickly as possible. You can't wait. And I also try to remember when I was a student, I didn't want to wait two weeks to find out what I got on my test. I wanted to know as soon as possible and my kids do as well. But I do think that it would be nice certainly if our salaries were in sync with other similarly educated people, but I don't know that that will ever happen.

HMH: Why do you think this is such a tough topic to talk about? We live in a capitalist society. No person who works for a company or even a nonprofit organization would think it was odd to try and negotiate a better salary for the work that they do.

Georgette: I think a lot of it is when you go into negotiations, now I've never been on the bargaining team. But when we send our representatives into negotiations I think it just comes down to when you go in and say we would like a raise. And they'll say there is no money. I mean now we did get a raise. . .

HMH: Do you believe them?

Georgette: Well, I guess I do because there are so many cuts. You know the way the funding is based. There are so many cuts or there are cuts every time you turn around to budget or to what's being given to each school district. And so if they say they don't have any money or they’ll pull out the five-year forecast, which I've not actually ever seen myself, but so they'll say there is no money. And how do you demand more money if they say there isn't any?

HMH: Right. I mean just nationally America continued to spend more per student on education than any other Western country. And it increases year over year. So you know while individuals might be experiencing that message, actually that's not in the macro sense what's happening. So I think it's a question of priorities and I think that's what you see in other countries where they've changed how they pay teachers.

Georgette: There's also the disparity between how the funding is divided out to the districts. So I don't know how it is in all the states in our country, but I believe in Ohio it's based on property taxes in the district.

[NOTE: Ohio public school districts use a combination of state funds, local sources such as property taxes (and in some cases income taxes) and federal funds. Read more about school funding from the Ohio Department of Education.]

Georgette: So then it stands to reason that the wealthier property areas will have schools that receive more money. Where when you're in an area where there is not high property values, then those students receive less money, and in a way the need is reversed. So my district is not in one of those high property value areas and there's a lot of need in our district.

HMH: Yeah. I think it's exactly the challenge is you want your best teachers and your best schools in the neediest places. And that's not what we always see despite that despite the goals and the underlying principle of things like Title 1 funding and IDEA.

Georgette: And that's where you're exactly right because you get the best teachers and you help those kids that are in the lowest areas and you get as many of those kids as you can out of that type of life. And you get them to move up and to have a better life.

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HMH: Let me ask you about technology. You teach in the sciences, one of the trendiest areas out there. Tell me about how much technology you use and what's the technology like to use when you're teaching or in your prep.

Georgette: I use mostly the basic things, basic Microsoft. We are a Google school, so we do have the ability and the capability to set up the classrooms online.

HMH: Do you do that?

Georgette: Yeah, I do. I use it in different ways for the different classes that I teach. So it allows me for my biology courses, it allows me to post my notes and things like that online where the students have access to them say if they're absent or something. My anatomy class, that's primarily where they’ll turn in their assignments.

HMH: And does that make it easier for you or for them or for both?

Georgette: It probably makes it easier for both of us. Yes. Some of the assignments I have the biology students do, those are something that I still have them just write out.

HMH: How does it make teaching different?

Georgette: In some ways the Chromebooks are a major distraction. Some of the students come in they automatically get them out. Well, if we’re not using them that day, it would be equivalent to them sitting there staring at their phone. So it’s a distraction. It’s wonderful if you have a lesson that requires that. We do have a program called Gizmos and it is designed to help them prepare for that, the AIR test in biology so it has a lot of computerized testing and quizzing and things where they have to manipulate, for example, build a molecule of DNA.

HMH: So like simulation?

Georgette: Yes, simulations. And so it has a lot of simulations and things that they can do online to help them to prepare for the online test. Before we started doing those our scores were terrible because we were teaching the kids, and not every kid had a Chromebook or the capability, and then so we were teaching them in the older. . . not the older way, how do I say. . .

HMH: Well, more traditional way.

Georgette: We were teaching them in the more traditional way. Then the test rolls around and they’re put on a computer and told to build a molecule of DNA or to build a cladogram, or you know to build something and they had no experience with it. So now we have this program which allows them to do that ahead of time so that they have some practice. Our scores went up for probably about 17 percent. . .

HMH: Wow.

Georgette: . . . when we added that program, so it’s been a huge help.

HMH: Well, yeah. I mean obviously the idea that the way that you teach and learn and the way that you’re assessed, the more similar those two things are, the more it makes sense to kids. They don't get sort of instructional whiplash.

Georgette: Exactly, and that would be a good way of describing that test before we added it.

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HMH: Right. Right. Right. So if there was something you could change about your job or the job of teaching, you know separate from how much you’re paid, what would that be?

Georgette: I would get rid of the over testing.

[Learn more about Ohio’s state tests.]

Georgette: In Ohio there are basically two measurements with this testing. There is the percentage of the students that passed the test. So I think it's called the indicator. But now what they do is they tie each individual student to the teacher that taught them that subject. So, for example, last year our test scores for our indicator skyrocketed because we added that Gizmos program. Yet, my individual grading as a teacher went down because they have some way of predicting what score that student should get. So if they say that student should get a 700 and they don't get a 700 even if they get the highest rating on the test, you if they’re advanced or accelerated, then that still counts against the teacher. So even though you have a student who can do very well on the test, the value added data, I think is what it's called, that part goes against the teacher. That's rough when you open that, when you see your percentage overall is great. You know 82 percent, 90 percent of your kids pass the test, yet your individual rating still says you're a terrible teacher.

HMH: It's not really breeding teacher collaboration is it?

Georgette: Yeah. Because you have to perform. And in reality there are so many things outside of my classroom that I have no control over. I know my students pretty well. I feel like I have wonderful rapport with them. I wouldn't say I know every detail of their lives, but I know some of the situations they're coming from. And I won't speak about specific students, but I have students that I know their primary concern is the basic needs in life and not passing a biology test.

HMH: Sleeping, eating, being safe.

Georgette: Having electricity. Your parents not being in jail. Serious things. Where am I going to sleep tonight? What am I going to eat for dinner? And so it's really hard to look at that kid and say you've got to pass this test because I'm going to get a bad rating if you don't. You need to come to school every day. Because that's not their concern. And I almost I feel like I'm being selfish if I'm worried about that rating when I know that this kid doesn't have any heat at his house.

HMH: Yeah. It gives a different meaning to what value add is as a teacher doesn't it?

Georgette: And there's no way or it doesn't seem any motivation to take that into account. If you have a student who misses school three days a week that affects the attendance rate of the school. I cannot teach that child as a correspondence class. When a kid is out two or three days a week, when they come back they're out of class because they're making up all the work and quizzes and tests they missed. So you're not actually teaching that kid. And why they're not coming to school may be a whole different matter. But that is not something I have control over. I cannot get in my car, come to their house, and say you've got to come to school because I've got to have a good rating at the end of the year.

HMH: Right.

Georgette: If I could get rid of anything it would be the over testing. It's a lot of pressure on the kids, too. They have to accumulate so many points in order to graduate now. Based on what they get on all these different tests they take, all the different areas of this AIR test that they have to take. I have no problem being evaluated and someone making sure that I'm doing my job. I have a job. I work for the district. And if they want to make sure that I'm coming in and teaching every day and that the kids are learning, I have no problem with that. Any job you ever work at, someone is going to oversee that you're doing what you're supposed to do.

HMH: That's not the issue.

Georgette: But this extra. . . this test and the money that's spent on the testing would be a nice addition to a school, to the school district's budget.

HMH: To teachers’ salaries even. You don't have to say that, but I will say that on your behalf. What do you think it means to be a teacher in America today with the world changing as it is with technology being so prolific, with the demographics of America changing, what does it mean to be a teacher in America today?

Georgette: The way I feel, you kind of have to accept going into it that this is how it's going to be. You're not going to make a lot of money. There's a lot of stress. There's a lot of pressure to get good test scores. You're going to deal with all kinds of kids from all kinds of backgrounds and situations that you have no control over. There will be days you will drive home from work just exhilarated, that's something that you got through to this kid, or that you know you made a difference in a kid's life. And there are days you're going to sit down at your desk at the end of the day and cry, because your heart breaks for some of these kids.

HMH: Thank you Georgette for joining us and thank you for what you do every day for kids.

Georgette: You’ve very welcome.

Onalee: Thanks for listening and learning with us. Join our community and read our Shaped blog by visiting That's h-m-h-c-o-dot-com-slash-s-h-a-p-e-d. You can follow HMH Learning Moments on iTunes [Apple Podcasts], Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. We really hope you enjoyed today's show and will please consider rating and reviewing or sharing with your network. HMH Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Learning Company. Thanks again for listening.


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Research for this piece included contributions from K. A. Jagai and Ireen Hossain, Girls Write Now writers.

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