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How We Can Help Fix San Francisco’s Problematic Public Schools

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Photo of Mission High School in San Francisco

Photo of Mission High School in San Francisco by Dale Cruse

By Vanessa Hutchinson-Szekely – Veteran California Public School Teacher

San Francisco public school leaders, blaze the trail for the rest of the country: 


As we catapult into summer, let’s simultaneously think about next school year. Specifically, what can we improve for our educators to avoid a long term employment crisis? Since so many teachers (and principals, paras, social workers, school nurses, counselors, janitors, noon monitors, cafeteria workers…. you get the picture) are stampeding away from schools, it’s time to rally, to not just keep public education afloat but to reinvigorate the system.

Looking at you San Francisco, my hometown, it’s time to do something right in education, to lead the nation and put behind us the shambles of the last couple of years. On top of a slew of intra-district debacles (board recall drama, payroll and budget fiascos, violence at schools, reopening of school debates, superintendent retirement roller coaster, pink slips and outright district criticisms) in 2021-2022, San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) experienced an unprecedented surge in unfilled positions, mid-year resignations, staff and sub shortages, leaving us very concerned for the thrivability of next school year. How do you operate a district without enough employees?

In April, the SF Chronicle reported that Frank Lara (the teacher union’s VP) stated that in a normal year the district sees 600 people retire or resign out of the union’s 5,000 teachers and aides, but he expects this year’s final tally will be “much more than that”.

In my immediate SFUSD circle: 9 middle school teachers resigned mid-year from their school plus their 3 administrators quit in June, 2 high school principals left before January, and SEVERAL coworkers (in various roles at different schools) resigned, filed for leaves or spoke to their supervisor about their deep exhaustion. This volume is absurd.

America is burnt out, not just teachers, but when you’re FRIED, hold a highly stressful and emotional job and paid peanuts, this is the era that you may throw the towel in.  For the past 20+years, I taught in LAUSD and SFUSD, and in an extraordinary move, I updated my Linkedin and applied for a leave of absence. 

Why now? The National Education Association study released in January 2022 states that “90% are reporting educator burnout as a very serious or somewhat serious issue”.  Not surprising since our anxiety levels hit Everest heights.  Stress related to things out of our control has grown disproportionately over the past two years.  Connected to this is the students’ significant learning loss and their increased struggle with self-regulation and collaboration. Ultimately, this untenable year may be what drives folks over the edge and into other industries. 

Photo of Galileo Academy of Science and Technology (formerly Galileo High School) by Daderot

Adding to this stress, teachers are STILL getting paid a pittance. Great teachers are highly credentialed human engineers navigating the seas of connection and deciphering what motivates individual kids based on their background and skill set, interacting with a multitude of stakeholders and molding the next generation, but require a second job or side hustle to cover the bills and can’t afford to buy a house in the city where they teach (i.e. Bay Area). 

Even though this screams code red, IT IS POSSIBLE to do something but leaders, parents, collectives and all other adults with a pulse who care about the future of public education must act.  

To address this emergency: focus on retention and recruitment. Email and tweet (often!) insisting on 1) higher salaries for educators and 2) increased wellness support. Your voice is important for the 2022-2023 labor contracts & collective bargaining. 

The first step out of this predicament is prioritizing salaries. We are the building blocks of society– like nurses, firefighters, and police, we are essential to a healthy community, we are educated & licensed and we want to buy homes where we teach.  

Starting salaries should match the cost of living. For comparison, current starting salaries in CA for essential workers: SFUSD: $63,458 & LAUSD: $56,107, SFPD: $92,560 & LAPD: $80,053, SFFD: $83,486 & LAFD: $74,687 and the average CA RN salary: $100,000. In addition to bachelor degrees and credentials, almost half of us have MAs and PhDs (43% in CA). And, don’t forget that home prices in The City require salaries above $313,000.

Secondly, can we think more creatively about schedules? Other organizations responded to the pandemic with flexible workflow options, various wellness opportunities, catered lunch and canceled non essential meetings. Though salaries are of utmost concern, also advocate for wellness as The Great Resignation is a combo platter serving up both our mental and financial health calamities. 

Back to the solution, in San Francisco contact these folks: 

Educating kids is the most wonderful, complex, stimulating, inspiring, and creative work but it is unsustainable without increased financial and wellness solutions. 

When we invest in teachers, we invest in students.  We hope San Francisco and its new leadership will embrace this, thus becoming a model for other districts.  


Veteran California Public School Teacher

Vanessa Hutchinson-Szekely

Vanessa Hutchinson-Szekely is a Californian-French mother of 2 daughters who has worked in public education for over twenty years as a teacher, mentor and instructional coach in LAUSD and SFUSD. 

Inspired by what she’s observed in children during the pandemic, she is building an online platform to share her passion for wellness with a larger audience.  

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1 Comment

  1. Ryan Drake-Lee
    June 28, 2022 at 9:31 pm — Reply

    Did you the the recent articles about how Colma and SF agreed to build teacher housing about 6 years ago. Colma just completed the properties and teachers move in this summer. SF has not even broken ground yet. The problems are myriad, though I concur on increased salaries and support. Everything is an economic market problem, which portion of the city budget would be cut to increase educator and education-adjacent staff salaries? Or how much tax increase would taxpayers accept?

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