The 74 Interview: Arizona Assistant Principal Beth Lehr on Angry Parents, ‘Vilified’ Teachers and Other Pandemic Fallout
Special Report: This is one in a series of articles, galleries and interviews looking back at two years of COVID-related learning disruptions, taking stock at what’s been lost — and where we go from here. Follow our coverage, and see our full archive of testimonials, right here.
To mark the 24 months since schools shut down because of COVID-19, The 74 spoke with parents, educators, researchers and students across the U.S. We are running some of these interviews in their entirety to give complete accounts of where we’ve been and where some think we’re going.
Beth Lehr, an assistant principal at Sahuarita High School, near Tucson, Arizona, was named the state’s Assistant Principal of the Year in 2020. A strong advocate for educators, she is dismayed by the extent to which political divisions over the pandemic and other hot-button education issues have left her teachers feeling overwhelmed, dreading to open their emails.
In a February interview, Lehr candidly revealed that she is not immune to such pressures. After she applied for a principal position in her district, she expressed some ambivalence. “‘Why? Why did I just do that?” she recalled thinking. “I haven’t yet gotten to the point where the stuff I dislike about my job outweighed the stuff that I like about it, but it’s hit or miss on a daily basis.” A mother of two, who saw her own children struggle with the isolation of virtual learning, Lehr said students have lost a lot more than academics during the pandemic. “If we don’t address those things,” she said, “the academic piece is never going to come back.”
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The 74: Give me a little background on your district.
Beth Lehr: The town of Sahuarita is attached to a retirement community. Green Valley is 55 and over and Sahuarita has families. It’s a very interesting dynamic. Our district covers 606 square miles, so it incorporates a number of very rural areas. We have some [families on] ranches. That means they’re pretty remote and rural, and they don’t have real great internet access. We also have a large farming community with a lot of Hispanic families, some who are undocumented.
How did remote learning impact your students?
The biggest struggle was just that feeling of isolation among our students, especially the students in rural areas. It wasn’t simple for them to get on their bike and ride to their friend’s house or meet in the neighborhood, because they’re 50 miles away.
[Students are experiencing an] emotional stuntedness, for lack of a better term. Freshmen are notoriously immature, but what we’re used to seeing as freshman behavior isn’t even freshman behavior. The “devious licks” stuff [a TikTok challenge that included school property damage] — that was 100 percent only freshman.
What did they do?
Oh my God, the soap dispensers were destroyed over and over and over again. We had to replace sinks. We had to replace toilets — not because they were stolen, but because they were destroyed. The older students were super-annoyed by the freshman because then we ended up having to lock our bathrooms during lunch.
The problem-solving that they’re [supposed to learn] over seventh and eight grade, they didn’t learn. The relationship skills that you refine when you’re in middle school, they didn’t do. A lot of the stuff that we were seeing at the beginning of the school year is very much what I would see when I was teaching middle school.
We’ve also had an increase in sexual infractions — not necessarily assaults. It’s consensual, but it’s much more frequent on our campus this year. This is my seventh year as assistant principal, and this year, hands down, we have had more issues with kids getting caught in positions that high schoolers should not be in. Maybe once a year, we’d have kids getting caught having sex on campus. It’s definitely increased this year.
Is that related to the pandemic?
I can’t do causality. I can just say this is what I’ve seen.
Arizona also has probably one of the worst sex education programs in the country. [The legislature] recently reintroduced a bill where sex education programs cannot talk about homosexuality, other than it being an aberrant behavior. They’re pushing through an anti-trans bill that says trans girls can’t be in sports, which by the way, is not an issue. That’s where the frustration is. Arizona is pushing through all of these hot-button things that the super-conservative think tanks and [political action committees] are doing.
[Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey] is in step with [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis and [Texas Gov. Greg] Abbott. It’s the same thing to the point where he has not even distributed all of the [federal relief] funding to the public schools.
He wanted to target the funds to schools not requiring masks?
It was like Ducey said, “If you follow my direction and do not have any COVID protocols, I’ll give you the money.” The federal government was quick to say, “No, no. That’s not how any of this works.” [Ducey] actually sued the federal government because [they weren’t] letting him spend the money the way he wanted. He came out with an executive order saying essentially that if your child’s school closes ever, for any amount of time, we will give you X amount of money that you can take to a private or charter school — doubling down again on anti-public health measures. As it turns out, when you don’t have a mask mandate, more kids get sick. My district does not have a mask mandate, so we are sending home multiple children.
Have you seen fatigue in your teachers? Are some calling in sick?
Teachers have been stepping up, but they’re so tired. They’re essentially running three different classrooms in each class period. You have the kids who are sent home because they’re COVID positive and they’re sick so they’re not doing anything. You have the kids who get quarantined. Even though my teachers are keeping up all their Google classrooms and hosting virtual tutoring and sometimes live-streaming their classes, maybe 10 percent of those kids are actually taking advantage of what the teachers are doing. Then they have the kids who are in front of them.
It’s so overwhelming, and they don’t have prep periods because we don’t have any substitutes. We try to protect their prep, but we only have three administrators. If we have six teachers with no coverage, sometimes it has to be the other teachers [covering the classes], and we can’t have all three administrators not available because it’s still a high school and we still have the everyday high school stuff.
Have you lost any teachers mid-year?
Yes. We lost one teacher at our fall break. It was too much for her physical well-being, and her mental well-being. Her position was filled by a long-term sub [until early February].
My site has had very low turnover. I do not foresee that being the case next year. I have one teacher. This is her ninth year. She has already resigned for next year. She said, “I can’t do this anymore. I dread coming to work every day.”
I have teachers who are brand new to the district who are frustrated because they caught COVID and they have to use all of their personal sick days to stay home.
Do people feel like the pandemic is ending?
There are kind of two camps. There’s the one camp of “This too shall pass,” and then there’s the other camp of “Yeah, it’s going to pass, but I don’t know if I want to wait for it to.” Anybody who was on the fence about education is weighing if the parts that they love about the job are still outweighing the parts that they don’t love. Actually, the teacher who resigned said, “You know, I love the day-to-day of being in front of our kids. The second I have to open my email or grade their assignments is when I realize why I resigned.” The emails. The constant onslaught of the very vocal unhappy parents. We have some amazing families, but we don’t hear the “Thank yous” as often as we hear the “You sucks.”
It’s so hard to see the end, and it’s so overwhelming. What I’ve heard more than anything this year from my teachers is, “We thought that last year was hard. This year is 10 times harder.” We’ve had very, very low turnover. I do not foresee that being the case next year.
I was looking at The 74, and I read the headline about this not being the great resignation for teachers. That’s just because it’s not the end of the year, and teachers have too much integrity to leave their kids in the middle of the year unless it’s a dire scenario. We are going to see it, and it is going to be bad. In December of 2020, Arizona had 2,500 unfilled teaching positions. I guarantee you, we’re going to have pretty darn close to 4,000 for next school year. We don’t have anybody in the pipeline to fill them. Our profession has been vilified and de-professionalized quite successfully.
Did you ever feel like, “I’ve done this long enough and now is the time to go?”
All the time. I’m still feeling that. I’m so torn. I’ve applied for a principal position within the district, but at the same time I’m like, “Why? Why did I just do that? What am I thinking?” I haven’t yet gotten to the point where the stuff that I dislike about my job has outweighed the stuff that I like about it, but it’s hit or miss on a daily basis.
What keeps you positive ?
It’s 100 percent the kids.
Is there anyone in particular?
There is a student who is going to graduate — he’s going to graduate a little late, but I don’t care, he’s going to graduate. I know that our school is home for him. He doesn’t have a supportive household. Everyday that I see him and his sister at school, I say, ‘Yeah, you guys made it. Thank God.” This is a family who was dropping off the radar when we were virtual. I said, “Forget that. This is not going to happen. I’m going to bring you the paperwork for you guys to fill out so that I can get you internet. I’m going to bring you computers.”
You went to their house?
I took computers. I showed up at random times to figure out why they weren’t in their classes.
One focus this year has been freshman, specifically to prevent them from failing their classes or from failing too many. We have time built into our lunch where teachers have office hours. We made those office hours mandatory if students had lower than a 65 percent, because if you go into your finals with lower than a 65 percent, the chances are very high that you’re going to fail the class.
Of course, the students who need to go tend to be the students who don’t go. I have not started it yet this semester. A couple of the students are not doing well again, and they said “Ms. Lehr, are you going to start it again? When can we come in?” I said, “You want to come in with me?” That’s from 14-year-old kids who before I had to beg to come. That’s very heartening.
Some of these freshmen I know are making stupid choices. I had a conversation with a kid who at the beginning of the year was just as quick to tell me to “F… off.” But now, here we are where a relationship has been built.
How have you kept yourself sane?
I do not check my email at all on the weekends. My husband and I will go hiking, and I try to spend my weekends solely with my children. I have a 9-year-old and an 11-year-old.
We kept them in a remote option all last year, but because my husband and I were both at school, that meant that they were home by themselves. They were 8 and 10. On a personal level, my kids had to grow up a lot faster than I would have preferred, but now they have this certain level of independence that’s really cool. It reminds me of when I was a kid in the ‘80s. Your parents are working. Here’s a key. Don’t tell anyone your parents aren’t home.
How did remote learning affect them?
My daughter is very intelligent and very sneaky. She’s a “how-can-I-work-the-system” kid. All year last year, she was trying to find different ways to make us think she was doing her work. She got caught every time, and then the real-world consequences hit her at the beginning of this school year. She was so used to being advanced. She was in fifth grade, so she thought, “When I go into middle school, I’m going to be in pre-algebra, and then I’m going to be able to be in algebra when I’m in seventh grade.” The thing that she didn’t do all fifth grade was math. You can’t skip a year of math and then go into pre-algebra. That was a super hard lesson for her. It’s kind of actually a good thing, but socially she struggled immensely. There was a definite decline in her mental well-being because she is such a social person.
My son is not particularly social. My son is very quick to rise to frustration, and with that comes some acting out. Because it was just him and his sister at home, there were sometimes some physical altercations between them. Nobody was seriously injured or anything, but that was definitely not something we had seen in the past. There were holes in our walls from my son digging his pencils into them that we had to patch. There was a computer screen that we had to replace because it magically cracked somehow.
What do you think schools have learned from all of this?
I’ve had a lot of teachers really rethink their philosophies — some of my most dyed-in-the-wool [teachers]. This has truly opened their eyes when they’ve seen the disparities. Not everybody’s home looks the same. When we first started doing all of the remote teaching, we had a lot of really serious conversations about requiring cameras to be on or not. A lot of our teachers were like, well, “Why wouldn’t the camera be on?” They never took into account that there might be 10 people in a two-bedroom house. There might be somebody being slapped, hit, cut, whatever while they’re there. They might be embarrassed because they’re doing your class from their car in the McDonald’s parking lot.
[The pandemic] also shined a light on what trauma means and what shared trauma means. For teachers, that means being willing to give themselves a little bit more grace. Teachers who used to be perfectionists [need to] just say, “I can’t.” They have our support as site administrators to say, “I got it. You had to let something go.”
What do you think the education system learned?
I don’t know. It’s like, “OK, we figured this out.” Well, we didn’t. For example, we have a guest Wi-Fi that a lot of our students use. It was shut down. They didn’t tell any of us until the day they shut it down. Didn’t ask us. We have a whole bunch of students who are using their own personal devices because we’re not a 1-to-1 district. They don’t have data. They can only use it when they’re on Wi-Fi. All of the stuff that we’re telling our teachers to use — Pear Deck, Kahoot, Duolingo — now all the sudden, students can’t access it.
Our district is woefully behind on the infrastructure. This was highlighted in 2020. We’ve had two years. Why are we still so far behind? I know that it’s not malicious. I know that it’s not ill will. I know that it’s not because they don’t care. But why is it still not done?
What do you think schools have learned about working with parents?
The hardest part of my job is never the students. All of these laws that are passing, if you ask our students, they think they’re terrible. We have a number of students who are very upset because their parents won’t let them get vaccinated. How do we meet the needs of the student when the student has different desires and needs than what the parent wants for them? It’s walking that fine line. I think that we’re doing it. We keep open communication with parents, but we still try to honor the student.
We’ve definitely had to learn how to redirect tone. We’ve had to step in a little bit more when it comes to our front office and the people who definitely don’t get paid enough to deal with it. When parents say, “This person was rude to me,” we’ve been OK with saying, “Were you polite to them?” My health assistant walked away from a parent yesterday, and I said, “That sounds fine. I would have done it, too.”
My school has not necessarily had some of the higher profile things, but the school that I just applied to for the principal position did make national news. The parents dragged [their daughter] in and said, “She’s coming [to school]. You’re violating her rights by not letting her be here.”
She was quarantined?
Yes, and she’s saying, “It’s fine, it’s fine.” These parents literally picked that hill to die on, and they were arrested. Now they’re all facing charges, including the poor girl. Our neighboring district is one where the business owner was live streaming as he and two people took zip ties to the school to do a citizen’s arrest on the principal. That is not a citizen’s arrest. That is kidnapping.
There is still hope and the kids are just so happy when they get to be there. One of the things we miss is that brief shining moment in March, April and May of 2020 when people really truly started to appreciate what teachers did. I’m really sad that that didn’t stick.
You talked about the students’ immaturity. What about academic growth? Are you seeing improvements now that they’re back in school?
The learning loss is going to be there. There’s going to be a new norm, but trying to jam more and more and more down their throats is not helping. Continuing to create these high-stakes environments and making kids feel less because of something that was totally out of their control is not helping. Meeting kids where they are is. Teachers need to be able to have the ability to meet the kids where they are without fearing the loss of their job or the loss of pay. We’ve all had too much loss.
Why do they have to learn all these things, right? They have to learn it to be successful in the future. Great, what does that success look like? How are we redefining success, because honestly, right now, for some of these kids, success is getting out of bed and showing up. If we provide an environment for them that makes them get up and be there — when that’s the last thing they want to do — that is success. They technically had academic learning loss, but they’ve lost so much other stuff. If we don’t address those things, the academic piece is never going to come back.