Education Matters

Independence Middle School teacher Jill Wagner was making plans for the new school year when Gov. DeWine signed House Bill 99, gutting the training requirements for school staff to carry guns, and Wagner knew she'd had enough. She made the difficult decision to retire, ending a career she loved. She's certainly not alone.

Show Notes

The Hard Choice to Walk Away - Season 3, Episode 3
Independence Middle School teacher Jill Wagner was making plans for the new school year when Gov. DeWine signed House Bill 99, gutting the training requirements for school staff to carry guns, and Wagner knew she'd had enough. She made the difficult decision to retire, ending a career she loved. She's certainly not alone. 
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Featured Education Matters guest: 
  • Jill Wagner, retired English teacher
    • Jill Wagner, M.Ed. taught English for nearly 39 years in three public school districts in Ohio: Bedford City Schools, Brunswick City Schools, and Independence Local Schools. Her duties included full-time teaching and advising many co-curricular clubs throughout her successful career, and especially rewarding to her was initiating a competitive creative-writing team 8 years ago at Independence High School. Too, coaching numerous Power of the Pen teams and Scripps spelling bee participants has been equally successful throughout the years.
    • Jill is a nationally-recognized educator, earning the Portraits of Awesome award from Ted Dintersmith and “What School Could Be” in 2021, and she earned the 2017 Ohio Middle Level Association (OMLA) Regional Award for best middle-level practice.
    • Jill served as the Northeast Ohio Education Association’s chairwoman of the legislative committee and served on the Ohio Education Association’s Legislative Committee, as well as being a local union representation in two public school districts for decades.
    • On a personal note, Jill has been happily married for 38 years to her husband Kevin, a Shaker Heights City School physical education teacher. She has two daughters, Jenna, who is a high school guidance counselor in Kodiak, AK, and Alexa, a Ph.D. candidate at Case Western Reserve University.

Connect with OEA:
About us:
  • The Ohio Education Association represents about 120,000 teachers, faculty members and support professionals who work in Ohio’s schools, colleges, and universities to help improve public education and the lives of Ohio’s children. OEA members provide professional services to benefit students, schools, and the public in virtually every position needed to run Ohio’s schools.
  • Education Matters host Katie Olmsted serves as Media Relations Consultant for the Ohio Education Association. She joined OEA in May, 2020, after a ten-year career as a television reporter, anchor, and producer. Katie comes from a family of educators and is passionate about telling educators' stories and advocating for Ohio's students. She lives in Central Ohio with her husband and two young children.
This episode was recorded on August 17, 2022.

What is Education Matters?

Ohio's public schools serve 1.7 million children - 90 percent of students in the state! What happens in the classroom has impacts far beyond the walls of the K-12 school building or higher ed lecture hall. So, on behalf of the 120,000+ members of the Ohio Education Association, we're taking a deeper dive into some of the many education issues facing our students, educators, and communities. Education Matters is your source for insightful conversations with the people who shape the education landscape in Ohio. Have a topic you'd like to hear about on Education Matters? Email us at educationmatters@ohea.org

Intro 0:07
This is Education Matters, brought to you by the Ohio Education Association.

Katie Olmsted 0:15
Another week, another new episode of Education Matters. Another chance for me to say thank you for joining us once again. I'm Katie Olmsted. I work with some awesome people on the Ohio Education Association's communications team, serving 120,000 teachers, higher ed faculty members and education support professionals around the state. And I have to say, a conversation I had with one of those members over the summer, broke my heart. Jill Wagner is a passionate educator who has dedicated decades of her life to her students. As a longtime middle school teacher in Independence, in Northeast Ohio, she received national recognition for her innovative approaches to remote learning when her school had to pivot to that during the pandemic. And she is one of countless teachers in Ohio who have decided they have had enough. Enough of the nonsense coming out of the Statehouse, enough of the daily anxiety over school safety, enough of the political attacks on her profession. Enough of well, everything. It all added up. And Jill decided over the summer, it was time for her to retire from teaching. As the new school year got going - her first one without being a full time teacher - we asked her to share her perspective.

Katie Olmsted 1:40
Jill Wagner, thank you so much for sitting down with us.

Jill Wagner 1:43
Thank you for having me.

Katie Olmsted 1:45
As we start the new school year, how are you feeling as a retired English teacher now?

Jill Wagner 1:52
Well being freshly retired for only a couple of weeks, it's a very, it's a very conflicting feeling. I'm been very fortunate to be able to continue coaching writing teams, and being the spelling bee coordinator. So I still have my toes in the water, so to say, but I am not liking the feeling of not being a full time teacher.

Katie Olmsted 2:17
Then why aren't you a full time teacher anymore? What made that decision happen for you?

Jill Wagner 2:22
Well, first and foremost, my mom lives with us, and she's going to be 92. And I wanted to spend time with her and honoring her. But second is all of the different challenges that a regular classroom teacher faces, including OTES, EPTES, IReady, the standardized testing, AP testing, AP this, AP that, ACT test, just all of that. And then the thing that finally, really put me in a very focused perspective was the May 24, when I was at home again, with my mom, I was able to take sick days. Fortunately for you know, having teachers having that option in their contract. And I was watching the Uvalde shooting happen. And I felt like I was back exactly where I was on 9/11. Or even when Christa McAuliffe blew up on what was at the Challenger, I believe, and I was watching it on TV, and they kept going and they kept going. And the police were for whatever reason, the law enforcement, they stopped going in and you still heard these shots. And I was like, Oh my God. I've goosebumps right now. You know, that's, that's an somebody's son or daughter, could have been a student, you know, that possibly was being murdered. And I was, I said this is, this is crazy what teachers have to face nowadays. And then that was May 24, I believe. I hope I have the right date. And then in June, I'm watching, again, TV because my mom and I that's something that we do. And Governor DeWine signs the House Bill 99 that teachers need less than 24 hours to be able to carry a gun in the classroom. And I was like what is going on with all of these challenges that teachers now have to face? It just, it's, it's, it's mind boggling. It's insulting. It's so many other emotions or descriptions of emotions that I can think of. So I just decided that, and hey, you know, July 1, I was going back I had I had my school calendar ready, I had everything going. And then about a week later, I said I just can't do this. The whole gun thing really, really upset me. So then on July 13, I applied for retirement.

Katie Olmsted 5:05
I'm hearing a couple of things from you. One is that school safety is obviously a very big concern for you. And the Uvalde shooting seems to have really just exacerbated that to a certain extent or elevated that.

Jill Wagner 5:19
Yes. It did elevate it.

Katie Olmsted 5:22
The legislature saying, Well, yeah, we'll make school safer by putting more guns in school. Is that the answer?

Jill Wagner 5:30
No, that is not the answer. And my husband being a veteran. He, too, is a teacher. He also does not feel to have guns in the classroom, even though he had years of training. I cannot imagine, just, just thinking of scenarios if someone next to me another teacher has a has a weapon now that you know, no, you don't have to have a concealed carry or anything in the school. They had to rush out of the room whether they had to use the restroom or something happened. And then this is quite often happens with teachers because you're not you're not supposed to leave the students unattended. You know, I would be in the hallway watching two different classrooms. And then all of a sudden, he has a gun, I don't know about it. And the kids, somebody rushes in, they know where people have guns or if they're on him or such. I couldn't imagine that scenario. How is gun going to help the situation if there's a shooter in the building? That is not going to help. I'm just, I'm insulted that Governor DeWine and the legislators don't ask the educators, the people on the front lines, what they need to help secure the schools. It isn't more guns. And I was listening to another story podcast about there is a school somewhere that now has an AR 15 locked in their office with a key so that if somebody comes in with an AR 15 assault weapon and starts shooting, they can go get that. You're going to tell me that there's not going to be innocent bystanders? It's just, again, mind boggling, insulting, And it is not what teachers need to be safer in the classroom. More guns. How ridiculous.

Katie Olmsted 7:23
Wow. And I think you hit the nail on the head there when you said, No one's even asking teachers what they need. Case in point, all of the nonsense legislation that is swirling around proposed for so called CRT, critical race theory and other things, that people who aren't in the classroom, who apparently have no concept of what's being taught in our classrooms are now trying to legislate what teachers can and cannot say in their classrooms and how they can best serve their students. Did that play into your decision to walk away from teaching?

Jill Wagner 7:59
All of it played into my decision. House Bill 99 was the culminating point of my decision, however, CRT? How ridiculous! I actually had a board member, not in Independence, another board member from another district say, you know, you teach English and you I know that you love the teaching of the Diary of Anne Frank, which I do everybody who, whom I taught with knows that, asked, Well are you going to be able to teach that again? And I saw on the news today in Texas, they're banning the graphic novel version of the Diary of Anne Frank. CRT has never been taught in Independence Middle School, nor the high school, and then to have a board member like, oh, well, I'm gonna go back to my school district and tell them that, you know, this is wrong, CRT. This is a political agenda that is trying to, again for something on educators that have not asked for it. Banning books, I feel like I'm Clockwork Orange, I cannot believe that they are going to ban books. But you know, things have changed. Like even in our schools. We don't have dedicated libraries anymore, either. Which is another thing that we could talk about. But yes, this CRT all of this has just played into, it played into my decision.

Katie Olmsted 9:26
It couldn't have been an easy decision. When I talk to you, when I've had any conversations with you in the past., it is so clear to me how much you love teaching.

Jill Wagner 9:34
Yes. Quick enough? Yes.

Katie Olmsted 9:40
What do you love about teaching?

Jill Wagner 9:42
What did I like about teaching? My favorite part about teaching grammar, especially is to have fun with it. I always figured out some creative way whether it was from my own thought process or TPT or just asking other colleagues and such, but was to have fun with grammar, because grammar can be so bland and boring. That was one of the best parts of teaching is having fun with words. Another part is, you know, as I've said this to many people, again, being a spiritual person, when that light bulb goes on, and you see it in a student, especially in a whole group of students, that is just, that's, it's a spiritual, it's, it's an, to be cliche, it's an out of this world experience, just to see that possibly another, you know, synapse or something is firing in the child's brain, and they're learning and hopefully they remember that or they're inspired by that or, or, or just enjoy learning. I consider myself a lifelong learner, I can't stop reading, I can't stop learning, I want to know more and more and more, I want to learn how to speak another language. You know, I just hope others feel that way. Because having dull brain produces a dull adult, I don't, I don't ever want to be like that. I want to continue to learn and, you know, be productive in my society. And in my community.

Katie Olmsted 11:17
Unfortunately, it does sound like you're able to take advantage of some opportunities in the Independence district to really keep your hand or your I guess your foot, I'm not sure, whichever body part, in the in the teaching door, even if you're not a full time teacher, what are you doing this fall?

Jill Wagner 11:35
And by the way, I'm very grateful to the Independence district for allowing me to continue this. You know, it's an honor. What am I going to be doing in the fall? Well, as you know, once you retire, you're not allowed to do anything for a specific amount of time. So as come October, I will, again be going to the middle school, and encouraging the kids to join Power of the Pen, and expressing my love of words and hopefully, continue to earn awards. We've placed many times in Power of the Pen. And then I also go to up to the high school. And with those students up there, ninth through 12th grade, I am able to have creative writing team and we do competitive writing with the Just Write. I initiated a creative writing team at the high school competitive creative writing team. And so I will go in there and we will meet and we will have prompts and we will, will eat a little bit. Snacks are always good for the brain, and, and for fun. And then we go to competitions. And I love competing with words with the kids with the writing. And last year, we came in first place.

Katie Olmsted 12:52
Oh, congratulation!

Jill Wagner 12:54
In Power of the Pen. And then at the high school level, we came in third place out of 40 schools in the entire state of Ohio. We were at state finals. Yeah, I know. It's fun.

Katie Olmsted 13:02
Yeah, I love the Power of the Pen when I was in middle school. That was really a formative experience for me.

Jill Wagner 13:08
Good. And I hope that you have children someday, and you allow them to have that formative experience as well.

Katie Olmsted 13:17
But here's the thing, I come from a family of educators. My mom's retired teacher, both my sisters are teachers. My brother in law is a former teacher. And I think about my kids. And I don't know whether they would see teaching as an attractive profession. And it just breaks my heart to say that even

Jill Wagner 13:37
I mean, there was a teacher shortage as you're aware. I mean, I was just reading today on cleveland.com. You know about the teacher shortage and such. I was really I read a lot of different news sources. But anyhow, yeah, I've heard that. And, you know, here's a here's a scenario that in where my husband, teachers, which I won't say the system because I don't want to speak for him. But they had four openings, and they only had three applicants. So So that tells you a lot about the teaching field. Yeah, we have 17, teachers, administrators, counselors, in my immediate family. So I do understand that. Are they going to continue to go into education? I don't - it's not it's just not a lucrative position. It never really has been. I mean, the health benefits, yes, are wonderful. But all of these different stipulations and hurdles that the new kids are gonna - I have to say this kids because I'm older - and you know that what they're going to face? I don't know if I would have, I don't know if I would have gone into it either. I don't know. It's it's a lot to think about right now. It used to be, it used to be so much more fun. We were able to meet with our board members with the community members We, you know, for every district, I've been in three different districts, and then you form what you need for those students, if you want to see your clientele in a sense, and we work together, and we collaborate, and we had projects, and we did all this stuff. And then now, the turnover of administrators, you know, principals and such is like every three to four years, they leave. You have these politicians now coming in telling us what to teach. I think the, the world doesn't understand that a teacher is the second parent, in a sense to a child. When you are a teacher, you have those students, especially primary school teachers, my hat goes off to them out there. You know, you bring in a child and you're, you're, you're wiping their tears, you're you're teaching them you're helping them eat, you're teaching them so much. I don't understand why the value is still not there as it was even 25 years ago.

Katie Olmsted 15:56
But what's crazy is that the world really does seem to understand that. There was a recent study commissioned by the Children's Defense Fund of Ohio, that it showed overwhelmingly it was it something like 90 something percent of Ohio parents trust their children's teachers, they trust them to be positive role models, they trust them to teach age appropriate material, they, they want them to help their students develop into good, well rounded whole child human beings with that social emotional learning that you're getting as part of these lessons. And the people who are trying to drive a wedge and make our classrooms political battlegrounds, they don't represent even a fraction of actual Ohioans. The Ohio parents overwhelmingly do support teachers, and they want the politicians to stop this nonsense. How frustrating is it that if only that vocal minority would sit down and just be quiet, you could be fine.

Jill Wagner 17:04
The political world doesn't care. The political world right now, because of whatever social media or news, broadcasters, whatever, it's, it's almost like it's a, it's a game all the time, you know, it's us versus them, that the truth seekers, the the parents that care, the ones, the 90%, well they're sitting back, because they're happy, they're secure with their lives, because they know that their children are getting a good education. They are good parents. And then you have these other like you said, the 10% that are out there, and they're just fighting and they're their insecurities are coming out, and everybody's giving them a megaphone. And so others you know, we have these like lost souls in a sense, I feel like the Lemmings and that, you know, the, the book that they're just following right behind them, these conspiracy theories and all of this. So I don't know, the I've gone through having teaching with the internet and without the internet, and it's a fine dance, it's a fine dance to show the students what is real, what isn't. And some of these parents, they need to get into that class to to find out what's real and not. Now the political world has changed, has changed education, you know, it was the one last if you want to say frontier that wasn't for profit. And when No Child Left Behind the 2001 came in, and the testing companies came in, and I saw such a change such a change. And then it became about money. Again, the student was not just a child or a learner. It was a it was a buck, if you want to say and I'm not talking deer.

Katie Olmsted 18:43
All of that is adding up to educators like you - great, highly qualified, experienced passionate educators - leaving the profession and that hurts our kids. Our kids are the ones missing out.

Jill Wagner 18:57
They are they really are and I I believe in having young, new, fresh ideas in a school setting, you know, young teachers because they bring they bring the fun, the fancy, the the inspiration, you know that the role models for the little ones and such. And if they're not going into this profession, there's going to, I mean, the rest of "me" if you want to say quotes around me are going to be of an age and we're going to retire. And so what's left? I don't know.

Katie Olmsted 19:32
Well, Jill, I thank you so much for sharing your perspective with us and helping us really understand the decision. It definitely doesn't sound like it was an easy one for you, but

Jill Wagner 19:46
no it wasn't at all i Yeah, I even at my old age and full of wrinkles and full of wisdom. I cried quite a bit over the thought of having to do this and I just, you know, I felt valued by the parents and the kids. And my immediate administrator, but I didn't feel valued by some of the political pundits in our state and also even some of the political pundits in our school system. But overall, I do want to say and I know the time is coming to an end here, it has been an honor to be a full time teacher in Bedford schools, in Brunswick schools and in Independence schools for my 39 years. It's just it's been an honor that the kids that I've met, some of them I still keep in contact with and they're in their 40s and have children. I know that I've I've made an a positive impact. So it's a it's been an honor.

Katie Olmsted 20:42
And it has been an honor to talk to you, Jill Wagner. Thank you.

Jill Wagner 20:46
Thank you, Katie.

Katie Olmsted 20:48
As Jill mentioned, there are so many great educators leaving the profession, and we are struggling to get new educators in the door. And it's all leading to this big looming staffing crisis in our schools. Ohio's lawmakers have a lot of power to fix that, if they need our public schools their priority over the next several weeks here on Education Matters. We're going to be hearing from some of the candidates, Republicans and Democrats alike, who are promising to give our schools students and educators the support they need. And we'll be talking about how OEA members make the decisions about which candidates should get our support. Make sure you subscribe to Education Matters wherever you get your podcasts so you don't miss a thing. Until next time, stay well

Transcribed by https://otter.ai