Threats and burnout pushed a Teacher of The Year to resign education post

Brimhall Elementary principal Ryan Vernosh stands for a portrait
Brimhall Elementary principal Ryan Vernosh stands for a portrait inside Maxfield Elementary School, where he previously worked in St. Paul.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2019

A former Minnesota Teacher of the Year and current elementary school principal, Ryan Vernosh underscored the depth of the levels of stress and burnout last week when he resigned from a state education policy board and then outlined why he did so on social media.

On Twitter Friday, Vernosh posted his resignation letter, citing the pressures of teaching during COVID and increased threats to his safety over pandemic protocols at his school, Brimhall Elementary in Roseville, for the resignation. But his primary reason for stepping down, he said, was his own mental health.

The following is a transcription of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity. To hear the full interview, use the audio player above.

You said in your letter that as a principal right now, ‘My days and nights are spent in educational triage.’ What do you mean by that?

What I mean by that is my typical role as a principal is to coach teachers to help students and improve instructional practices. Right now, due to an immense staffing shortage and the increased needs that we see within our students, most of my time is spent less on helping instruction happen and more on just making sure that our students are feeling safe, that our students are getting their needs met and trying to connect students and families to mental health resources that we may have in school, but also what may be available outside of school.

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Are you still teaching?

Well, I am substitute teaching. I actually taught music class for a little bit yesterday and will be in fifth grade and kindergarten a little bit this morning.

That's not just unique to our district. This is something happening in districts everywhere. And I'm very fortunate to serve in a district that has a really strong plan in place to support principals [and] teachers. And it is still immensely challenging — borderline impossibly hard — to navigate on a daily basis.

I'm assuming that you're also experiencing staffing shortages at your school?

Oh, yes, we are. There's just not enough people out there who are able to come in to substitute teach. And when we have our own staff who gets sick, who have their own kids, who [have] daycares that, unfortunately, quarantine because of the increased spread of COVID, that just makes it extra hard. And teachers also deserve to have their personal days.

Because teachers are people, [they] are humans first. And we need to make sure that we're honoring that time — which they have a right to — are supported when they need their own time to address their own mental health needs.

You also mentioned threats to your safety over the pandemic protocols in place at the school. Give us a sense of the vitriol you've experienced.

It’s been a lot — based on having masks in our school. And for the stance that I take in terms of making sure that each of our students are seen for their beautifully diverse selves — especially our gender diversity and making sure people refer to our students with their correct pronouns.

I've received threats that I should kill myself, threats that I will be hung through military tribunal. [I have] been told that they're monitoring me on social media and things like that. And it ebbs and flows.

There's been several stories written about me through various — I hesitate to even call them media outlets — across the country that when one of those gets posted in a story rehashed, then I noticed a significant uptick in those kinds of hate-filled messages that come into my inbox.

What made you decide to open [up] about all these challenges now?

Because I think that it's a reality that many people are facing every day, especially about mental health, and I think there is still a stigma attached to talking about mental health and the impacts that it has on us.

So I wanted to take the opportunity with the platform that I had, resigning from the [Professional Educator Licensing and Standards] board, and open up and share that. I know for me, seeing other people talk openly about their own depression and anxiety and mental health, really gave me the courage to be able to do that myself in hopes that other people can feel free to talk about those challenges as well.

Because by talking about it, we make it less scary. By talking about it, we start to say, “It’s OK to say you're not OK.” And then to get the help that you need in order to feel better. Same way that we would do if we had a broken leg, or a sprained ankle, or a migraine. It's no different than that. And I think we have to start having those conversations.

To hear the full interview, use the audio player above.