The pandemic pushed her to the limit. But this teacher carries on.

Teaching has become a love-stress relationship for Leslie Stevenson, made only more difficult by the pandemic. Can she find a way to do what she feels called to do without burning out? Episode 5 of our podcast “Stronger.”

The Teacher

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Photo: Samantha Laine Perfas, photo illustration: Jacob Turcotte

Leslie Stevenson thought it would be corny to follow in her mom’s footsteps and become a teacher. But one stint as a substitute was all it took for her to fall in love with the field. 

“It felt like this is where I belong,” Ms. Stevenson says. “I get to see my fingerprints on [my students’] lives.” 

But even pre-pandemic, teaching could be grueling. It often meant dealing with blurred boundaries, after-hours demands, and a lack of community support. The pivot to remote and hybrid learning only made things worse, for her and many others. Educators are facing burnout and disillusionment. And some, like Ms. Stevenson, are wondering whether or not to stay in the field – despite how much they love the job.

“In the past three years, particularly the last year, all the noise, the static, the extra stuff to prove my worth to people?” she says. “That is what’s making me question: What am I doing?”

Episode transcript

Leslie Stevenson: When I met Jeff four years ago, he said to me on our first date, if you won the lottery, would you quit your job tomorrow? And I said, absolutely not. I love what I do. I still do. It’s just it’s been a grind. There have been days. When I’m just like, I just don’t want to do this today. But what am I telling our kids if I don’t? 

[Music]

Samantha Laine Perfas: Do you feel like you’re still in survival mode or do you feel like you’re feeling more hopeful at all?  

Stevenson: I’m just treading water as best I can. But even before the pandemic, I would say for the past three years, something’s got to give. 

[Music]

Jessica Mendoza: This is Leslie Stevenson, a social studies teacher at Clifford J. Lawrence Junior High. It’s in the Clark County, Nevada, school district.

Stevenson: Clark County is the fifth largest school district in the country. It’s big. Then there’s Washoe County, which is in Reno, which is about nine hours away. And then between the two, there’s nothing but three rattlesnakes and a cactus. [Laughter]

Laine Perfas: Leslie adores teaching, and truly enjoys working with her students. But for a while now she’s been struggling with the job as well. Call it a “love-stress” relationship. 

Mendoza: When we met her in the spring of 2021 – after more than a year of working in crisis mode – she was wondering: Had she finally reached her breaking point? 

[Theme music]

Mendoza: I’m Jessica Mendoza.

Laine Perfas: And I’m Samantha Laine Perfas.

Mendoza: This is “Stronger.” 

Laine Perfas: We hear from six women about what they’ve lost to this pandemic – and how they’re winning it back.

[Theme music]

Mendoza: In this episode: The Teacher. 

[Music]

Laine Perfas: For many educators across the U.S., the pandemic was a challenge like no other. By the time we started talking to Leslie in late spring of this year, she and her boyfriend Jeff were having conversations about leaving her teaching job – or maybe the field altogether.

Stevenson: Jeff and I were thinking about leaving the district and going to a different state. 

Mendoza: Where were you thinking of going? 

Stevenson: He is from Brooklyn-slash-Atlanta. We’ll see.

Mendoza: We know that teaching is hard work, pandemic or not. For Leslie, her school was often understaffed, the teachers overworked and underpaid. She and her coworkers often had to deal with demands that weren’t really what people sign up for when they decide to teach – like constantly having to work after-hours and navigating blurred boundaries. And those things left her feeling disillusioned, and spent. 

Laine Perfas: At one point, Leslie was teaching at Canyon Springs High School. She said a lot of the students there struggled with behavioral issues. And they needed significant support. She reached out to her principal –

Stevenson: – and I told him, I don’t feel safe in there. That was the year that we did have a shooting on campus and a kid was killed.

[Montage of news clips]

KSNV News 3: … well, police say the shooting happened just right over near here by this baseball field… 

KNTV Channel 13 Las Vegas: … there was about 500 children, or students I should say, on campus when the shooting took place...

8 News Now Las Vegas: … as the shock wears off, students remember the senior known as Dal, or Dalvin…  

Stevenson: And I had the sister of that boy in one of my classes. So I mean, what do you do?  

Mendoza: That happened in the fall of 2018. The student killed was Dalvin Brown. He was 18.

Laine Perfas: This kind of experience would be devastating for anyone. For Leslie, there was also the added trauma of being the mother of a Black son. 

Stevenson: After Dalvin was killed on campus, my son called me and he was like, “You look like you’re in your bedroom.” I’m like, “I am.” He goes, “You didn’t go to work today? I said no. He goes, Are you going to go back. I’m like, I don’t know. He goes, Mom, you have to go back. You have to go back.

My son said to me, “Mom, there are probably kids that are walking around and they’re looking for you. And it could be a kid like me, Mom, who’s looking for you. Because a lot of times you are the only voice of reason that they’ve ever had. You’re the only one to tell them that they can do better and show them how to do better.”  

Laine Perfas: It would be a pretty big understatement to say it was difficult for Leslie to go back and teach after that. Her adult son encourages her to keep showing up for her students. She also feels very strongly about making a difference for her kids – that’s her term of endearment for the students in her classes. It’s what keeps her coming back to the classroom despite all the challenges that have been thrown her way. And it’s also what got her into teaching in the first place. 

[Music]

Mendoza: Because Leslie had actually resisted it for a long time. She didn’t become an educator until she was in her 40s.

Stevenson: My original plans were to go to law school. I was not going to be a teacher, I just thought it was corny and cliché to follow in my mom’s footsteps. 

Mendoza: But she got pregnant at 20, and she wound up putting law school on hold. Instead –

Stevenson: – I worked in casinos. I did the front desk thing, the cocktail waitressing thing, all of that. And, you know, not knocking those jobs. But they just weren’t for me. Made a bunch of money, but they just weren’t fulfilling. And it was 2009 when they were doing layoffs. So I decided to substitute teach for extra money. And loved it, just loved it.

Laine Perfas: She especially loved seeing how she could change lives, just by being there for her students.

Stevenson: A lot of the kids that were there, they didn’t have a lot of resources. And we built relationships with their families. You know, we had a lot of programs on campus. They helped parents find jobs. They had like a food pantry, clothes on campus. They had programs to help first-generation college students navigate the college application process. It felt like this is where I belong.

Laine Perfas: And so, she stuck it out. Leslie has now been teaching for about 7 years. 

Mendoza: What’s your favorite part of the job?  

Stevenson: Seeing my kids become successful. You know, I’ve had some kids go from zero to one hundred, like, whoa, you know, when everybody thought – and including the child thought – that they weren’t going to make it and then they do and, I’m like, “See, I told you. I told you.”  

Mendoza: Do you ever regret that you switched to teaching?  

Stevenson: Absolutely not. I get to see my fingerprints on their lives. Because they come back and let me know. And it makes me feel good. In the past three years, particularly the last year, all the noise, the static, the extra stuff to prove my worth to people, no matter how much time I put into it, whether it’s school time or my time – that is what’s making me question: What am I doing?  

[Music]

Mendoza: Leslie’s not unique, having this – earlier we called it a “love-stress” relationship with teaching. On the one hand, like most people who go into education, she wants to make a difference in kids’ lives.

Laine Perfas: This is especially true for Black educators like Leslie, who work mostly with students from communities of color. 

Tonya Walls: Though they go into teaching because they want to be impactful, when they get into schools, they are experiencing some of the same racial microaggressions that they see their students experience.

Mendoza: This is Tonya Walls. She studies racial equity in teacher education, focusing specifically on Southern Nevada. 

Walls: They’re being asked to do double workload and their non-Black peers are not asked to do the same. So for example, if the administration is having a difficult time communicating with Black families, if we’re having a difficult time with students who are perceived as behavioral problems, Black teachers are then asked to take on that load. Even though they’re there to serve those kinds of communities, it’s an extra layer of angst. 

Mendoza: There’s also a long history of parents and administrators showing a lack of trust in Black educators. In some cases, that really came out in remote learning during the pandemic.  

Walls: A lot of Black teachers are feeling like they’re being monitored. They felt like colleagues and school leaders didn’t honor or acknowledge the ideas that they brought to the school space. A few talk about having parents call in on them and question the books they’re selecting or the conversations they’re having, or that kind of thing. 

[Music]

Laine Perfas: In other words, like with so much else, the pandemic has made teaching even more fraught. Especially for the Leslies of the world, who already had so much to deal with even outside of the classroom. 

Mendoza: In the months leading up to the pandemic, Leslie’s father had been sick. One night in March 2020, she was spending some time with him at the hospital – 

Stevenson: And the doctor stops me and she’s like, “I don’t think your dad’s going to make it through the night.” And so I stayed with him all night. I called and got a sub for the next day. 

Mendoza: On March 17th, Gov. Steve Sisolak announced lockdown restrictions for the whole state. Leslie stayed with her dad while trying to manage remote learning for the first time. 

Stevenson: I was trying to teach from the hospital lobby –

Laine Perfas: – and it was chaos. Nobody knew what to expect or what remote school would look like – or how long it would go on for. Some kids and families adjusted relatively easily, but others had no interest in making it work – or at least, that’s how it felt to Leslie. She had one student –

Stevenson: The kid hadn’t logged on, didn’t take it seriously. The dad finally emails me, you know, “We haven’t heard from you.” And I’m like, “I’ve been having class. I’ve emailed all the students and this is where they were.” He said to me, “I understand your father passed away, but that’s no excuse to not keep in contact with your students.”

I didn’t even get a chance to mourn. 

Mendoza: This was the start of what would turn out to be a new level of hard for Leslie. 

Stevenson: The first couple of months, I would be up at 5 o’clock in the morning on YouTube trying to figure out how to do this, and trying to figure out how to change my curriculum to distance education. 

Laine Perfas: There was new tech to learn on the fly –

Stevenson: We found out about two weeks before school started that we would do it using a whole new computer platform. And we were like, what? I still don’t know all of it, but I know enough to get me through the year. 

Mendoza: And then of course boundaries started to blur –

Stevenson: One teacher, you know, is saying that a parent is emailing her over the weekend. Why are you emailing this lady on the weekend?

Laine Perfas: All this has taken its toll on Leslie, physically, emotionally, mentally.

Stevenson: There are times when I would be on the computer until like 11 o’clock at night. And Jeff is like, “Have you fed yourself?” 

Mendoza: And she’s come to realize, it’s not sustainable – not for her, not for any teacher.

Stevenson: Three years ago, my doctor even said, you need to find another job. This is ridiculous. She sees a lot of teachers. And it shouldn’t be this way. It shouldn’t be this way. 

Mendoza: How does all of that make you feel?  

Stevenson: I feel defeated. I feel defeated. 

[Music]

Laine Perfas: The tension in Leslie’s voice is just – ah. So hard to hear. I mean, we’d hoped things would be looking up for her when we went to see her in Vegas. And in some ways they were. Except… well, stick around to hear about it, after the break.

Kim Campbell: Hi everyone, I’m Kim Campbell, the culture and education editor at the Monitor. Stories like the one you’re listening to are about the value of relationships – and how teachers like Leslie build those every day. These stories help us ask: What can we learn from each other’s experiences? As Americans emerge from the pandemic, our connections to one another can help us forge a better path forward. If you’ve appreciated this podcast, the best way to make sure we produce more work like this is to subscribe to The Christian Science Monitor. If you already do, thank you! But if not, you can do that at csmonitor.com/subscribe. We really appreciate your support. Again, that’s csmonitor.com/subscribe. Thanks for listening!

[Music]

Mendoza: So the last we heard from Leslie, she didn’t know what she was going to do. Would she stay at her school, stay in education? Was the pandemic really the last straw for her? She was clearly struggling with the decision. 

Laine Perfas: But the place she shares with Jeff, in southwest Vegas – it shows us the person she actually is, when she’s not buckling under the pressure of her job. Their home is set up to host gatherings, with lounge areas for watching sports and a big backyard pool. And the décor is a blend of Afrocentric art –

Mendoza: – a nod to Jeff’s Afro-Cubano heritage –

Laine Perfas: – and what Leslie describes as a modern farmhouse twist –

Mendoza: – a callout to her mom’s southern Illinois roots.

Stevenson: Hello! Come on in. You guys are little!  

Laine Perfas / Mendoza: Hi!

Mendoza: Yeah. 

Laine Perfas: We are small people.

Stevenson: I didn’t realize how tiny you were!  

Laine Perfas: Sooo, for our dear listeners who also don’t get to see us, we’re both 5-foot-3. And though we look very professional and grown up with all of our gear –

Mendoza: – we often get mistaken for children. Anyway, Leslie ushered us into her home and straight to the kitchen.

Stevenson: That’s Roxy trying to get in. And then he’s putting Rebel away. Jeff was fixing you all some lunch.  

Laine Perfas: There were pets! Leslie has three dogs: Rebel, Roxy, and Raider. She kind of had to either lock them up or send them off to keep them away from us in their excitement. 

Mendoza: Love dogs. But also food. And there was Jeff, who we’d been told was a whiz in the kitchen. 

Laine Perfas: Nice to meet you, we’ve heard all about your cooking.  

Jeff White: Oh, I’ve just pulled macaroni and cheese out of the oven here. 

Laine Perfas: That smells so good.  

Stevenson: That’s his specialty.

Mendoza: That spread though! Besides the mac and cheese –

Laine Perfas: – which was very tasty – 

Mendoza: – there was deviled egg potato salad, spicy bratwursts, baked beans. And then Leslie brought out this huge box of cookies – or maybe more accurate to say a box of huge cookies. 

Laine Perfas: Yeah, each one was like, literally the size of my face. 

Mendoza: But we were not to be distracted! We were there for Leslie, after all. 

Laine Perfas: Here we are, we haven’t talked to you in a few weeks, we’re getting closer to summer. How are you feeling about all things school and your life and just your headspace right now? 

Stevenson: To be honest, I’m just in survival mode. I’m just trying to get through as much as I can, teach the kids as much as I can, focus on the kids as much as I can. 

Laine Perfas: And you switched to in-person school. For the kids that are there, do you get the sense that they enjoy being back? 

Stevenson: I knew that it was going to be an adjustment for the kids going back face to face. So I stocked up on some Capri Suns, some of those little bottles of water. Got some little chips and snacks and things like that. You know, just, you know, “Hey, let’s – let’s get through this.” And one of the kids, she sent me this really sweet email thanking me and telling me how much she appreciates me. I didn’t expect it, I just, I’m just extra. So, you know. But I was like, that is so sweet. And I just told her basically what I just told you, “I’m so proud of you and your perseverance.”  

[Music]

Laine Perfas: You mentioned in, like our very first conversation that we had, that this year, well, really the last three, four years have just been rough and that you and teachers in Nevada and beyond have just been through the wringer. Have you been still considering leaving teaching, or moving?  

Stevenson: Well, if we, if I leave Clark County School District, I’m leaving the state. I mean, I’m not not trying to negate the other areas, but they’re small. Now, I might test the waters, feel it out, see what teaching is like in another place. And if I like it, I’ll stick to it. If not, I’ll find something else to do.  

Laine Perfas: Do you have any thoughts on what that something else might be?  

Stevenson: Well, Jeff is trying to encourage me to go into law school. So.

Laine Perfas: Your long time dream!

Stevenson: We’ll see. I’m getting old, though. I’m getting old, so. 

Mendoza: Leslie, for the record, was 49, about to turn 50, when we met her. We have no doubts she’d crush law school.

[Music]

Laine Perfas: I think I asked you this is one of our past conversations, but you with your current school, you already signed your intent to return. But that’s not like a contract. You’re still free to not return if you so choose. So do you have a deadline for yourself for the next year?  

Stevenson: Well, let me tell you what’s happened since then. 

Laine Perfas: Yes, I’m curious. 

Stevenson: So I just accepted an offer, one of the high schools. 

Laine Perfas: Hold up. We were like…. Leslie!! That’s great news, way to bury the lede! This woman, I tell you what. She did say, law school isn’t totally off the table. But at least for one more year, she’ll stick with teaching.

Mendoza: Which is so great! The new school, Sierra Vista High School, seemed like a great gig: The administration there seemed to really value its teachers’ independence; and Leslie’s wanted to go back into high school for awhile (she’s been teaching junior high). Plus, the new school would be closer to her home. And like she said way at the start of this episode, something had to give. 

Laine Perfas: You sound like you want to be excited, but ... you’ve had a rough journey. 

Stevenson: I’m a little more reserved. Yeah, I wasn’t like this before. Now I’m kind of like, mmm.

Laine Perfas: I’ll believe it when I see it. 

Stevenson: Unfortunately, unfortunately. 

[Music]

Laine Perfas: It’s a feeling so many of us have had throughout the pandemic. Hoping that things can and will get better, and working towards that, but not quite trusting it’ll happen until it does. And in Leslie’s case, it turned out she was right to be skeptical.

Mendoza: After we left Vegas, we learned that she and the administration at Sierra Vista, the new school, had gone back and forth on what classes she would teach. The discussion had gone on for weeks. There were a couple classes they wanted to assign her that Leslie really didn’t to want to do. Eventually they reached a compromise. And in the fall, she’ll be teaching seniors both U.S. Government and the African American Experience. Leslie’s pretty happy about that, but the whole exchange left her exhausted. 

Laine Perfas: Still – the last we spoke, she’d transitioned to Sierra Vista and was helping out with summer school. So far, so good. At least for now. In so many ways, this past year has proved to her what she’s believed all along: that the system needs to change. And yet here she is, giving it at least another year, hoping to make an impact on one more cohort of students. We had to ask her: why do you keep doing this even though you are so obviously exhausted?

Stevenson: I’m in it for the team. I’m in it for the kids, I’m in it for my coworkers. If I can get in and make this a little more palatable for everybody, I’ll do it and I’ll sleep when I’m dead.  

My therapist yells at me about that, too. She’s like “Girl, that’s not your problem.”

Laine Perfas: Where do you think that comes from?

Stevenson: My mother.  

Laine Perfas: Can you talk about that?  

Stevenson: Oh, my mother is – I love that lady. And she always made everything look so easy. But I remember as a teacher, she would go to work in some of the most beautiful suits and briefcases, her students adored her. We’re still connected with students of hers. And she made it look so easy. And I strive to be like her. You can see where her hand was in so many generations.  

[Music]

Mendoza: Later, Leslie showed us a picture of her mom – she’s a beautiful woman, and Leslie looks a lot like her. And after hearing Leslie’s story, we thought that maybe they’re not so different on the inside, either. 

[Music]

Laine Perfas: What have you learned about yourself this last year?

Stevenson: Well, one of the things that I’m really working on and I am patting myself on the back on that one is establishing boundaries. Now, that was an issue. I learned at a very, very young age to give, give, give, give, give, whether I wanted to or not. 

But one of the things that made me realize that that’s not OK is, like I told the kids, I got a man and three dogs that I need to tend to. And it’s not fair that he has dinner on the table and I’m still playing around with you guys. It’s not fair that I’m reading emails if he’s taking me out to dinner. It’s not fair if I’m spending time with my mother, and I’m answering your emails because you didn’t do what you were supposed to do when you were supposed to do it.  

Laine Perfas: Boundaries are hard, Jess, I think we’ve all learned during this last year of Zoom, remote work, trying to manage life at home. 

Mendoza: Totally.

Laine Perfas: So good on Leslie for starting the process of setting those boundaries, and trying to stick to them. But it’s tough, right? When you care so deeply about your job and want to make an impact, it can be hard to say no, or speak up when you’re not being supported. 

Mendoza: Yeah, especially for women. In other episodes, Sam, you and I talk a lot about how the pandemic is this huge reminder that there is a long road ahead before we can get to a place where our society is working equitably. And to me, Leslie’s story shows us where some of those holes are that we need to fix. Like, what are we doing for the people at the front lines, you know? People like teachers, who are showing up every day even when they’re burnt out? It feels like something we should be thinking about as we recover.    

[Music]

Laine Perfas: Before we left, we asked Leslie if she had any parting thoughts. Of all the things we’d talked about for months – her exhaustion, frustration, hopes for change – what kept her going? What gave her the motivation to keep making it work?

Stevenson: I just want what’s best for these kids. 

[Music]

Laine Perfas: Thanks for joining us! Next time on “Stronger”: Two young sisters struggle to balance family responsibility and their own goals and dreams. 

Jennifer Ashley Ciballos: The pandemic was really going to shift my priorities as a student and as a daughter because we could not even make ends meet. Like we were not even close to it anymore.

Mendoza: It’ll be our last episode, so please join us! And if you like this series, please rate and review us. You can find all our episodes by searching for “Stronger” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher. Or visit csmonitor.com/stronger.  

Laine Perfas: This episode was reported and produced by me, Samantha Laine Perfas. 

Mendoza: And me, Jessica Mendoza.

Laine Perfas: Edited by Clay Collins and Trudy Palmer. Sound design by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt. 

Mendoza: Additional audio elements from KSNV News 3, KNTV Channel 13 Las Vegas, 8 News Now Las Vegas.

Laine Perfas: Brought to you by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2021.

[Music]

Stevenson: Jeff is like you, your brain is constantly going constantly. So to get me to stop, I love to crochet. 

Laine Perfas: Do you do blankets or –

Stevenson: Blankets. I’m making them for my nieces and nephews right now. It’s just one of my things. My best friend was like, “Your godson got a call from West Point.” I was like, “Shut the front door!” I say this to say he still has his blanket that I made for him when he was 2. But I got to make him a different one, because he cannot take this dinosaur blanket to West Point. 

So we do baby blankets, but we also do what we call ugly blankets. That’s the tradition in our family, where you just grab scraps of yarn and you put it together and it is so unbelievably ugly that nobody will steal it when you go to your dorm. 

Laine Perfas: That’s so funny. So it sounds amazing. And I kind of you know, want one. 

Mendoza: Yeah, I know!

END