My son started pre-kindergarten in the middle of the 2019 school year. He was in a children with special needs class, and I loved his teacher. He loved his teacher. Everything seemed to be going so well, and this was before the pandemic. Then, just a few months later, his teacher left. I was heartbroken, and so was he. Yet I was told this happened a lot in public school. After spending four-plus years in college and completing a teaching internship, teachers quit so early. It got me wondering, why do teachers leave the profession?
Out of all the possible reasons teachers are leaving their jobs, the number one reason they are giving is stress. And this was before COVID-19. When surveying nearly 1,000 former public school teachers, four out of five stated that they left their profession because of stress.
This reason was almost double the second reason teachers were leaving, which was insufficient pay. In fact, three out of ten teachers who left their profession went on to work at jobs that had no health insurance or retirement benefits. That’s how stressed they were at their job. Of those surveyed, three in ten are working at a noneducation-related job, and another three in ten are working in a different kind of teaching position.
Why Were Teachers Stressed and Burned Out Before the Pandemic?
Despite what people think, teaching has been considered to be one of the most stressful professions in the United States. A 2013 Gallup poll found that it was equal to the nursing profession. As a result of this stress, there was a global teacher shortage growing before the pandemic.
According to a report by the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), new teachers leave at greater rates than others that leave before retirement. In a 2018 Gallup report, they found two main reasons teachers left.
- To further or advance their careers
- To find a job that had better pay or better benefits
Yet there were many specific reasons that drove teachers from the classroom, as well.
- Limited resources
- Low pay
- Horrible political environment
- Not being allowed to let students fail
- Poor preparation
- Placing too much importance on testing
All of these things pile on to produce more and more stress until they reach burnout. Then we entered 2019 and the pandemic.
What Happened to Teachers Once the Pandemic Began?
After the first year of teaching during the pandemic, teachers said the stress level was significantly higher. In fact, one teacher said that 2021 was the most challenging year she had ever encountered in her two decades of teaching. And that included the fact that she started her first day of teaching on 9/11, working for a school in the Bronx in New York City!
In March 2020, teachers all across the United States had to rework their entire way of teaching in order to implement the same learning online. For many, it was too much. They not only had to learn how to do this with no training themselves, but they then had to try to teach their kids how to learn on their computers, including offering tech support for the kids and their families – something they had never done before themselves. Their workday approached the 12-hour range, and that included weekends as well.
Then, once schools started to open, the teachers had to return to additional responsibilities such as sanitizing desks between classes and monitoring children to ensure they were following all safety protocols. They also had to keep track of students who were quarantined so they could inquire about who should be returning after the appropriate number of days they were to stay home.
There also was the constant shift between online learning and in-person learning. Just as everyone settled into one learning style, the rules changed, and they were once again teaching remotely. The constant fluctuation was exhausting. As one teacher wrote, they started the school year teaching online.
Then in October, they returned to brick and mortar. Yet, in November and December, they were back to working remotely. Until February, when children returned to brick and mortar once again. This teacher compared the experience to building an airplane while, at the same time, flying to a destination that keeps changing. Very frustrating and highly stressful.
Different situations surrounding COVID-19 affected all teachers differently. For instance, teachers younger than 40 state they left because of the low pay and lack of childcare for their own families. Teachers who were older said they left because of health conditions.
Divisions Between Online Learning vs Brick and Mortar; Vaccinated vs Unvaccinated; Mask vs No Mask
The teachers are experiencing a growing divide between themselves and the parents and between themselves and the school boards. They have expressed feeling like they are not being included in decisions and their concerns are not taken seriously. The education system has become a battleground with fights over face masks, controversial books, and what can and cannot be taught about race and gender.
Teachers also experience the burden of blame from parents who criticize the teachers, saying they need to make sure schools are open. One teacher who quit without even having another job lined up talked about how demoralized and devalued she felt. Everything has become so political, and communities are dictating everything teachers must do. Even on Facebook, parents made comments such as, “go back to work. You just want to sit on your butts.”
Yet from the teacher’s perspective, they were working harder than they ever have before.
Racial Tensions Cause Even More Stress
With COVID-19 and all the extra responsibilities teachers have, they are severely lacking in personal time. Things such as the racial tensions that erupted with the George Floyd arrest and the Black Lives Matter movement used to be discussed with colleagues in teacher lounges and classrooms before school hours.
Some African American teachers talk about the added stress of feeling safe around police and African American women fearing for their husbands while they are at work. With the stress they are experiencing, teachers know that their students are struggling as well with how to process it all. Yet there is no time to process these situations with their colleagues so they can find ways to help their students make sense of all that is happening in the news.
What’s Happening Today?
A survey taken by the National Education Association said in February 2022 that 55 percent of educators are considering abandoning their teaching careers. This is an increase of 37 percent since August 2021, only this time, it’s true for all teachers regardless of how old they are or how many years they have been working in education.
The staff shortages that have been steadily increasing have put such a strain on teachers that they have reached their limit. They say the deficits are not new, but they have been made worse since the pandemic.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2020, there were about 10.6 million educators working in the public school system. Today there are 10.0 million. This represents a net loss of around 600,000 educators. The shortages are deepening.
Not only are teachers leaving, but there is also trouble finding substitutes to fill their positions. One worker says she wants to be available to help her colleagues, but, at the same time, it’s emotionally and mentally exhausting. According to her, teachers are living in survival mode, fighting to make it through the year. Then some are fighting to make it through the month or even the day. They are so overwhelmed.
To sum up how some teachers feel, they love the profession, but they are underappreciated and underpaid. And living this way every day takes its toll.
What Is the Solution?
As of now, teachers need help. They need higher salaries, additional mental support for themselves and the students, and more support staff, so they aren’t carrying the entire load themselves. They need the type of support where they can collaborate with their colleagues and find ways to build relationships with the students again.
Steps to Take to Increase Teacher Retention
- Encourage Cooperation: Isolation pushes teachers away. Studies show when teachers do not have the ability to collaborate, one out of every five leaves the profession.
- Strengthen Them to Succeed: School districts need to give their teachers the resources they need to be successful. If they don’t feel like they are doing a good job teaching their students, they doubt their abilities and end up leaving.
- Provide More Support: In a survey that was conducted by the Center for Teacher Quality, they found that when teachers felt support from their colleagues and administrators, they were more likely to stay in their profession. If teachers feel cared for and included in meetings and major decisions the administration makes, they don’t feel like quitting.
- Improve Working Conditions: Promote a healthy school culture where teachers and children feel secure, trusted, and respected to guarantee that instructors have the best working conditions possible. If teachers are able to have more significant influence over how their classes are administered, they will feel more trusting and are more likely to stay.