Why thousands of teachers are leaving the classroom

Alexis Perez-Lane loves children. Ever since she was a child, she knew she wanted to be a teacher. In college, she earned a degree in learning and human development, then began teaching at the elementary level, first in Atlanta and then in St. Louis. “It was kind of my dream job, really,” she says. “It’s really fascinating to watch little kids learn and grow, and see how they understand things.”

But Perez-Lane quit teaching. Like many other teachers, she found that the relatively low level of pay created stress when starting her own family. She was tired of being in schools that were in danger of being closed. Finally, during the pandemic, she was ready to do something else. “With COVID, my role changed and it was really difficult to meet their educational needs and also their emotional needs,” she says. “Teaching is the thing that has been pushed into the background the most.”

Perez-Lane’s story is common these days. More than half a million teachers have left the profession since the start of 2020. In a typical year, around 8% of teachers leave, but this year more teachers leave mid-year school than normal. Additionally, while it has long been common for teachers to leave their jobs within their first five years on the job, districts are now losing many teachers with much more experience.

“It’s a major problem,” says Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “It’s the No. 1 problem for superintendents.”

As schools seek to recover from the challenges caused by the pandemic — with declining enrollment and students falling behind on basics like reading and math — it’s hard to find the help they need to make the work. Already, it is common for teachers to replace absent colleagues who are ill or have resigned. And, aside from the emotional strain of helping children deal with all their pandemic-related issues, many teachers now feel under attack as schools become a front in the culture wars.

“You have anti-school rhetoric that has been consistent throughout the pandemic,” says Willie Carver, who was appointed Kentucky Teacher of the Year for 2022, but has just announced he is stepping down after being accused by a parent of “grooming” children by overseeing an LGBTQ student club. “If you happen to be at the convergence of hate – queer and teacher – then you have to be prepared for an onslaught.”

Along with some states imposing new restrictions on what teachers can say about racial history or gender identity and sexual orientation, teachers across the country are expressing frustration at being micromanaged by curricula. rigid ones that turn them into little more than data collectors and standardized test proctors.

“There was a time when teachers could just close the door and use their best judgment on how to teach a class,” says Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. “Now there is a lot more monitoring of teachers. It comes with good and bad [outcomes]but for many teachers it makes their job less professional and less fulfilling.

Meanwhile, with low unemployment and labor shortages in many other areas, many teachers recognize they have other options. One of my son’s teachers left this year to work in trucking logistics, a field in which he had no previous experience but which nevertheless offered him better compensation.

For districts that are understaffed, there aren’t many spare bodies to put in classrooms. “The problem is that the pipeline isn’t there,” Domenech said. “When we talk to schools of education, their enrollment is down.”

Work is personal

People who go into teaching tend to be optimistic. All the work is to prepare others for the future. It is an attractive path for those drawn to helping others, sometimes based on their own experiences.

Audra DeRidder has a brother who was born with Down syndrome and albinism. They grew up in a rural area that lacked specialized services. “It was only the lack of resources for us that drew me to teaching,” she says. “At first I thought of the medical field, but I really like children.”

She became a special education teacher in Iron Mountain, Michigan. Although she loved teaching, she felt she did very little. There’s a lot of meetings and paperwork involved, especially in special education. Things got worse, she says, during the pandemic. The combination of this constraint and the level of remuneration led her to rethink her career.

“Going back to class has been stressful for teachers, but it has also been stressful for students,” DeRidder says. “Because of that stress, we see a lot of behavioral issues because we’re pushing them to be in school when they’re not ready.”

Carver, the former teacher from Kentucky, was also drawn to the field because of his personal experience. “I grew up in extreme poverty – literally without running water or electricity,” he says. “My teachers took care of all my needs – emotional, physical, spiritual. School was a place where people who didn’t know me cared for me, and I wanted to be part of that system.

Like many other teachers, Carver says he’s always hoped for more parental involvement, especially when it comes to children who need help the most. But he says the current Zeitgeist has parents wondering about the wrong things, “whether it’s gender theory or the idea that teachers are indoctrinating students to be feminists”.

He said he used to feel like a “symbol” to students, his mere presence signaling that it was okay to be a professional who is also gay. Despite his success — not only his Teacher of the Year recognition, but also the fact that his high school students outperform students working on the same material — he decided he couldn’t stand having “a group of villagers brandishing a torch” following him.

“I had to think about what it would be like for me to teach for the next two years,” says Carver. “Will my students see a happy, successful adult who also happens to be gay, or will they see a broken, stressed, and defeated person standing there?”

Possible solutions

The raw figures do not yet make it possible to determine whether the current exodus of teachers is significantly higher than normal. But it is certain that many educators are unhappy and are at least thinking of leaving.

In February, the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, released a survey which found that 55% of teachers were planning to retire earlier than expected, due to the pandemic. This is double the number of July 2020. More recently, the RAND Company released a survey that found that teachers and principals frequently experience work-related stress at about twice the rate of most workers.

“We don’t control the program, and yet we still get the brunt of the criticism from society,” says Kevin Leichtman, a consultant who quit his teaching job around the start of the pandemic, and has also written a dissertation. on teacher burnout. . “They’ve been stripped of their autonomy, and now you have this public perception that they’re lazy and overpaid.”

Bursting with cash, a number of states are offering teachers pay raises — in some cases, the biggest they’ve seen in years, even decades. New Mexico increased base salary levels by an average of 20%. Teachers would see their salaries rise 14.2% over two years, with bonuses, under a budget proposal released by North Carolina lawmakers this week. Missouri raised the minimum teacher salary from $25,000 to $38,000, but only for one year.

A teacher in Phoenix, Arizona. Salary increases and team teaching models are some of the solutions at play to attract and retain teachers.

David Kidd

Besides money, some schools are experimenting with their management models. The American Association of School Administrators is working with Arizona State University to expand a team-teaching model already in place in about 30 Arizona schools. The idea started about five years ago on the theory that “we didn’t have an educator shortage problem, we had a workforce design problem,” says Brent Maddin, director executive of the ASU. Next Education Workforce initiative.

The model of a single teacher standing in front of a roomful of children has been around since the 19th century. Bringing teachers together in a shared classroom solves many problems. They feel less isolated, for one thing, and they don’t have to put off doctor’s appointments or other personal needs until summer. Not only are more teachers saying they enjoy coming to work, but more children are succeeding in their classes, suggesting that having experienced teachers working with junior peers helps them navigate required programs.

“Everything has an asterisk in the shape of COVID right now,” Maddin admits. “But we have the opportunity to make it a job that people want to meet, rather than leave, as professional educators.”

Norma A. Roth