After two years of weathering pandemic-related disruptions, safety concerns and strained public scrutiny, burnt-out teachers have left the profession in droves.
At least 300,000 teachers and other public school staff walked out between February 2020 and May 2022, The Wall Street Journal reports.
According to a study recently published in Educational Researcher, a journal of the American Education Research Association, teachers have experienced alarmingly high rates of anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic — even more than healthcare workers.
According to a June 2022 Gallup poll, K-12 teachers report the highest burnout rate of any US occupation, with more than four in 10 teachers reporting that they “always” or “very often” feel burned out at work.
Many of the pervasive challenges teachers face, including safety concerns, low salaries, funding shortfalls and deteriorating mental health, are not new problems – but the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing problems within the profession.
The burnout crisis in teaching has been exacerbated by a nationwide shortage of teachers – enrollments in teacher preparation programs have plummeted, a trend amplified by the pandemic, and schools across the US are competing for a shrinking pool of qualified teachers.
Some teachers are quitting because of the challenges of teaching during a global pandemic, while others, taking note of the Big Retirement, have found higher-paying opportunities in other industries. Those who remain in the classroom report exhaustion and disillusionment with the role they once considered their dream job.
“If I couldn’t look forward to retirement, I would probably quit”
August Plock’s class size has nearly doubled since he began teaching 11th grade US history at Pflugerville High School 23 years ago, thanks to an ongoing teacher shortage and a flock of families migrating to trendy Austin, just a 30-minute drive south. wander off
“I used to teach about 140 students a year, and now that number is close to 200,” Plock, 54, tells CNBC Make It. He’s teaching six classes this year, each with 28 to 33 students.
Texas has faced a teacher shortage for years, and the pandemic has made it worse — the state lost nearly 43,000 teachers last year and set a new record for Texas retirements and resignations.
“It’s been bad in recent years, but this year was really tough,” says Plock. “We had to break teachers’ jobs into special programs and put them in classrooms where there were no teachers, even if they didn’t want it — that caused a lot of people to quit.”
Plock has added at least 10 additional students to his class this year and is teaching a second subject, geography, due to teacher shortages.
“It’s fun to work with the students,” says Plock. “But I’ll be honest, I have two years before I retire, and if I didn’t have retirement to look forward to and I was a young teacher, I probably would retire, too.”
“It was chaos”
Jeanne Paulino never thought that she would one day become a teacher.
The 24-year-old wanted to work as a lawyer throughout high school and college — but one conversation early in her senior year changed her mind.
“I was approached by a Teach for America recruiter and I was blown away,” she says. “He started the conversation about how education is fraught with injustice and how teachers can help eliminate some of the inequalities that exist.”
She was accepted into the program in November 2019 and was posted to Chicago’s Intrinsic Charter High School as a Year 11 English Learning Specialist for the 2020-2021 school year — at the time of the outbreak of the pandemic.
“It was chaos,” Paulino recalls. “I spent my first year of apprenticeship entirely online and really felt like I had no idea what I was doing.”
When her school reopened for the 2021-2022 school year, Paulino felt even more lost.
“Probably that freshman year, I went home crying at least twice a week because I was so exhausted and confused about how to effectively manage all these students in the classroom,” she says. “It was their first face-to-face encounter in a long time, and many of them were still struggling with the stress of the pandemic and the lack of social interaction … it led to new behavioral issues that I didn’t expect.”
Now, after two years of teaching experience, Paulino is confident in leading her classroom and excited about the positive impact she can have on the lives of her students.
Teach for America only requires Corps members to teach for a minimum of two years, so Paulino ended her involvement with the program, but the Intrinsic Charter School hired her to remain on the staff as a full-time teacher for the 2022-2023 school year.
“The classes were both better and more challenging than I thought they would be,” she says. “Sometimes I’m an instructor, sometimes a confidant or a therapist, but it all feels like incredibly important, meaningful work.”
When she started teaching, Paulino planned to quit after two years, noting that teaching had never been an “end goal” for her, but her career goals had changed – instead of going to law school, she now dreams of becoming a therapist or a writer.
But there’s one thing that’s keeping them in the classroom for at least another year: their students. Paulino explains: “The good relationships I have with the students motivated me to stay despite all the stress and sometimes the feeling of being overworked and underpaid.”
“The class became unbearable”
Amy Owen still cries as she recalls her last day in the classroom where she taught for more than 20 years.
Owen, a former third-grade teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, sent her resignation letter on June 30 — and was surprised when someone from Human Resources replied to her email and congratulated her on the decision.
“It really got me thinking because I wasn’t happy about leaving class and didn’t see it as something to celebrate,” says Owen, 48. “I felt like I was being pushed out of class .”
She fought back tears as she broke the news to her students.
“All day long kids would tell me how excited they were to visit my classroom when we returned in the fall or how they were hoping their younger siblings would have me next year,” says Owen, 48. “I felt very guilty when i told them i wasn’t coming back like i was letting down these little kids who needed me.”
Owen says she’s reached her breaking point “many, many times” over the years and previously considered quitting teaching – but the 2021-2022 school year pushed her over the edge.
“Everything changed immediately in terms of what the leadership expected of us,” she says. “We went from appreciating the whole child and caring for our students as people during virtual learning to testing them to death.”
On top of that, many of her students were still struggling with stressors that had emerged during the pandemic: losing family members to the coronavirus, worrying about contracting the virus themselves, dealing with theirs after so long Classmates feeling insecure or shy.
“It destroyed my spirit,” says Owen. “At that point teaching became unbearable and I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Weeks after she stopped teaching, she moved to Charlotte and focused on volunteering for causes close to her heart, like gun reform, and finding a new job — interested in a career in marketing or in the communication.
“My heart is still broken,” Owen says of her decision to quit. “Part of me still wants to be a teacher, I was proud of it and really loved it … but I don’t think I’ll ever set foot in a classroom again.”
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