5 ways to prevent COVID-era stress from driving teachers away

Leading causes of stress were the modes of instruction, lack of technical support and insufficient COVID safety measures
By: | June 15, 2021

Nearly one in four teachers may quit before the end of this 2020-’21 school year, a significant increase compared to the rate of departures seen pre-COVID, new research shows.

Before the pandemic, one in six were likely to leave, according to a report from the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization.

And stress appears to be a key cause of this threat to the teacher supply. Public school teachers were are almost twice as likely to report frequent job-related stress and three times as likely to experience depression than were adults elsewhere in the workforce, according to the American Educator Panels survey RAND conducted this winter.

“Teacher stress was a concern prior to the pandemic and may have only become worse,” said Elizabeth Steiner, lead author of the report and a policy researcher at RAND. “This raises the concern that more teachers may decide to quit this year than in past years if nothing is done to address challenging working conditions and support teacher well-being.”

Leading causes of stress were the modes of instruction, lack of administrator and technical support, frequent technical issues with remote teaching, and lack of implementation of COVID-19 safety measures. About a third of teachers surveyed also had to help their own children with online learning while teaching.

“Given that some pandemic-era stressors, such as remote teaching, might be here to stay, we think district and school leaders can support teachers’ well-being by understanding current working conditions and their need for a more supportive and flexible work environment,” said Ashley Woo, co-author and an assistant policy researcher at RAND.

The report recommends that schools:

  • Implement COVID-19 mitigation measures in a way that allows teachers to focus on instruction and offset worries about their health.
  • Systematically collect data about the mental health and well-being needs of teachers to understand the sources of distress in their school communities
  • Design and implement mental health and wellness supports
  • Help teachers access childcare
  • Develop clear policies for remote teaching and adopting technology

5 persistent workforce trends 

The number of teachers of color has increased over the past 30 years, but “not enough,” finds another newly released study of teacher employment trends between 1987 and 2018, the latest year from which federal data is available.

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The report, “The Demographic Transformation of the Teaching Force in the United States,” also found that problematic teacher turnover and many other trends have persisted over the last few decades:

  • The number of teachers has increased faster than students
  • Those teachers, in general, are less experienced than their peers from three decades ago
  • More of these teachers are women
  • There are more teachers of color
  • U.S. teacher workforce continues 30-year trends

While last year’s data has not been published, study author Richard Ingersoll said he not seen evidence of a wave of teacher departures, which many have feared would occur as a result of COVID. But with many experienced teachers reaching or nearing retirement age, such a wave could be coming, said Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

“In general, employees do not leave their jobs during economic downturns. This includes teachers who have the seniority to retire from the classroom but might want or need to work elsewhere, or beginning teachers who want to change careers,” Ingersoll said. “Post-pandemic, as more middle-class jobs become available, I predict there will be a large increase in turnover. Older teachers will retire, and some newer teachers will leave the profession.”

An increase in the number of special education teachers, bilingual education teachers, and other specialists has driven the growth in the teacher workforce, which meets community needs but has also strained district budgets, Ingersoll found.

The Biden administration’s American Families Plan would provide federal funding to hire more teachers in these areas. “Biden’s plan could help districts pay for these additional teachers, but only as long as those funds last,” Ingersoll said. “In the long term, in my view, the ballooning of the teaching force is not financially sustainable.”

Among Ingersoll’s other key findings:

  • The “graying” of the workforce has slowed: Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the modal age of teachers crept up, peaking at age 55 in 2007-2008. Since then the number of teachers over age 50 has decreased.
  • “Greening” remains a concern: In the late 1980s the most common teacher was a 15-year veteran; in 2017-2018 that same teacher was in their first year in the classroom.
  • More female: The proportion of teachers who are female continues to rise, and is now over 76%.
  • Diversity still lags: Minorities remain very underrepresented in the teaching force, though the number of minority teachers has increased faster than the number of minority students. However, minority teachers quit at higher rates than do non-minorities.