In 2021, more than a third (37%) of educators were thinking of leaving the profession earlier than planned. Now, more than half (55%) are eyeing the exit.
Those were the survey findings from the National Education Association (NEA), the country’s largest teachers’ union. When such a large proportion of any workforce wants to leave, we all need to ask the reason why.
As reported by NPR, the short answer is that educators are exhausted, overwhelmed, feeling underappreciated, and disrespected. Almost all (90%) of NEA members report that feeling burned out is a serious problem. A slightly smaller percentage (86%) say they have seen more educators leaving the profession or retiring early since the beginning of the pandemic, and 80% report that unfilled job openings have led to even more work for the teachers who remain.
The survey found that while 55% of NEA members overall wanted to leave, 62% of African Americans and 59% of Hispanics said they will leave earlier than planned. Even though there is a slight edge to younger, less experienced teachers planning to leave, the reality is that desire to leave the profession was similar for rookies, mid-career teachers, and those closer to retirement.
Of course, the pandemic did not create the teacher shortage. But it did exacerbate it. For many teachers, it was the combination of the mental, financial, physical, and emotional strain of teaching while taking care of their own families during and post-lockdown that has proven too much.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are 567,000 fewer educators in America’s public schools today than before the pandemic. Almost half (43%) of posted jobs are unfilled. The difficulty of running schools that are so understaffed will likely result in more teacher resignations.
There have been escalating departures throughout the pandemic. In Florida, teacher vacancies increased 67% in August 2021 as compared to August 2020; causing shortages in language arts, math, science, and special education. The teacher shortage in New York state affects all grades and nearly all areas, including bilingual education, special education, language arts, science, and social studies from the 7th grade up. Teacher shortages can be found in every state and district.
Teachers are deciding that the combined demands and strains of the job are simply not worth sacrificing their physical and mental health. What’s driving them out of the classroom can be summarized as the new three R’s of education: Respect, remuneration, and remote-fatigue recovery.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T (find out what it means to teachers)
Having little voice or autonomy, feeling micromanaged and undermined in academic decisions that directly impact their effectiveness in the classroom topped the list of “whys” of the teacher exodus. In recent surveys, up to two-thirds of teachers reported they have little or no influence over what they teach or what instructional materials are used. They don’t feel recognized for their contributions or supported by their administrators.
Respect, appreciation, and acknowledgment for their experience, professionalism, and hard work would go a long way to slowing the teacher exodus. Input into curriculum and administrative support for their ideas would also be helpful.
Remuneration adds up
Teacher compensation has been an issue for some time. Teachers earned an average 21% less than their comparable peers in 2018, a gap that has grown nonstop for more than 20 years, according to the Economic Policy Institute. CNBC reported that U.S. educators are paid less than their counterparts in Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, and Ireland.
Low pay and high stress come with the job, but it was the overwhelming workloads, lack of work-life balance and frustrations in connecting with students remotely that pushed low pay to the top of the bridge-too-far list.
Researchers found a correlation between higher salaries and retention, all other things being equal. For most educators, it’s not the few thousand dollars, it’s the acknowledgment of their contribution during a high-stress time that made everything difficult. They simply want to be recognized for the hard work they do in helping to support the district’s learning community.
Remote-fatigue recovery: Changing the path of a generational problem
It’s time to work together to reverse the trend of losing experienced and effective teachers, especially minority teachers. Research shows that teachers of color help close the opportunity gaps for minority students and are highly rated by all students. And yet, minority teachers represent fewer than 20% of all educators, and are leaving the profession at a faster rate.
This teacher shortage will have generational consequences. We’re already seeing fewer college students pursuing careers in teaching. How long before this crisis results in untenable class sizes and declining efficacy? We need to solve this problem, so what should we do?
Tackling this critical cause together
It will take the best minds in our communities to solve this crisis in teaching. Collaboration between businesses and legislators, educators, parents and communities, universities and nonprofits is critical.
It’s also time to ask new questions: what can state and federal legislators do to increase funding for teacher salaries beyond the three years of ESSER recovery funds? What can be done to increase the number of qualified people selecting the education field as a career option and how can we streamline the teacher certification process across state lines? If we want the best and the brightest people to choose teaching as a career, then we have to create a new vision for teaching with matching compensation.
Schools are one of the foundational institutions of our lives as citizens of this country. We depend on good teachers to help guide the next generation of students. Teachers have an awesome responsibility. They deserve the best support we can offer them as a wider community of legislators, education leaders, parents, businesses, and nonprofit organizations coming together for a common and critical cause.