Job dissatisfaction is still surging in K-12. There’s more than COVID to blame

Book banning campaigns, the Uvalde shooting, flatlining salaries and a "lack of respect" were cited as top concerns by AFT members.

Yet more evidence emerged Monday of how deeply dissatisfied teachers are with their jobs even as K-12 educators expect a more normal school year in 2022-23. The unprecedented challenges of continuing instruction during a pandemic may have eased, but newly energized book-banning campaigns, political interference, and the latest school shootings are draining more teachers of enthusiasm for their jobs, according to an American Federation of Teachers’ “Under Siege” survey of its members.

“AFT members were on the frontlines of the first wave of the pandemic, but in many ways the last year was even harder,” AFT president Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “Whether it was mask wars, culture wars, the war on truth, or the devastation in Uvalde, members sacrificed and struggled and carried their schools and their students through the most difficult days of their lives.”

Job dissatisfaction among pre-K-12 teachers has risen by a staggering 34 percentage points since the start of the pandemic, surging from 45% to 79% in a poll of more than 1,300 educators conducted in late June. Perhaps just as troubling considering the current staff shortages, three-quarters of teachers said they would not recommend the profession to others. Flatlining salaries, relentless political attacks, shortages and increasing workloads, and a “lack of respect” were also cited as top concerns by the union’s members.

Worries about safety and fears of school shootings have, not surprisingly, surged since the Robb Elementary School massacre in Uvalde, Texas, in May. Still, 75% of the AFT’s K-12 members remain opposed to arming teachers and staff because they said that would make schools less safe. In fact, there is strong support for tighter gun restrictions, the poll found.

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The AFT survey is just the latest in a string of reports warning of educator burnout–not only among teachers but among principals, as well. Nearly half of school workers reported feeling “always” or “very often” burned out at work, according to a Gallup poll released in June. Educators have consistently been among the most burned-out professionals and the gap between the levels of burnout among K-12 workers and other professionals has widened, that survey found. The new challenges of the pandemic–school openings and closures; parent and community-member frustrations with school pandemic responses; and students’ increasing social-emotional needs–are likely driving this disparity, the pollsters concluded.

Within K-12, teachers were the most burned-out, at a rate of 52%. And female teachers were even wearier, at a rate of 55% compared to 44% of their male colleagues. It’s all adding up to a substantial number of educators leaving the profession, the poll says.

Managing student behavior, supporting students’ mental health and feeling like the goals and expectations of their school are unattainable were listed as teachers’ top sources of stress in a June poll conducted by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research firm. Principals cited hiring a sufficient number of teachers and other staff, supporting teacher and staff well-being, and making up for instructional time lost during COVID as the main causes of anxiety.

Still, some educators did tell RAND that they were still finding joy in their work and managing stress. Teachers and principals said more pay, spending less time on non-instructional duties,  smaller class sizes and working fewer hours per week were among the main incentives that would keep them in their jobs.

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Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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