A poll conducted by the NEA in January of 2022 found that more than half of all teachers surveyed said they will leave teaching earlier than they had originally planned. That’s already serious enough, but the percentages are even higher among Black (62%) and Hispanic/Latino (59%) educators, who are already underrepresented in the teaching profession. And the decision to leave is not age-dependent; percentages range from 50% to 58% across age groups and years of experience.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t look for the underlying reasons for this. Each of these is linked, like so many dominos toppling in sequence. Reasons cited include:
- More than a third (35%) of educators say mask and mitigation policies for COVID have been eased since the beginning of the school year amidst a surge in cases among young adults and children. Many more — 72% — believe ventilation is inadequate in their school buildings.
- Even at the height of Omicron, nearly all members (94%) report that their schools have been fully open for in-person learning and teachers surveyed report as many as ¼ of their school’s staff or students were out due to COVID (this may be on the low side; we have been working with districts that reported 40% of staff out with COVID).
- Staff shortages due to COVID have required teachers to give up their planning time to cover for missing colleagues. Nearly 3/4 of teachers have had to take on extra responsibilities as a result of staff shortages.
- Most (90%) reported burnout as a serious problem; 67% reported burnout as a very serious problem.
- An overwhelming majority (91%) reported that pandemic-related stress was a serious problem, as were the higher numbers of teachers retiring early or leaving teaching since the start of the pandemic, and the high number of unfilled positions.
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are currently 567,000 fewer educators in America’s public schools today than there were before the pandemic. They calculate the number of hires for every open position in the 2021-22 school year at .57% — that’s slightly more than half a teacher for each teacher needed.
If that’s not concerning enough, The Kappan just published the results of a survey conducted with undergraduate prospective teachers that found that while slightly more than half said the pandemic hadn’t changed their views on teaching, about a third said the pandemic had decreased their interest in teaching as a career. The main reasons for the decreased interest? Pay compared to other jobs and the general disrespect leveled at teachers.
There’s real potential here for an education crisis: a mass exodus from teaching coupled with an inability to recruit new teachers.
While not covered in the NEA poll, there are other factors contributing to this problem. Staff shortages also include custodians, cafeteria workers, classroom aides and bus drivers; some communities were already facing bus driver shortages and that has only worsened during the pandemic. A CDC Foundation survey noted that 27% of teachers self reported symptoms consistent with clinical depression and 37% self reported symptoms consistent with generalized anxiety. The survey also reported that teachers who were still 100% online as of March 2021 reported the highest rates of depression and anxiety. Chew on that a second: believing that mitigation at schools isn’t enough but also suffering under online-only is the definition of a Catch-22. The CDCF survey also reported that 43% of teachers cited lack of community support as a significant negative impact on their mental health.
We can’t escape the issue of teacher pay. A survey by Voices from the Classroom found that 63% of teachers said higher pay would be a top motivator for staying in the profession. Even more — 72% — said they’d trade tenure for higher pay. And 86% said there should be financial incentives for teaching in high-need schools. Further, they cited student loan forgiveness and higher starting salaries as motivational factors.
Finally, a raft of new legislation aimed at curtailing what can be taught in public school classrooms has left teachers feeling like they’re treading on eggshells. Some of the new laws are — quite literally — impossible to comply with. Take, for example, a pair of bills that were under consideration in Indiana in February of 2022. These bills required:
- In the run-up to any general election in the state, students must be taught “socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism or similar political systems are incompatible with and in conflict with the principles of freedom upon which the United States was founded.” And as such, “socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism or similar political systems are detrimental to the people of the United States.” BUT the same bill also requires that although students be exposed to the above claims about different ideologies, teachers are not allowed to show favoritism or bias in any one direction. Teachers are being pulled in two different directions simultaneously by the requirements of this bill; it is impossible to navigate.
- Another Indiana bill prohibits teachers from including in their class any “anti-American ideologies.” This term is nowhere defined, so what this refers to is completely obscure. Whatever these ideologies may be, teachers are forbidden from discussing them.
So here’s the logic of this legislative duo in a nutshell: Teach kids all the different political ideologies without taking a position good or bad on them, but tell them that a bunch of them are wrong and harmful to the U.S., and also don’t teach these things at all.
How teachers are expected to execute this pedagogical gymnastics routine is not really at issue: they can’t. No one can. This is the Schrödinger’s Cat of education where something is both taught and not taught at the same time. Short some form of wizardry, there’s no way to comply with these demands. And this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of topics teachers are being prohibited from discussing. The full list includes LGBTQ information, questions kids might ask about the teacher’s gender identity or sexuality, and of course, Critical Race Theory, which through legislation is being expanded to include discussing the true foundations of the institution of slavery, requiring teachers to attribute all slavery to individual racist beliefs only, ignoring the economic, legal, and social infrastructure that enabled it for so many years. How do you explain slavery as a purely individual belief and still explain the slaving industry, the slave markets, the economic impact of an enslaved workforce which affected not only the U.S. but also gave rise to increased child labor in the UK, and so on? Again, dominos.
And beyond that: the newly-elected Governor of Virginia set up a hot-line for parents to report teachers for teaching Critical Race Theory. And a conservative mother’s group in New Hampshire began offering a $500 bounty to those who “catch” teachers violating a new state law that limits certain kinds of teaching about racism and sexism.
All this to say, this is the hardest time ever to be a teacher, with unprecedented levels of stress. One teacher said 2020-21 was the most stressful year of her career and that really meant something: her first day as a brand new teacher was on 9/11 in the Bronx. If we don’t find a way to ease their burdens — financial and otherwise — American education is going to be in an unprecedented state of emergency.
The NEA proposed some solutions to addressing the looming teacher shortage. You can find them here. Their top solution? Increased pay, commensurate with other professionals. I ran across a Forbes article while researching for this piece in which the author concluded that money wasn’t really an issue for teachers; what they really want is more technology. I haven’t the faintest idea how the author arrived at that conclusion. Nowhere — absolutely nowhere — did teachers indicate that their overwhelming desire was for more tech.