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Why Thousands of Teachers Are Leaving the Classroom

Twice as many teachers are thinking about quitting than at the start of the pandemic. States are raising pay, but there's a promising model in Arizona that might make more stick around.

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A Chicago teacher helps a student. More than a half-million teachers have left the profession since the start of 2020.
(David Kidd/Governing)
Alexis Perez-Lane loves kids. Ever since she was a child, she knew she wanted to be a teacher. In college, she got a degree in human learning and development and then started teaching at the elementary school level, first in Atlanta and then St. Louis. “It was kind of my dream job, really,” she says. “It’s really fascinating to see little kids learn and grow, and watch how they pick up on things.”

But Perez-Lane has left teaching. Like many another teacher, she found that the comparatively low level of pay created a strain when it came time to start her own family. She was tired of being at schools that were in danger of being shut down. Finally, during the pandemic, she was ready to do something else. “With COVID, my role shifted and it was really difficult to meet their educational needs and also their emotional needs,” she says. “Teaching was the thing that got pushed most to the backburner."

Perez-Lane’s story is common these days. More than a half-million teachers have left the profession since the start of 2020. In a typical year, about 8 percent of teachers leave, but this year saw more teachers leave in the middle of the school year than normal. Also, while it’s long been common for teachers to quit during their first five years on the job, districts are now losing lots of teachers with lots more experience.

“It’s a major problem,” says Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “It’s the No. 1 issue for superintendents.”

As schools seek to recover from the challenges caused by the pandemic — with enrollment in decline and students falling behind on basics like reading and math — it’s difficult to find the help they need to do the work. Already, it’s common for teachers to have to fill in for absent colleagues out sick or quitting. And, aside from the emotional strain of helping kids deal with all their pandemic-related issues, many teachers now feel under attack as schools become a front in the culture wars.

“You have an anti-school rhetoric that’s been consistent throughout the pandemic,” says Willie Carver, who was named Kentucky’s teacher of the year for 2022 but has just announced he’s quitting after being accused by a parent of “grooming” children through his oversight of an LGBTQ student club. “If you happen to be at the convergence of hate — queer and a teacher — then you have to prepare yourself for an onslaught.”

Aside from some states putting new restrictions on what teachers can say about racial history or gender identity and sexual orientation, teachers across the country express frustration about being micromanaged by rigid curricula that turn them into little more than data collectors and standardized-test proctors.

“There was a time when teachers could just close the door and use their best judgment on how to teach a class,” says Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. “Now, there’s a lot more oversight of teachers. That comes with both good and bad [outcomes], but for a lot of teachers, it makes their job feel less professional and less fulfilling.”

Meanwhile, with low unemployment and labor shortages in many other fields, lots of teachers recognize they have other options. One of my son’s teachers this year left to work in trucking logistics, a field in which he had no prior experience in but which offered him more pay nonetheless.

For districts that are short-staffed, there aren’t a lot of spare bodies to put into classrooms. “The problem is, the pipeline isn’t there,” Domenech says. “When we talk to schools of education, their enrollments are way down.”

The Job Is Personal

People who go into teaching tend to be optimists. All the work is about preparing others for the future. It’s an attractive path for those drawn to helping others — sometimes based on their own experiences.

Audra DeRidder has a brother who was born with Down syndrome and albinism. They grew up in a rural area that fell short when it came to specialized services. “Just the lack of resources for us is what drew me into teaching,” she says. “At first, I thought about the medical field, but I just genuinely like kids.”

She became a special education teacher in Iron Mountain, Mich. Although she loved teaching, she felt she got to do very little of it. There are a lot of meetings and paperwork involved, particularly in special ed. Things got worse, she says, during the pandemic. The combination of that strain and the level of pay have her rethinking her career.

“The return to the classroom has been stressful for the teachers, but it’s also been stressful for the students,” DeRidder says. “Because of that stress, we are seeing a lot of behavior problems because we are pushing them to be at grade level when they are not ready.”

Carver, the former Kentucky teacher, was similarly drawn to the field based on personal experience. “I grew up in extreme poverty — literally no running water and no electricity,” he says. “My teachers provided for my every need — emotional, physical, spiritual. School was a place where people who didn’t know me were taking care of me, and I wanted to be part of that system.”

Like many other teachers, Carver says he’s always hoped for more parental involvement, particularly when it comes to the kids who need the most help. But he says the current Zeitgeist has parents worked up about the wrong things, “whether gender theory or the idea that teachers are indoctrinating students to be feminists.”

He said he used to feel like a “symbol” for students, his mere presence signaling it was OK to be a professional who also is gay. Despite his success — not only his teacher of the year recognition, but having his high school students outperform college students working on the same material — he decided he couldn’t stand having “a group of torch-wielding villagers” coming after him.

“I had to think about what it would be like for me teaching the next two years,” Carver says. “Will my students see a happy, successful adult who also happens to be gay, or will they see a broken, stressed, defeated person standing there?”

Possible Solutions

It’s not yet clear from the raw numbers whether the current exodus of teachers is substantially greater than normal. But it’s certain that lots of educators are unhappy and at least thinking about leaving.

In February, the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, released a survey that found 55 percent of teachers were thinking about retiring earlier than they’d planned, due to the pandemic. That’s double the number from July 2020. More recently, the RAND Corporation released a survey that found teachers and principals are experiencing frequent job-related stress at about double the rate of most workers.

“We’re not in control of the curriculum, and yet we still get the brunt of criticism from society,” says Kevin Leichtman, a consultant who quit his teaching job toward the start of the pandemic, and also wrote a dissertation on teacher burnout. “They’ve been stripped of their autonomy, and now you have this public perception that they’re lazy and overpaid.”

Flush with cash, a number of states are providing teachers with salary increases — in some cases, the biggest they’ve seen in years, if not decades. New Mexico raised base salary levels an average of 20 percent. Teachers would see pay increase 14.2 percent over two years, with bonuses, under a budget proposal released by North Carolina legislators this week. Missouri raised the minimum teacher salary all the way from $25,000 to $38,000, although only for one year.
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A school teacher in Phoenix, Ariz. Pay raises and team-teaching models are some of the solutions in play to attract and retain teachers.
(David Kidd)
Aside from money, some schools are experimenting with their management models. The American Association of School Administrators is working with Arizona State University to expand a team-teaching model already in place in about 30 Arizona schools. The idea started about five years ago under the theory that “we didn’t have an educator shortage problem, we had a workforce design problem,” says Brent Maddin, executive director of ASU’s Next Education Workforce initiative.

The model of a single teacher standing in front of a room full of kids has been around since the 19th century. Putting teachers together in a shared classroom addresses many issues. They feel less isolated, for one thing, and they don’t have to put off doctors appointments or other personal needs until the summer. Not only do more teachers say they like coming to work, but more kids are passing their classes, suggesting that having experienced teachers work with junior peers helps them navigate through the mandated curricula.

“Everything has a COVID-shaped asterisk right now,” Maddin admits. “But we have the opportunity to make this a job that people want to run into, as opposed to from, as professional educators.”
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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