The Olathe school district, the second largest in Kansas, is on pace to shatter a record this year. But it’s not one that brings the district pride or joy.
“We have seen a record number of teachers wanting to be released from their contract during the school year,” said Cathy Donovan, director of elementary human resources for the school system. To date, that number has reached 44. A few years ago, says Donovan, midyear departures of even five teachers would have been on the high side in this district that employs 2,700 teachers. Midyear teacher resignations may be on the rise in other places, too.
“It used to be something nobody would ever consider doing,” said Daphne Gomez, a former teacher who left the classroom in 2017 for a job as a consultant at a Fortune 500 company before launching consulting firm Teacher Career Coach, which offers professional advice to teachers considering leaving the profession. Given Gomez’s more than 67,000 Instagram followers, it’s clear that teachers are looking for solutions and, in some cases, a way out of the profession.
It’s too early for conclusive data on just how many K-12 teachers will resign from their jobs during the 2021–22 school year.
But growing evidence suggests that pandemic-related burnout may be the driving force behind the midyear teacher resignations—not just from their current teaching jobs, but from the profession altogether.
Here’s what we know so far.
Teachers exiting the profession break from stereotypes
It’s clear by now the pandemic has exacerbated stress and burnout among many professionals, teachers included.
The National Education Association this February released a nationwide survey of teachers in which 55 percent said that the pandemic is pushing them to plan on leaving the profession sooner than they’d originally planned. Unlike years past, teachers acting on their frustration aren’t just those new to the profession and feeling overwhelmed. Nor are they necessarily veterans who’ve taught for decades and are on the verge of retirement.
Gomez says the majority of teachers she sees expressing interest in leaving the profession have between two and 15 years of teaching experience. Teachers choosing to leave midyear even include award-winning educators ostensibly at the height of their careers.
Jake Miller has taught at Cumberland Valley High School in Mechanicsburg, Pa., since 2008. He received the National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year award in 2016. A year later, he was chosen as a National Education Association Global Fellow to China. His last day on the job was March 1.
Several factors pushed Miller to his midyear resignation.
Since the start of the school year, he had covered more than 90 classes for teachers who were absent, giving him even less time in an already packed day to fulfill his teaching responsibilities. He said he spent upwards of 15 additional hours weekly outside of the work day on his job. He also said the job had come to feel more like babysitting than teaching. Since returning to full-time in-person learning last fall, he spent time and energy constantly reminding his students to wear their masks, turn in their assignments, and behave appropriately in the classroom.
Miller said it’s also been demoralizing to watch public support for educators plummet.
“We [the public] just don’t trust systems any more,” he said, referring specifically to public education. “We cannot win right now.”
Current labor market makes leaving easier
The dynamics of the labor market make the timing ideal for teachers who want to try out jobs in other industries. In November, 4.5 million workers across the country resigned, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“It’s an employee’s market,” said Amber Clayton, knowledge center director for the Society for Human Resource Management. “With teachers’ transferable skills, I imagine that many employers are looking to teachers to fill these holes.”
After starting a job search in earnest in October, Miller landed a position as a consultant with a global professional services firm, where, he says, he’ll get an immediate 50 percent increase in his salary, a more flexible work schedule, and the opportunity to work more with adults.
Traditional barriers to midyear resignations may not apply this year
While education experts speak of the “taboo” of midyear resignations, they also recognize that fed-up teachers seem more likely than ever to dismiss factors that used to prevent them from quitting before the close of the school year.
“If they’re leaving education, it doesn’t really matter to them if they are fined or have their license revoked,” said Donovan, referring to penalties commonly applied to teachers who breach their contracts.
Aside from the penalties teachers may face for breaking contracts midyear, those who suffer most may be the students they leave behind.
Education researchers Christopher Redding of the University of Florida and Gary Henry of Vanderbilt University have studied the effects on students and school communities when teachers resign. Their research found that when teachers leave midyear, the learning loss for their students can range from 32 to 72 instructional days. The factors most commonly to blame for this associated learning loss, according to their research, include classroom disruption, school instability, and less-qualified replacement teachers.
Talk to teachers before they feel the need to leave
Effective teachers know their students thrive on the comfort of routines and stability developed over the course of the school year. And generally, they care deeply about their students’ success. So when such teachers are compelled to leave midyear, they may feel as if they’re no longer able to be effective at their profession.
SHRM’s Clayton urges employers to proactively get to the “whys” behind these feelings, especially those that grip their most valued teachers.
She points to the “stay interview,” in which employers have conversations with individual employees they value to learn how they perceive their jobs—what they value and what they feel could be improved upon—as an important tool to use.
But the stay interview is a tool that, to be effective, needs to be employed regularly; ideally, well before top teachers consider turning in midyear resignations.