Abby Norman thought she’d found the ideal teaching job. The pastor, mother of young children, and seasoned English teacher gravitated to the teaching position at an online Georgia charter school because of its flexibility and the opportunity to teach her favorite grades—9th and 10th. For the first part of the 2019-20 school year, it worked out well. Then COVID hit.
“Nobody knew what was going on,” recalled Norman, who grew frustrated with constantly evolving policies, including caps on student enrollment and standardized testing.
Further, as online school options suddenly became exceedingly popular with families, the school’s enrollment tripled. A week before the 2020-21 school year started, Norman was informed that she’d be teaching an 8 a.m. high school English class to seniors, cameras optional. The class ballooned to 50 students as other teachers quit, and Norman received complaints from school leaders about low class participation.
“I stuck it out until the end of the year,” said Norman. “I literally would have done anything else.”
By now, stories like Norman’s are not unique.
The pandemic exponentially ratcheted up the stress typically associated with the education profession, serving for many as the proverbial last straw. When asked in March 2021 whether they would leave the profession, more than half of teachers said they were somewhat or very likely to do so, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey. About a third said they would have answered that way if they’d been asked before the pandemic began.
But not everyone who thinks about quitting the profession goes through with it. Many end up staying for financial reasons; some hang on because they’re close to retirement. Still others keep teaching because they can’t imagine doing any other kind of job.
Follow-up data on how many teachers have actually left or will leave the profession because of pandemic stressors aren’t yet available, and while regional teacher shortages are very real, there’s currently no indication that teachers nationally are leaving the profession en masse.
Even so, school leaders are looking to understand their staff members’ concerns, and keep as many teachers in classrooms as possible. Education Week talked to educators and school leaders about what drives teachers to the edge, and what can be done to lessen the chances that they’ll quit.
Re-prioritizing to improve self-care
Aberdeen Rodriguez, a 9th grade English teacher, admits that she has fantasized about quitting her job at Thomas Edison High School in the Minneapolis school district. She describes her deepest low in January 2021, when the prolonged emotional toll of the pandemic, particularly the combination of extended online teaching while parenting her own young children, threatened to overwhelm her.
“It wasn’t one thing,” she said. “It was the sum of all these parts for an extended duration. I felt eroded emotionally. My wellness was poor.”
Subsequently, Rodriguez forced herself to do something that felt counterintuitive: less for others, and more for herself.
“Teachers tend to be givers,” she said.
Rodriguez is no exception. But she realized that to attempt some semblance of balance in her life, she had to give up some job responsibilities she’d taken on in the past, even those she really enjoyed: department lead, coaching, union steward.
“I set time aside for myself for exercise, meal planning, meditation,” she said.
Rodriguez says she made these changes on her own. “My colleagues and even family members were overloaded with their own issues and challenges. I kind of had to face myself and say, ‘This is on me if I want to live in a happier way.’”
Attempts at maintaining autonomy
Like Rodriguez, long-term teacher David Finkle’s self-reliance has allowed him to maintain some satisfaction as a teacher.
“When I shut my [classroom] door, I’m generally having a blast,” he said.
But Finkle can’t always shut out the increasing demands he faces. Unlike teachers who went on the record saying their job disenchantment began during the pandemic, his started earlier. Finkle, who has taught language arts in Florida’s Volusia County schools since 1990, describes feeling like his autonomy as a teacher has gradually eroded.
In its place is pressure to conform to increasingly stringent curriculum standards and related student assessments. Last year, Finkle said, close to 25 school days were spent on standardized tests.
When district administrators do take the time to visit his classroom, he said, they seem to be checking in primarily to ensure that he is adhering to the mandated curriculum.
“They’re not looking for innovation or creativity,” said Finkle, who prides himself on both. “When you feel like you’re not encouraged to teach kids in ways that you know works, that’s very discouraging.”
Before it’s too late: efforts to make teachers feel appreciated
Finkle’s sentiment is not uncommon among teachers.
Only about one-third of U.S. teachers reported feeling appreciated in a large international study based on data collected prior to the pandemic. Brian White is working to make the employees in his district know they’re valued.
White, executive director of human resources and operations for Auburn-Washburn Unified School District 437 in Topeka, Kan., says that for the last few years, his district has been conducting “stay interviews.” In those interviews, employees are asked why they stay in their jobs and what would cause them to leave. Feeling undervalued is a response he’s hearing increasingly from teachers.
While White acknowledges that the pandemic has created conditions beyond districts’ control, his district is doing what it can to let employees know they are valued.
The human resources department has been capturing stories that communicate messages of appreciation to employees in video blogs, shared on the staff’s website.
“Some of these stories are pretty powerful,” he said.
In one, the parent of a student who struggled during the pandemic speaks directly to her teacher, who visibly tears up at the acknowledgement. “She really went above and beyond,” the parent said. “She took the time to get her where she needed to go.”
While it’s difficult to assess the direct impact of showing teacher appreciation on retention rates, White believes that routinely checking in with employees via stay interviews, engagement surveys, and other efforts that gauge employee morale can help districts avoid later conversations with dissatisfied employees on the verge of quitting.
Past the point of no return
By the time Norman—the former teacher in Georgia, who reports that she’s now happily bartending—met with school leaders last February who begged her not to quit, she was partway out the door. It was just a matter of time.
She was simply working out the details of her “exit plan,” which centered on doing the calculations to ensure she and her husband could afford to lose her salary.
Rodney Lewis, assistant superintendent of human resources at Missouri’s city of St. Charles school district, sympathizes with the plight of teachers. One teacher in his district recently resigned, saying that she felt like her best days teaching were over.
“People are just tired,” he said.
While Lewis says he applauds efforts like the teacher recruitment and retention grants being awarded by Missouri’s education department, which gives stipends and other incentives to teachers, he isn’t convinced they will have an impact.
“We’re talking about someone’s heart,” he said. “There’s no amount of money that can change that.”
And yet, even those teachers who do quit say it’s a tough decision.
“No teacher quits lightly,” Norman said. “They know, if I quit, another 10 students are going to go into my colleagues’ classes, and the students are going to be confused. None of that feels good. All of that is hard.”