Stress, more so than low pay, is the main reason public school teachers quit. And now the coronavirus pandemic has increased the pressures put on teachers.
That’s according to newly released data from the RAND Corporation, which surveyed nearly 1,000 former public school teachers in December. Of those surveyed, 55 percent quit in the two school years leading up to the pandemic, while the others left after March 2020. In both groups, most of the teachers either resigned, retired early, or took an unpaid leave of absence.
Forty-three percent of all the teachers who left voluntarily and before their scheduled retirement said they did so because the stresses and disappointments of teaching weren’t worth it—nearly twice as many as those who said the pay wasn’t sufficient. And among the teachers who left primarily because of the pandemic, 64 percent said they weren’t paid enough to merit the risks or stress of teaching.
Teacher morale has plummeted over the course of the pandemic, EdWeek Research Center surveys show. Teachers say they’re spread thin with technology challenges, a decline in student engagement, the fear of contracting COVID-19, and personal child-care or caretaking responsibilities. Many teachers also say they feel unappreciated by the general public as the debate over whether to reopen school buildings reaches a fever pitch. A vocal contingent of parents and others have blamed teachers’ unions for obstructing the path to the classroom.
But as the RAND survey data show, teacher stress levels were already high before the onset of the global pandemic.
“COVID is kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Lisa Pellegrino, a 4th grade teacher in Maryland.
Pellegrino switched careers and became a teacher seven years ago because she wanted to work with kids and feel like she was making a difference. But in recent years, her class size increased, her district cut funding for paraeducator support, and a promised pay raise was rescinded. She was spending hours after work planning lessons and grading. Pellegrino’s anxiety flared up, and she couldn’t sleep at night.
Then, the pandemic made everything worse: Remote instruction has been even more challenging and time-consuming, and Pellegrino feels like teachers have been “villainized” by the public, seen as lazy for not going back into the classroom right away.
Now, her school district is resuming in-person instruction. Pellegrino, 55, doesn’t qualify for an accommodation to work remotely—but her husband is at high-risk for serious COVID-19 complications, and she doesn’t feel comfortable going back into the classroom and potentially bringing the virus home to him.
Instead, she’s taking a three-month leave through the Family Medical Leave Act because of her anxiety disorder, which has worsened at the prospect of returning to the classroom without what she considers sufficient protections. And Pellegrino said she’s not sure if she’ll return to teaching once her leave is up.
“As much as I love my students, I’m not going to kill myself over this. I don’t mean COVID kill, I mean they’re working me to death,” she said. “Frankly, I would rather be a barista at Starbucks right now than a teacher, because at the end of the day, I could walk away from work.”
Will even more teachers leave?
Before the pandemic, about 8 percent of teachers left the profession each year.
There’s been much anticipation that COVID-19 would lead to a spike in teacher attrition, but so far, Education Week’s reporting and survey data have found that the predicted surge of retirements and resignations has not yet materialized across the nation.
Even so, experts wonder if an uptick in teachers leaving will come at the end of this school year, given plunging morale.
“Stress, stress, stress—that seems at the heart of teachers’ decisions to leave,” said Heather Schwartz, the director of the pre-K-12 educational systems program at RAND and an author of the report. “COVID has fanned the flames of stress.”
RAND researchers found that almost half of the teachers who left voluntarily since March said that COVID-19 was the main reason for their departure. When those teachers were asked their single biggest COVID-19-related reason for leaving, stress topped the list.
After that, a third of teachers said their biggest pandemic-related reason for leaving was because either they had a health condition that put them at greater risk for serious COVID-19 complications or they had a family member with one. Other reasons for quitting included child-care responsibilities, challenges of remote instruction, and inadequate support from administrators.
Child-care concerns were especially prominent among teachers younger than 40. Nearly a quarter of younger teachers who left mainly because of the pandemic ranked child care as their main reason for quitting. Women were also much more likely to say they left because of child-care concerns, but there were so few men in the survey sample that researchers urged caution against over-interpretation.
Andrea, who asked for her last name to be withheld due to privacy concerns, left her 6th grade teaching job in North Carolina when her district announced that it would begin resuming some in-person instruction. Going back to the classroom meant that Andrea would be exposing her 10-month-old daughter to anything she picked up at school, and that she would have to put her baby into day care.
“We don’t know anything about long-term effects [of COVID-19]. I wasn’t as concerned about me getting it, but she’s just a baby,” she said. “The concern was just too great.”
Andrea is now nannying for another family, a job that lets her care for her daughter, too. She wants to go back to the classroom one day, but isn’t sure when she’ll feel comfortable doing so. And she isn’t sure if she’ll return to her school district—she feels like administrators were “gaslighting” teachers by telling them there’s nothing to worry about.
“I feel like a lot of teachers everywhere are just feeling very undervalued and disrespected,” she said.
Some teachers might return one day
Even so, districts might be able to lure back some of the teachers who left, the RAND survey showed.
“It does sound like a sizable chunk of teachers would be willing to come back, so they’re not lost forever to public school teaching,” Schwartz said.
Regularly testing students and staff for COVID-19 would make 13 percent of teachers who left because of the pandemic “definitely willing” to return to the classroom, and another 42 percent “somewhat willing.” But many teachers who left are holding out for widespread vaccination of both students and staff: that would make 34 percent of those who left because of the pandemic “definitely willing” and another 27 percent “somewhat willing” to return to teaching.
That benchmark is a ways off, though. At least 28 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have made some or all teachers eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine, according to Education Week’s research. But a vaccine hasn’t yet been approved for use by most students.
Public health experts say it’s safe to assume middle and high school students could be eligible for the vaccine by the start of the next school year. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said children as young as 1st grade could be approved by then, too—but other experts say that’s an optimistic timeline.
And even after the pandemic has subsided, the structural problems that led so many teachers to quit will still persist, RAND researchers said. They recommend that districts ask their teachers what contributes to their stress levels, and then ask for ideas on how to fix those problems.
Part of that response could be giving teachers more breathing room in their schedules: The former teachers who took other jobs in the education field were most likely to say they did so for flexibility .
“That’s another systemic issue we’re going to have to reckon with post-COVID,” Schwartz said, adding that flexibility is especially key for retaining teachers with young children.
For instance, she said, districts could allow teachers to work part-time or split responsibilities with another teacher. Also, 20 percent of district leaders said they expect remote learning to continue to be an option after the pandemic for some students who want it, another RAND survey found—which could be a good long-term fit for some teachers, Schwartz said.