The pandemic is causing teachers to flee the profession

America's public school teachers are emotionally exhausted and need help. What is to be done?

Published December 19, 2020 2:00PM (EST)

A sign in front of King Elementary School encourages students to participate in remote learning on September 08, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. Students at King Elementary and the rest of Chicago public schools started classes today with students being taught remotely because of COVID-19 concerns. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
A sign in front of King Elementary School encourages students to participate in remote learning on September 08, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. Students at King Elementary and the rest of Chicago public schools started classes today with students being taught remotely because of COVID-19 concerns. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

"I am sorry," sighed the tree.  "I wish that I could give you something...but I have nothing left. I am just an old stump.  I am sorry." — "The Giving Tree," Shel Silverstein

Our public education system may be on the verge of collapse. Indeed, most families with children enrolled in public school find patchwork systems of in-person and virtual instruction underwhelming at best. Teachers are overwhelmed and unable to keep stitching it together. Something has to give, and without an infusion of urgently needed resources and some moral support from families and politicians, that something could be a mass exodus of teachers that our schools cannot afford to lose.

For the past six months, as part of an ongoing 12-state, 100+ district study on teachers' unions' response to COVID-19, my colleague Sara Dahill-Brown and I have been interviewing union representatives from urban, rural and suburban districts about their involvement in COVID decision-making and response.

In an ongoing wave of calls this fall a single theme has dominated — teachers are stressed and overwhelmed and, as one expressed, the profession is "teetering on the edge of a massive, massive shortage." In small, rural and large urban districts, leaders tell us that teachers are retiring, questioning their commitment to the profession, and just leaving the job.  In many districts there were teacher shortages before the pandemic. Unfilled vacancies create additional burden as those who show up are forced to pick up the slack. Union leaders have told us they don't know if they'll ever recover, and huge shortages encourage fears that this "may be the final collapse of public education," said one leader from an urban district in the Midwest.   

The stories of fear and pain that union leaders have shared are borne out in a growing body of survey research. From fall 2019 to spring 2020, scholars at Brown documented the pandemic's initial affects on the profession. A majority of the 6,000 teachers from 9 states they surveyed reported a damaged sense of self-efficacy, their purpose and joy shattered when classrooms shuttered. An Education Week survey in August noted declines in teacher morale and an increased likelihood of teacher resignation.

There is emerging evidence that these expressions of distress are having real consequences. In Arizona, data from the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association shows the number of public and charter school teachers leaving the profession doubled, and more than half cited COVID as their primary reason for exit. In a September survey field by the American Federation of Teachers in partnership with the NAACP and several other organizations, nearly one-third of teachers reported they were likely to leave the profession. And in a survey of teachers from my home state of Minnesota fielded last month, nearly 80% of teachers reported feeling stressed and almost 30% considered leaving the profession. 

The bad news keeps on coming. Last week's press release on EdWeek Research Center's fall survey shows 84% of teachers and administrators reporting teacher morale lower now than prior to the pandemic.

It's clear that much of this overwhelm stems from overwork. Time and again union leaders stressed to me that we're asking teachers to do two full-time jobs. They're asked to use both in-person and virtual students (hybrid) sometimes simultaneously (multimodal). Teachers in both these nightmare scenarios report higher stress, frustration, and worry about their own mental health compared to those teaching fully virtual or in-person only. And this mountain of expectations is stacked atop other non-paid caregiving responsibilities which may disproportionately impact the education workforce given its majority female makeup. (The Department of Labor statistics notes that nearly four times as many women than men dropped out of the labor force in September, just as these new modes of instruction were getting up and running).

The union leaders we spoke with acknowledge well-documented challenges for kids and parents. Indeed, one quarter of the U.S. workforce has considered leaving a job; parents fear a detrimental effect on their jobs if schools stay closed; and working moms are leaving the workforce at astronomical rates and absorbing the mental stress and shock of this purgatory. The pandemic's effect on the education workforce is likely more pronounced, however, because teachers care about feeding and educating their students, the toll this takes on the most disadvantaged, the increase in anxiety and depression, and the loss of stability and joy.  

A union steward from a mid-sized district in the northeast put it this way: 

"The problem is everyone is sandwiched between two rights. The administration is right to want this thing that they want. Okay, I could see it from their perspective. And my member is right for wanting what they want. I can see from their perspective. So, you know, I try and thread the needle. For years, we've always been able to thread the needle and come up with this thing. Whatever it is. But now, you can't. Are parents of second graders right in wanting their kids in the building because remote instruction for six hours a day is terrible for their kids? Absolutely. Is the teacher right in saying that we have to adhere to department health guidelines, and she can't do all of this? Absolutely." 

Last summer, a diverse group of nearly 200 education researchers penned a public statement offering a range of recommendations to help schools navigate this moment. Their number one recommendation was that state and federal governments provide "substantial additional resources to prevent looming school budget crises." They also called attention to teachers' needs for support in making accessible materials for multiple modalities.

The federal government can and should step up with more funding. They're the only entity really able to redistribute resources so that crushed state governments and inequalities in property values don't further entrench students' disparate fates. A massive increase in resources may convert an impossible situation into one more manageable, but it won't magically save what's broken here. In the years before the pandemic, study after study documented high, unsustainable levels of stress among teachers; as elsewhere, COVID-19 has exacerbated already-existing challenges.

We keep asking our teachers to give and give and give. They keep showing up, risking their physical and mental health. They answer 3000 emails a week and pay close attention to whether or not the face on the other side of a laptop camera looks hungry or overwhelmed. We've reduced our teachers to stumps, and stumps can't grow back. They're not easily replaced by seeds or saplings planted in hostile soil. When this is over, we need to rethink schools. We can be student-centered, anti-racist, justice-conscious and care about our caretakers.  

A different children's book about trees speaks another important truth: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." This holiday season, hug your family tight, call your member of Congress, and thank a teacher. Our future depends on it.

By Lesley Lavery

Lesley Lavery is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Macalester College, and the author of "A Collective Pursuit: Teachers’ Unions and Education Reform." Join Lesley for a virtual book event on Thursday, May 26, 2020 via Next Chapter Booksellers.

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