Teachers are sick and tired of the stress of the pandemic. The industry in recent weeks has been gripped by talk of a mass wave of resignations. And some alarming indicators suggest it’s going to get even worse. On surveys, teachers still on the job say they’re done: Over half the members of the National Education Association (NEA) union said they’re considering leaving the profession earlier than they planned, according to a recent poll.
“This is a five-alarm crisis. We are facing an exodus as more than half of our nation’s teachers and other school staff are now indicating they will be leaving education sooner than planned,” NEA President Becky Pringle said.
But thinking about leaving isn’t the same as actually leaving. And federal data on employment in public schools paints a more complicated picture. While teachers did quit at a record high rate in the summer of 2020, the next summer the quit rate was a record low.
To be sure, the highly transmissible omicron variant caused significant disruptions in schools across the country during the month of January. With educators and aides testing positive or having exposures that forced them to isolate and quarantine, administrators scrambled to find substitutes from a thin pool of candidates – some directed employees from central offices to step in while others temporarily dropped their teaching certification requirements or asked parents to help. Combined with school districts using federal aid from the American Rescue Plan to hire more teachers, nurses, counselors and other school staff, the temporary shortages fueled a national narrative of a profession in shambles. What’s less certain is how accurately that narrative reflects the reality inside classrooms.
“Teachers, if you survey them, are dissatisfied, unhappy, and they say they are considering leaving,” says Chad Aldeman, policy director at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab. “I haven’t seen the objective data suggesting that they are actually leaving in any numbers greater than normal yet this year.”
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the seasonally adjusted quit rate for people working in state and local public education reached 1.5% in July 2020, which was the highest rate seen in over 20 years of available data. The next summer, it dropped to just 0.3% – the lowest rate seen in the data.
By December 2021, the quit rate had evened out to 0.9%, which is similar to other government jobs and two-thirds lower than the national quit rate for all industries.
Aldeman suspects that the federal data may even have overstated the quit rate in summer 2020, as it does not fit in with data he’s seen from states. For example, Idaho, Massachusetts and North Carolina all saw similar or even higher retention rates in 2020 compared to the year before. Even though 22% of Tennessee educators said in a fall survey that they are unlikely to remain in public education, a study of six school districts in Tennessee found that all of them increased teacher retention.
Despite the stress, some evidence suggests teachers may stay in the profession if they feel that their school’s leadership is supporting them through this difficult period.
“Teachers also want to stay in a place where they have a voice in decision making,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute and a professor emeritus at Stanford University.
They may also stay because their other options are limited. A 2021 Rand Corp. survey of teachers who quit the profession found that the majority did not find better-paying jobs, and 3 out of 10 had to take jobs with no health insurance or retirement benefits.
“Among people who are leaving the profession, the research suggests that they generally do not find jobs that pay more than teaching. Their skills are not rewarded in other jobs,” Aldeman says, adding that math and science teachers tend to be the exception.
Although fears of a mass exodus of teachers may be overstated, that doesn’t mean that schools are in the clear. Employment in local public education dropped 7.1% in September 2020, compared to a year earlier – a loss of over 570,000 workers. This is by far the largest drop in public education jobs ever recorded in the federal data, which goes back to 1955.
The Biden administration is also seeking to bolster the profession where it can, urging states and school districts to use money from the American Rescue Plan to offer teachers and school staff raises as well as signing and retention bonuses.
During a major speech last week, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona acknowledged the difficult position in which educators find themselves – on the front lines of a mental health crisis among adolescents who also incurred significant academic losses due to remote learning and caught in the crosshairs of nasty education culture wars that further complicate an already challenging job. He called for a “livable wage” and better working conditions for teachers.
“Moving forward, it is on us to make sure education jobs are ones that educators don’t want to leave and that people from all backgrounds want to pursue,” he said.
Staffing shortages in education are a major problem. But they’re not happening just because teachers are throwing in the towel. Schools are not hiring new teachers fast enough to make up for the pandemic-induced job shortages.
“They have the money, they have the plans in place, but they’re not able to get people,” Aldeman says.
It didn’t help that the omicron variant in December and January caused COVID-19 cases to skyrocket, meaning more teachers had to call out sick or quarantine. The NEA survey, which was conducted Jan. 14-24 and released Tuesday, found that 74% of union members said they had to take over other colleagues’ duties due to staff shortages.
“America’s educators are exhausted and increasingly burned out. School staffing shortages are not new, but what we are seeing now is an unprecedented staffing crisis across every job category,” Pringle said in a statement.
Those staffing shortages are a problem that existed well before the pandemic, especially for teachers in math, science, and special education. Darling-Hammond says that the pipeline for teaching has been shrinking for years, in part because student loan debt has increased, which pushes college-educated people toward careers that pay more than teaching.
“This is more than a flash in the pan,” Darling-Hammond says. “It’s really a wake-up call for rebooting the profession.”
– Lauren Camera contributed to this report