The pandemic has taken its toll on nearly every facet of society as we once knew it.
The labor force has seen an unprecedented reduction in workers, a phenomenon known as “The Great Resignation” or “The Big Quit.” In August alone, 4.3 million Americans had quit their jobs.
The pandemic has been particularly unkind to women, to whom a majority of the household labor and childrearing has traditionally fallen. As of April 2021, one in ten women with children under age 18 left the workforce, citing the need to take care of the homefront during a time when schools were closed and childcare was sparse.
One particularly hard-hit profession amid this trend? Teaching.
It did not take the pandemic for teachers to begin leaving their jobs, however. This trend began long before. Federal data shows 8 percent of American teachers were leaving the profession yearly before COVID swept the nation. The pandemic simply exacerbated the problem.
And now? Schools are desperate for educators.
Take the state of Michigan, for example. Just this week, teachers, many of whom are either on a leave of absence or have tendered their resignations, received a plea from State Superintendent Michael Rice to come back.
The letter reads:
“I am sending you this letter today because, as you are likely aware, there is a teacher shortage, not just in Michigan, but across the United States.
As Malala Yousafzai so elegantly stated, ‘One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.’
Our students need teachers like you in our classrooms. You can help teach our next generation and build a better world.
Districts from all areas of our beautiful state — big cities, rural spaces, and everything in between — are ready to welcome you, or welcome you back, to the profession.”
I am one of the teachers currently on a leave of absence who received this letter. And of the undoubtedly thousands of former teachers who were targeted with this plea, I personally know at least five. FIVE. And I have a small circle.
That I, a person with few acquaintances and even fewer close friends, personally know FIVE people who fled the profession is telling. We have a problem. A serious one.
So what’s the deal? Why are teachers packing up their dry-erase markers and walking out in droves?
According to an EdWeek survey of 700 teachers and 300 school leaders, 34 percent of teachers said they were considering or were very likely to leave the profession before the pandemic. That number rose to 54 percent after the pandemic hit, with 84 percent of respondents saying teaching is much more stressful now than it was before COVID.
Of the reasons teachers choose to leave the profession, salary, retirement benefits, administrative support, and a feeling of underappreciation top the list.
As someone who spent 16 years in the trenches, I must add that all of this, combined with the extreme mental, emotional, and physical stress that accompanies teaching, was my reason for stepping away.
Teaching is hard. Unless you’ve done it, you have no idea. It’s easy to view teachers as glorified babysitters who work nine months out of the year and kick back for the other three. But this isn’t reality.
School days are spent building relationships with students, delivering instruction, fostering students’ social-emotional wellbeing, policing behavior, and implementing the newest (ever-changing and impossible to maintain) policies. All the rest of it — the planning, the grading, the calling and emailing and meeting with parents, the tutoring and offering students extra help, the completing paperwork, the attending meetings, the continuing education required to maintain certification, the checking bureaucratic boxes, the worrying about kids — occurs in a teacher’s “off-hours.”
It was standard practice for me to often work 12 hour days and weekends when I was teaching and to use up the few sick and personal days I was allotted to take the day off so I could sit at home and work without interruption. And I was exhausted.
What’s more, when that paycheck came or when they changed our health benefits or when they decimated our retirement, I would sometimes be reduced to tears. How could this much work — important, critical work — be worth so little?
Eventually, I had to take a break. And the thought of taking Superintendent Michael Rice up on his offer to return — now, amid worsening financial, emotional, and personal safety conditions thanks to the divide within society over issues such as masking and curriculum — it’s like … really?
Teachers care. Deeply. That’s why they got into this profession in the first place. It’s also likely why many of them leave. That emotional toll — it’s just too much. At some point, teachers need to take a step back and consider their own mental and physical health, not to mention their worth, and take stock of what they are and are not able to bear any longer.
I fear many parents and members of society in general are not as aware as they should be of just how dire this situation is. These are your kids who will ultimately be suffering. This is your community that will pay the price. This is your country. Something must be done.
Unfortunately, the remedy is not as simple as sending a letter, begging educators to return to classrooms.
Until the gamut of issues that impact teachers’ decisions to leave are fully explored, addressed, and rectified — and until teachers are given the flexibility, acknowledgement, and professional courtesy required to do their jobs well — we will continue to bore ourselves deeper into a world of hurt.