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Public schools are facing an existential Great Resignation of teachers

New data from the National Education Association suggests that a full-on, sector-wide breakdown could be on the horizon.

Public schools are facing an existential Great Resignation of teachers
[Source Images: jozefmicic/iStock; Westend61/Getty]

The pandemic is our collective national nightmare, but few professions have been as frontline as America’s public school teachers—essential workers, in enclosed classrooms, filling in for absent colleagues, while also supporting frazzled students.

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The country’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association (NEA), released a new poll today that it conducted to gauge the amount of stress on their members’ shoulders right now. The results suggest that a full-on, sector-wide breakdown could be on the horizon. The survey shows that 55% of teachers now say that because of the pandemic, they’re going to leave the profession sooner than they’d planned. When the NEA asked the same question last August, the number stood at only 37%.

The teachers’ group argues that the problems caused by the pandemic are myriad, but the biggest of all is that staff shortages are leaving teachers “exhausted and increasingly burned out.” In the past two years, it says staff shortages have spread beyond the classroom to include bus drivers, school nurses, and cafeteria workers.

Meanwhile, data elsewhere suggests that interest in the teaching profession has been waning for a decade, for a variety of reasons—the low pay, difficult working conditions, and little to no room for career advancement. (Here’s a 2019 study, by the Center for American Progress, showing that enrollment in teacher-prep programs has plummeted by more than a third since 2010, yielding as many as 340,000 fewer future teachers.) But whatever accounts for the staff shortages, the situation has been made worse by the pandemic. Federal data, the NEA notes, shows that America’s public schools have 567,000 fewer educators today than they did pre-pandemic, and the education sector is presently hiring 0.57 people for every job opening.

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“This is a five-alarm crisis,” NEA president Becky Pringle said in a statement. “School staffing shortages are not new, but what we are seeing now is an unprecedented staffing crisis across every job category.”

She argues that it’s a crisis preventing teachers from giving students adequate care and attention (thereby making their jobs feel futile), forcing them to spend their off-time filling in for colleagues who are sick (thereby affecting their personal lives), and preventing the students from receiving the proper mental and emotional support they need (thereby hurting the students, in and out of the classroom). “If we’re serious about getting every child the support they need to thrive, our elected leaders across the nation need to address this crisis now,” Pringle adds.

The survey’s specific findings show that:

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Schools are understaffed

  • 74% of teachers say staff shortages have forced them to fill in for colleagues.
  • 80% report that unfilled job positions have burdened them with additional work obligations.
  • 94% report their schools have stayed open for in-person learning, yet add that as many as a quarter of their coworkers and students have been absent with COVID.
  • Only 21% of teachers in schools serving mostly minority or economically disadvantaged students believe their schools have adequate ventilation.
  • 35% say that mask and other coronavirus-mitigation policies have been eased since the fall, despite the surge in COVID cases.

Teachers are fed up

  • 90% say burnout is a “serious problem,” while 91% say broader pandemic-related stress is equally serious.
  • To fix these problems, 96% say teacher salaries should be raised, 94% say students should receive additional mental-health support, 93% say schools should hire more teachers, and 90% say there’s too much paperwork.

And they’re starting to eye the exits

  • 86% say they’ve seen colleagues leave the profession since the start of the pandemic.
  • 55% say they want to quit teaching “sooner than planned,” but it’s even worse among Black teachers (62% of whom want to quit) and Hispanic or Latin-American teachers (59% of whom want to).
  • Burnout is also not a factor of age or experience: 56% of teachers under 50, 54% of teachers 50 and up, 50% of those with less than a decade teaching, and 57% with more than two decades teaching all say they’re likely to quit sooner than they planned.
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