Why So Many Teachers Are Leaving, and Why Others Stay
Cult of Pedagogy 2022-05-13
Listen to this post as a podcast (full transcript):
Over the past year, the internet has been full of stories of teachers leaving teaching. A recent NEA survey revealed that 55 percent of currently employed teachers are seriously thinking about leaving their jobs, and that number is even higher for teachers of color. These numbers have spiked sharply over the 21-22 school year: In August of 2021, only 37 percent of those surveyed said they were thinking about leaving. Even more alarming, more teachers than ever are breaking their contracts and leaving in the middle of the school year, a decision many thought they would never make.
It’s no exaggeration to say that a big shift has occurred, and it happened very, very recently. If you are in a leadership position—a school administrator, a district superintendent, or even an official at the state level—and you’re concerned about this shift (which you definitely should be), I’m hoping to offer something helpful here.
We’ll start with the stories of four teachers who recently made the decision to leave their jobs and finding the common threads between them. These are the cautionary tales, the ones from which we can learn what not to do. Think of this part as “How to Lose a Teacher in One School Year or Less.”
Part two will be about teachers who stayed, and the administrative decisions that made this possible. For this section, I looked specifically for teachers who stayed because of administrative support. At this point in history, I refuse to gaslight teachers into “doing it for the kids” or being some kind of heroes for mankind. We are so beyond that. The reality is, teaching can be a satisfying, sustainable career if and only if policies are put in place to make it so. The policies are possible and they are being put in place in small pockets all over the country. All it takes to make it happen are brave, insightful leaders who set their egos aside and stand up for what is right. Those are the people who are keeping their teachers, and my goal here is to spell out exactly what they’re doing to make that happen.
Part One: The Teachers Who Left
Jamie’s Story: Blatant Disregard for Safety
Jamie was an English teacher and librarian in a southern state who taught for about eight years before leaving. Like most teachers, she understood that the job was going to be challenging, and she was prepared for that.
“Teaching is never a profession that you enter thinking, This will be easy!,” she says. “You know that you’re in it for kids, you know that you’re in it to build a better world, you know that you’re in it to pay it forward. And there were always moments where I thought about other professions, but there was never trouble like the brutality of the treatment by our own leadership in the pandemic.”
Like schools all over the world, Jamie’s school went fully remote in March of 2020, and everyone did the best they could. But when they returned to in-person in August of 2020, teachers were concerned about a lack of cleaning supplies, poor ventilation, and inadequate masking. Meanwhile, public support for teachers was quickly eroding. Small groups of vocal parents attended school board meetings demanding full-time in-person learning and elimination of mask mandates, calling teachers lazy for wanting to continue teaching from home. Teachers who pushed back on these demands were called bullies and hecklers, even by the school board members.
In the Spring of 2021, the new availability of vaccines kept Jamie’s hope up. Despite being exhausted every day from covering extra classes for quarantined colleagues and all the other associated tasks, she still felt optimistic. When the Delta variant arrived, that optimism vanished: Rather than reinstate safety measures, her school district went the other direction, completely ending mask mandates and adding to that the removal of any quarantining.
“When you’re not even pretending to try to keep the students in your care safe,” she says, “I couldn’t do it anymore.”
When asked how administrators could stop the flood of teachers leaving the profession, Jamie said give teachers a voice.
“Teachers need seats at the table where all decisions are being made. Every school board should have a teacher who is elected. Every school board should have a student who is elected. The bus drivers, the cafeteria workers—there are so many people in the everyday life of school—the people who have to answer the front desk who’s arguing with people about masks, the bus drivers who have to hand masks to kids every day, there’s so many people that need seats at the table.”
Denise’s Story: Abuse from Parents and Empty Equity Promises
An art teacher in a private school on the West coast, Denise used to love her job. “It was amazing, and it was amazing for a really long time. I loved being a space where kids could come and just take a breather for a minute, seeing kids create and using a different part of their brain. For a long time things were great.”
And even at the beginning of Covid lockdowns, things were tolerable. “At the beginning, everyone was like, Yay, teachers are the best! You got all these Starbucks gift cards and people were really nice, and then it just flipped really quickly. The biggest things that pushed me out of teaching were—I’m gonna call it what it was—abuse from parents. Abusive language, harassment—I had a co-worker who had seven emails from a parent between the hours of midnight and five a.m. demanding things—I mean this is a person who’s like literally asleep in those hours. I had parents throw in my face how much they paid for their students’ education and therefore I worked for them and I should be responding faster.”
Rather than advocate for the teachers, Denise’s administrators often acquiesced to parents. She described a culture where parents were more or less in charge, and the school leadership bent over backwards to please them for fear of having them go elsewhere. This atmosphere, along with the increased demands from Covid, meant more and more demands placed on teachers. Although self-care was given lip service, very little was done to make it possible.
“There was no opportunity for self-care for teachers,” she says. “It was like the pandemic didn’t exist and we were expected (to act) like everything was normal.”
Along with these issues, Denise found herself increasingly disappointed by her school’s weak efforts toward equity work. Although the school had what Denise calls a “glowing diversity statement” on its website, she found their actions didn’t really align with it. She would attend trainings and come back to her school full of energy, only to find very few people wanting to get on board.
“Folks are kind of like, well, that’s cool, yeah yeah, we’ll talk about it later you know? And I’m like no, we’ve got to talk about this now! And summer of 2020 things spiked again and then kind of it became like trendy and then it sort of went away, and I wanted to keep having these conversations and talk about why do kids keep getting misgendered? Why do we not have bathrooms for all folks? Why is our school not disability accessible? And no one really wanted to talk about it.”
Despite her drive to make things better for her students, and to be the best teacher for them, the burnout eventually took her down.
“You want to make things better,” she says. “I think all teachers want to do that, but at some point you have to say okay but what is the result of this? I’m burnt out. I’m grumpy. I’m tired. I’m not treating my partner super great. I’m angry. I had told myself that I never wanted to be that grumpy high school teacher that I had, because it was such a turn-off for me as a student, and I told myself if I ever started to feel that way that I would leave, because it wasn’t fair to my students.”
Sarah’s Story: No Appreciation or Trust
Sarah has been teaching high school—mostly English along with a handful of other subjects—for 8 years in a southern state. She recently made the decision to leave her job at the end of the school year. At Sarah’s school, the number of teachers who have quit in recent years is in the double digits.
Before Covid, Sarah loved teaching, but things changed dramatically when her school shifted to remote learning. Like so many other teachers all around the world, she adapted to the changes and put in the extra work needed to keep things running, but none of her efforts were ever recognized. This lack of appreciation was just one piece of an overall shift in feeling devalued as a teacher.
“When we went virtual, we had a day’s notice to get everything ready. Our IT administrator was new and I became the de facto liaison for teachers. And that’s totally fine with me—I just got a degree in this, I love technology, I’m very comfortable with it.” After months of doing the equivalent of two jobs, Sarah got no appreciation from her administration, and she says that even a simple, sincere thank-you would have made a big difference in whether she decided to stay.
Another post-pandemic shift in Sarah’s school was a re-emphasis on test scores. Rather than recognize the unprecedented trauma students had been through and focusing on healing that with patience, her school’s leadership pushed a message of full steam ahead, especially when it came to testing. When her students weren’t performing on benchmarks the way they were expected to, Sarah’s principal came into her class and reprimanded them. Test scores take precedence over just about everything in Sarah’s school, and she believes this actually interferes with the quality of their education.
“We have to stop every now and then, stop every couple of weeks for a benchmark for one of the state area classes,” Sarah explains. “Those benchmarks are tied to grades, and so if you’ve fallen on a benchmark, then you might be moved into a different enrichment.”
What is “enrichment,” exactly? It sounds like a good thing, an opportunity to explore new topics or go deeper on areas of interest. It turns out “enrichment” is just a euphemism for test prep.
“They hate it,” Sarah says. “They think it’s dumb, they think it’s useless, especially my seniors, because we just sit there we don’t really do anything. In one subject area they just look at vocabulary.com. And it’s like, while that stuff is beneficial, you have to have it within a certain context, and if they’re just sitting there for 30 minutes on vocabulary.com they’re not getting any more context.”
The final straw for Sarah came down to micromanagement. For years, she had kept the lights in her classroom low, which created a calming atmosphere. When she was told her classroom was too relaxed and she needed to keep the bright overhead lights on, it was just enough to tip her over the edge. Some might think this wasn’t that big of a deal, but the physical environment of the classroom is one of the last few things a teacher still has some control over, and when that was taken away, Sarah was done.
For her it all comes down to trust in teachers’ professional judgment. In her school, the message she and her colleagues got was that teachers were the last people whose opinions mattered. Had that been different, she might have stuck with it.
“We’re the professionals,” she says. “We’re the ones who have studied this, we’re the ones who have spent literal years creating things and tweaking things and making things—trust us to know we’re not gonna do anything to jeopardize. Unfortunately, the parents have more of a say in what’s happening when they have no idea what’s actually going on. I understand that the administrators have a really difficult job and I could not imagine; however, I feel like some of them forget what it’s like to be in the classroom.”
Erin’s Story: Nobody Asks Teachers
For most of the 11 years she taught middle school ELA and social studies, Erin described her job in a west-coast state as “gruelling, but doable.” She taught over 150 students every year and was accustomed to the hard work and fast pace, but when Covid hit, everything changed, and the message she received from her administration was that ultimately, she simply didn’t matter.
She adjusted to teaching online through a pregnancy and with a first grader at home, but when it was time to come back into the building, she was shocked to find that many of the same problems her school had before Covid were worse.
“Our classes were packed, they were filthy, there was mouse urine and feces all over my equipment that I had to come in and wipe off day one, and it was really frustrating to see that the inequities and the lack of even just the facilities, just lacking basic hygiene, it was the same if not worse post-Covid.”
After all the months of lockdown, keeping her family safe, Erin was now faced with teaching crowds of unvaccinated children in small, poorly ventilated rooms. “I expressed my concerns to my administration and she said well if you have a problem with it, take a leave. She didn’t say I know this is difficult, I know you have two children at home that are unvaccinated, you know, what can I do to make you feel better? She said, Just take a leave.”
So many of the incidents that led to Erin’s resignation were exacerbated by the attitude of that administrator, who came on board during the pandemic. When Erin learned she was exposed to a co-worker with Covid, her administrator said, “I don’t know what you expect me to say.” When students were abruptly pulled out of class to go home, she was told that the reason was none of her business.
“It just, it felt so disrespectful. It felt like I’m giving everything in my life to this profession, to this career, to my classroom. Even just the courtesy of letting us know what is happening with our own health would be great.”
Other decisions made at the district level compounded these problems. One popular tool, NewsELA, that was used by many teachers to provide leveled reading materials to students, was pulled, leaving teachers to scramble for replacement texts. Even worse, at a time when students were already comfortable with Google Classroom in remote learning, the district signed a contract with another learning management system, forcing everyone to switch over right in the middle of an already stressful period of remote learning.
“I don’t know any other profession where the tools that you need to do your job are taken away from you without your consent. You wouldn’t tell a nurse to go in and do her job and take away her stethoscope and her computer that’s needed to administer medications and be like, Well, you’re just going to have to figure this out.”
Erin believes that most of these problems could have been avoided if teachers had been asked to give input prior to reopening, but that never happened. “Nobody asks teachers,” she says. “Nobody asked us what school should look like when we came back from the shutdown. Not one, not a single person.”
Finally, Erin did something she thought she’d never do, breaking her contract and leaving her job in the middle of the school year.
“I got to a point where I thought, I’m a mess emotionally, I’m worried about getting Covid, I’m stressed to the max, I can’t do my job in the hours that I’m being paid for. It affected my relationship with my husband, it affected my relationship with my own two children, it affected my mental health. I would come in every morning and wipe mouse urine off of my computer before I started for my day—what other job is that acceptable? But we have a shortage of custodians, so you just do it and you move on. And you think wow, that really sucks, this sucks, this is my life. But then there just comes a day where you’re like, I don’t want this to be my life anymore. I want a better life for myself.”
Part 2: The Teachers Who Stayed
Those are the stories of schools where things went wrong, and you may have heard pieces of your own story in them. If so, I hope you’re finding some validation in them, an affirmation that you’re not the only one. On the other hand, you may be someone in school leadership who is here to learn how to avoid something like this happening in your school, or to stop it if it’s already started.
That’s where we’ll turn next, to examining what is going right in schools where teachers have stuck around.
The good news is that we have a lot of information that can help. I sent out a request via email for teachers who had decided to stay in their jobs despite the increased challenges. While I’m aware that there are many reasons why a teacher might choose to stay in teaching—including financial need, loyalty to or support from colleagues, or a feeling of duty to students and community that outweighed the difficulty—for the purposes of this piece I specifically asked to hear from those who stayed mostly because of supportive decisions their administrators had made, because those are practices that can actually be replicated in other schools. In two days, I got over 200 responses, most of which are summarized in this spreadsheet. (Some responses have been removed because they are either off-topic or they contain information that might identify respondents; we wanted to keep them anonymous.)
In reviewing the responses, a few themes continued to emerge, leadership moves that made the biggest difference. In order of frequency, here’s what they were:
1. Appreciation, Listening, and Emotional Support
An overwhelming number of teachers who remained in the classroom talked about the supportive attitudes of their leadership as a key reason they stayed. Even in cases where circumstances remained extremely challenging and not much could be changed, having an administrator who offered genuine appreciation, a listening ear, and emotional support made the difference. While simple tokens of appreciation like food and gift cards helped a lot, it was the overall attitude of administrators that had the biggest impact.
This stands in stark contrast to the administrators described in the stories we shared earlier of teachers leaving; the common denominator in all of them was a callous, ego-driven attitude that made teachers feel unappreciated and uncared for.
“For me, it was my principal, vice principal, and office staff that kept my colleagues and I afloat. My vice principal came up to me and said he knew I didn’t care for praise in front of the masses, so he wanted to address me aside and say that I’m neither ignored nor unnoticed; he said that I’m doing good work, and he is here to support me no matter what, and so far, he and the rest have kept to their word. They’re not perfect, and I don’t agree with every decision, but they continually reinforce and share their appreciation for us while also encouraging us to take time for ourselves.”
“The best thing the leadership in my school did was to LISTEN to the teachers. We are on the front lines and we see problems developing on a day to day basis. When admin listens to the problems WE are experiencing and seeks wisdom from US on potential solutions, that is absolutely the most significant factor on why our staff has seen less turnover than other schools.”
“(Our administrator) started and ended every staff meeting by saying, ‘As a reminder, we are in the midst of a global pandemic. This is not school-as-usual, this is pandemic teaching and connecting to get them by. We’ll get caught up later. Take a breath, we’re going to be ok.’ Then they asked us to pass that along to our students.”
“We have a new principal this year who actually listens and values the concerns of his staff. He is a collaborator who allows his counseling team to make their own decisions. He is open to trying new things and welcomes new ideas. He believes in the professional and personal growth of his staff and wants each person to succeed. He has a ‘why not’ approach. He gives credit to others. He is the type of leader who you want to go above and beyond because you feel valued under his leadership. He is a breath of fresh air from the previous administration and his heart’s intention is truly with his students and staff.”
“I wanted to schedule a meeting with (my administrator) during the day to discuss my thoughts about retiring early (after 25 years) but he was in negotiations. I was okay with meeting next week but he took the time to call me at 7 pm and we talked for 2 hours. I was doing most of the talking and never once did it seem like he was trying to get off the phone with me. He listened, empathized, and understood my position. I truly felt valued and as a result, I am returning in August.“
“Leadership made sure socio-emotional check-ins were just not for students but adults. Personal days were almost never denied & lateness at the top of the year wasn’t treated as a disciplinary action. There was just overall understanding that this was just not a normal time. There was vulnerability from top down about how hard everything is and to just frankly do our best.”
2. Flexibility with Policies and Curriculum
Administrators who retained the most teachers were willing to adjust expectations in light of the pandemic, rather than obsessing over learning loss or insisting on “business as usual.” These loosened expectations included curriculum, scheduling, planning, observations, dress codes, and attendance. Rather than tell teachers to just “figure it out,” these administrators were willing to experiment until they found solutions that made the most sense.
“There was a lot of flexibility and less pressure around what curriculum must be covered. There was a lot more focus on love for students and for ourselves. Definitely no focus on ‘learning loss’ or filling any gaps.”
“The past 2 school years our Admin took away the expectation around curriculum—there was no longer pressure to teach the entire scope and sequence.”
“We were encouraged, directly and often, to cut what we felt we could from our curriculum and cover less.”
“Teacher dress code changed to jeans every day if you wanted.”
“Our district added several mental health days in the spring so that we never went more than 3 weeks without a 3 day weekend.”
3. Prioritizing Physical and Mental Health
Administrators who have lost the fewest teachers send a clear message that the health of their teachers and students matters. And this is not just lip service; they back it up with meaningful policies and practices that keep everyone physically safe and mentally well.
“In my school, there were intentional, deliberate steps my admin took—enforcing masks, staggering passing times between classes, halls were turned into one-way streets to mitigate cross-contamination. But the best thing they did was stay consistent. There were no sudden rule changes, no questionable ‘special cases,’ and no additional pressures.”
“If you aren’t feeling well, you get sent home. Admin will cover if needed. You can’t take care of your students if you aren’t taking care of yourself.“
“Had I been at literally ANY other school, I would have quit. My admin team bent over backward to make everything work. We had custom-built plexiglass ‘booths’ around teacher desks, a stringent quarantine policy, mandated testing and masking requirements from day 1, and a second cleaning crew to keep everything sanitized. They created outdoor classrooms, put HEPA filters for every single classroom, and taught classes for teachers who were out due to illness or vaccinations. They remained strong in the face of political and public pressure; we were the last in the area to relax our mask requirement (just weeks ago!). We got paid mental health days, self-care-related perks, and compassion for our every concern. They CARED, and they showed it.”
“Our administration checks in with us regularly to see how we are doing personally as well as how things are going in the classroom.”
“She’s allowed us time to focus on ourselves and the students we see daily, rather than the red tape aspects of education. This allowed me to focus heavily on connecting with students which has finally paid off in late April. I finally feel like I’m peeling away the levels of trauma for students to connect to the classroom.”
4. Lightening the Load
Many teachers were able to keep going because their administrators met their need for more time. This was done in two ways: Taking things off of teachers’ plates that were not absolutely necessary, like meetings, duties, special projects, dress code requirements, lesson plan submissions, and standardized tests, and adjusting the school schedule to build in more planning and collaboration time.
“The head principal at our high school blocked every bureaucratic task he could block. Any opportunity he found to remove a burden from staff, he took it. We expect things to return to pre-pandemic norms in the fall, but for the past 2 years it has been huge to not have to sweat through the endless data collection and evaluation cycles that drain so much energy and time from educators in normal times.”
“The biggest difference our school made for us in 2020-21 was prioritize our time towards planning/prep and office hours. We were given only necessary PD & a lot of prep time when we accomplished most of our work load. At one point we had Wednesdays mostly to ourselves while students worked asynchronously. Then we had a late start schedule to use mornings to our advantage through until the end of the year.”
“The most important and impactful things have been to give us time. We’ve continued to have late start days once a week, but admin gave staff that time to work rather than attend mandatory PD. Suspending formal evaluations and Student Learning Outcomes during the 2021-2022 school year (unless on an improvement plan) was another huge time and anxiety saver.”
“Central office has put a lot of emphasis on promoting student and staff wellness more than ‘catching up at all costs.’ This shows in things like not adding any new assessments or documentation requirements, allowing us to continue faculty meetings on Zoom so that we don’t feel like our time is being used for no reason, and giving a few extra days off throughout the year. I feel like they’re working with, not against us.“
5. Trusting Teachers
Just like with all of the other factors, this last one is the exact opposite of what happened in schools that lost large numbers of teachers. Whether or not a teacher feels trusted and respected as a professional makes a huge difference in their job satisfaction, and that often is the determining factor in whether they stick around.
“One thing an administrator said in a meeting changed my paradigm & helped me carry on through some extremely challenging days: ‘Why does everyone feel like they need permission to do everything? If it’s good for kids, research supports it, and it’s ethical, just do it.’ That mindset has helped me see that, for all of the faults and mistakes our administration have made, they still intend to support us and our students. It also gave me the permission I needed to be a leader when the popular narrative has been that we are powerless and our voices don’t matter.”
“My supervisor and principal trust me and trust that I am doing my job well. They never interfere with my work and they give me wide latitude to design my curriculum and lesson plans.”
“The leadership I worked under spent time empowering me to pursue new ideas. He’s an out of the box sort of guy and we both connected with a shared dream of doing something different—using COVID as a chance to break the mould and build a small cohort of high school that did things differently. He allowed me to create, pursue new ideas for classes/curriculum, structure a schedule according to our needs and desires, and would point me in the direction of people with areas of speciality that I was seeking to tap. He trusted me and we made something amazing happen. It sounds crazy and it was indeed only for a year but it’s taking off again this upcoming school year! Stoked to see the program continue to build and grow!”
“My administrator is the reason I have not left after 28 years. I have never felt more appreciated or trusted by my boss, even when I err as humans do. If he ever leaves, that will be my cue to retire.”
So what does all this tell us? I think the message is pretty clear: There’s really no mystery behind why some schools are hemorrhaging teachers and others have a faculty that looks pretty similar to the one they had a few years ago. Keeping good teachers on staff doesn’t require advanced training or specialized knowledge. It’s a simple matter of staying humble, respecting your teachers, trusting in their professional training, and showing them that you care more about them as human beings than you do about how your school looks on paper. That’s it.
If you’re an administrator who is starting to feel your teaching staff slipping away from you, it may not be too late. You can start today by going to your staff, asking them what they need, listening to their answer, and then implementing as much of their requests as you possibly can. For anything that can’t be done, just be straight with them. And be kind. And vulnerable. And humble. It makes a difference.
And for those who have been doing this all along, thank you. None of us ever expected this level of near-impossibility in education, but throughout it all, you have made your teachers feel like they mattered. And treating other human beings like they matter is ultimately going to be the thing that gets us all through this.The post Why So Many Teachers Are Leaving, and Why Others Stay first appeared on Cult of Pedagogy.