The Great American Teacher Exodus

Chronic disinvestment in public education, a corporate reform model that punishes student poverty, and the pandemic’s disruption of school life are making it impossible for teachers to do the job they love. Many educators are reaching their breaking points.

Low pay and grueling conditions are causing public school teachers to leave the profession at an alarming rate. (NeONBRAND / Unsplash)

This school year has been marked by a flood of reports of dire school staffing shortages, including stories about schools shutting down because there are simply not enough adults in the building to keep kids safe. The seemingly ubiquitous theme of educators resigning mid-year has even become its own TikTok genre.

Kristin Colucci, who teaches English in Lawrence Public Schools in Massachusetts, described the situation at her high school to Jacobin: “One teacher quit, another retired, and there have been no teachers assigned to those classes. Students are literally sitting there by themselves. The message being sent: the class and the students are not worthy of this education.”

Edu-conomists who warn against teacher pay increases like to point out that shortages are district-specific and that overall teacher turnover may actually be lower right now than in recent years. That’s not saying much.

Teacher turnover has been on the rise in the United States since the mid-1980s. In the last decade, we’ve seen a growing crisis of teacher vacancies and declining enrollment in teacher preparation programs. Due to racialized problems like high student debt and poor working conditions, people who are not white are less likely to enter the profession and more likely to leave it, meaning students are deprived of the significant benefits of exposure to a diverse teaching workforce.

Shortages of qualified teachers interfere with learning, inflicting outsize harm on special education students and students in high-poverty districts and racially isolated schools. But the hardships that disproportionately impact marginalized groups of students and teachers are indicative of broad underlying ills that make it harder for all kids to experience the learning conditions they deserve.

When educators accumulate years on the job, they acquire invaluable knowledge about how to gain students’ respect and make high-level scholarship possible. Unfortunately, circumstances stemming from chronic disinvestment and a corporate reform model that punishes poverty make it untenable for many teachers to remain in the classroom.

Institutionalized Babysitting

Teaching is a hard job. Planning and executing lessons that will motivate students with divergent interests and skill sets takes a great deal of time, research, and imagination. Then there’s the labor of evaluating and thoughtfully responding to work from up to ninety students across multiple different classes, providing tailored instruction for English learners and special education students, building rapport with shy or angry kids, fairly dividing one’s attention, maintaining order and ensuring safety, collaborating with colleagues and families, and staying abreast of new developments in the subjects one teaches and the field of education generally.

Nevertheless, many teachers are eager to meet these challenges. The very fact that anyone pursues teaching when, with comparable education, they can earn significantly more money in other fields demonstrates that people are willing to give up a great deal because they are drawn to the vocation of nurturing young minds.

The trouble is that, at every step of the way, teachers are prevented from actually performing this vocation. Their “other duties as assigned” include playing nonteaching roles like bus and lunch cop, because districts are unable or unwilling to hire more staff. Teachers are required to attend meetings at which they play icebreaker games and watch clips of cartoon animals so their administrators can get credit for giving professional development. They may have a single forty-minute preparation period in which to plan and grade for four or five different classes (which is laughable). But they frequently find they can’t use that time for planning and grading because paperwork is piled on them, often at the last minute. In addition to myriad clerical and administrative tasks, they must document instructional interventions and, at many schools, submit detailed weekly lesson plans designed to satisfy their bosses’ checklists rather than excite and challenge learners.

This micromanagement sends a demoralizing message: school, district, and state leaders don’t believe you’ll really do your job if they don’t peer over your shoulder every five minutes. But most educators will tell you that student engagement and trust are the potent incentives keeping them prepared and diligent in their work. Incessantly requiring them to prove that they are, in fact, working is an insulting waste of their time. As is true in any other workforce, there are sure to be some teachers whose practice might benefit from added accountability structures. But applying these structures indiscriminately adds indignity and unnecessary stress to an already high-stakes profession.

“Teach the Standards, Not the Books”

All this teacher data collection is mandated by the same top-down reform initiatives that compel educators to constantly harvest student data in the form of standardized test scores and remediation product outcomes — and offer that data up the chain to be criticized by people who have never set foot in their classrooms.

I became an English teacher because I wanted to help students explore thrilling story-worlds, weave airtight arguments, and unravel sophistical rhetoric. Like an alarming number of my peers, I left the profession after just five years, finding I wasn’t allowed to teach in a way that could inspire my students. Instead of facilitating deep inquiry and lively debate, I was forced to make rushed deposits of scripted curriculum in order to meet standards written by Bill and Melinda Gates–funded reformers.

I was willing to work weekends and ten-hour weekdays for shabby pay in the service of my students — but not in the service of my administrator’s need to convince her bosses we’d “covered” RI.11-12.1 through SL.11-12.6. I was told it didn’t matter if my classes only got to experience fiction through decontextualized excerpts; my job was to “teach the standard, not the book.” But I wanted to teach the books: whole, breathing texts can fascinate young people and ignite their genius. State standards grids make them yawn and pull out their phones, or boil over with justified indignation.

Pandemic Classrooms

I stopped teaching before the arrival of COVID-19. In pandemic classrooms, educators are experiencing all the problems created by underfunding and corporate education reform, plus a new set of ordeals.

As is true for other school personnel, teachers’ workloads are metastasizing due to staffing shortages. John Forte, who teaches history in Trenton Public Schools in New Jersey, told Jacobin that he and his colleagues “have to cover [teacherless] classes constantly, leading to decreased prep time.” Karin Baker, who teaches English and social studies in Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools in Massachusetts, explained to Jacobin that because her school is missing a custodian, teachers must clean the floors “when they get too bad.”

Educators also have novel responsibilities like developing ad hoc hybrid learning arrangements as students enter quarantine, enforcing masking and physical distancing, doing their own contact tracing, and finding sensitive ways to communicate about COVID-19 norms with COVID-skeptical students. Additionally, in today’s extreme political climate, parent outrage (ginned up in bad faith) has added another layer of anxiety to lesson planning.

“A Huge Mismatch”

In the underresourced areas where school staffing shortages are most extreme, teachers were already doubling as nurses and social workers. This is even more true now, as the need for mental health care is skyrocketing due to the preventable trauma associated with being a poor kid in the United States in 2021. Students have experienced personal tragedy, profound instability, and extreme turmoil in the last two years. In high-poverty places hard hit by the pandemic, kids have lost caregivers and other loved ones at an almost unfathomable rate, putting them at risk for problems associated with grief, worry, exhaustion, institutionalization, and material need.

Forte told Jacobin that his “students are dealing with lots of social and emotional problems like trauma,” and Baker described students “who are unable to participate in classes because they are too consumed by their emotional issues.” In my role as a school adjustment counselor, I am seeing widespread anxiety and a high number of students presenting with suicidality and other expressions of despair. A sense of nihilism colors the learning environment as young people struggle to come to terms with our upside-down world.

Winifred Martin is a licensed social worker who supports students in Springfield Public Schools in Massachusetts. Martin told Jacobin that the high-needs students she works with “want to feel loved and inspired” and quoted a student who told her they long “to be seen.”

But while young people require space to process and adapt to their realities, heal, and rediscover joy, many districts are hamstringing educators’ ability to provide that space. Instead, school, district, and state leadership bodies are intensifying the pressure to rapidly remediate, forcing teachers to implement developmentally inappropriate programs aimed at raising standardized test scores. As child development scholar Nancy Carlsson-Paige explained to Jacobin:

Concerns about children and youth as they return to school have been focused on the narrow idea of “learning loss” and not on the needs of the whole child — not on their physical, emotional, social, and mental health needs, and not even on their genuine learning needs. Schools are stuck in a rigid and limited definition of education that has taken hold increasingly over the last twenty years, leaving them largely incapable of providing what children and youth so urgently need at this time.

A higher than usual incidence of student fights and other disciplinary issues may be adding stress to working and learning conditions. Lawrence Public Schools is a district under Massachusetts receivership, or state takeover, due to low test scores — which are reliably associated with the economic precarity widely experienced by Lawrence students. A teacher in Lawrence who, fearing retaliation, asked to remain anonymous, reported significant student conflict and connected this to a lack of support for students and staff. He told Jacobin that “this year, as most years, feels like criminal malpractice” at the high school where he teaches and that “our test scores are consistently prioritized over student learning.”

Researchers say confrontational behavior can be linked to play deprivation. Education reform has thrust ineffective drill-based instruction on poor children starting at a very young age, robbing them of the developmentally vital experience of learning through self-directed activity. The hysteria over pandemic learning loss has pushed teachers to cram lessons with content for which students are wholly unprepared — rather than allowing them to design student-centered curriculum using their expert knowledge of children’s needs and interests.

A teacher in Auburn School Department in Maine, who also requested anonymity, told Jacobin:

We’re . . . using a new literacy curriculum which is very rigid. . . . So, I have fourth graders who are being asked to do work that’s completely new to them, but they’re asking about letter formation. . . . It’s a huge mismatch. The district is trying really hard to raise our test scores but not acknowledging that kids have been living through a pandemic, and it’s just very unrealistic, and the pressure comes down to teachers.

President Joe Biden’s Department of Education could address this problem by attempting to follow through on Biden’s campaign commitment to end the use of standardized testing in public schools. Instead, the department has opted for business as usual. Never mind that under corporate education reform and state disinvestment, business as usual has been steadily draining K-12 classrooms of the vibrant, beautiful things that make students and teachers want to wake up in the morning and come to school.

Breaking Points

Teachers are not even close to adequately compensated for their multifaceted, indispensable labor of love — or for the stressful busywork that interferes with that labor. While wages in other job markets typically rise along with demand, teachers’ inflation-adjusted wages have diminished over time. Some districts have used pandemic relief money to improve salaries and keep teachers in classrooms. But fearing a “fiscal cliff” when the relief expires, others have declined to do so. Stephen Owens, a K-12 policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, told Jacobin:

Districts are right to be wary of a “fiscal cliff” if and only if states continue shortchanging public education. There is another vision, however, where states use the federal money to step up investments in the system that educates 90 percent of the nation’s children. . . . States could increase funding to pick up the slack when the COVID dollars are no longer available.

Before COVID-19, paltry salaries were supplemented by powerful nonpecuniary rewards, like the pride teachers feel when facing a classroom of smiling students eagerly engaged in dialogue. Social distancing, remote learning, and innumerable added stressors upon reopening have made it much harder to feel those rewards. All of this is compounded by the fact that educators are risking their health to teach in person, using up their sick days to quarantine, and often feeling that the leaders in charge of their working conditions do not value their safety.

This is not an unsolvable riddle. Federal and state governments can enable districts to make their buildings safer, purchase supplies, hire support staff, and pay teachers fairly so they don’t need second jobs to sustain themselves. The US Department of Education can forgive student debt and make higher education universally accessible so people of all different backgrounds can become teachers. Biden can support the bipartisan legislators calling for an end to the reform movement’s obsession with data for data’s sake. Above all, education leaders can begin to allow teacher and student input to truly drive decision-making.

Or, we can continue to watch as passionate, experienced educators reach their breaking points.