During the 2021-2022 school year, more than 100 teachers with whom I worked left the classroom, many of them during the academic year.
I am almost 25 years into my career in education. I worked for 13 years in schools as a teacher and school administrator, and for the past 10 years, I have worked as a coach and professional learning facilitator of teachers and educators. I have had the privilege of working with thousands of students, families, and educators across the country, with my focus in the past decade on supporting educators across Connecticut.
In 2000, when I entered my first year of teaching, my understanding was that you do whatever it takes to stay the course, stick it out, and have a successful year with your students. You love your students, so how could you do anything besides persist? It was not until later in my teaching career that I truly understood how someone could leave their students during the school year: I watched some of my closest friends, some of the most brilliant teachers I have ever known, some of my forever teaching family, choose to leave this way.
And then last school year, the first year that many of us were fully back in the classroom since the COVID-19 pandemic began, more than 100 teachers I knew personally left the classroom. Every one of these teachers loved and cared for their students, so the decision to leave was painful for them.
While the last straw was different for each person, each teacher had shared in previous conversations that they were becoming more and more demoralized. The majority of these teachers were a decade or more into their teaching careers. This is alarming because it is not in line with the more typical data I have seen (e.g. Ingersoll’s Study on the American Teaching Force), which shows about 44% of teachers leaving the classroom early in their careers — within the first five years.
When I have shared my experiences with others, they are shocked and they admonish me for not stopping the teachers from leaving: “I thought you were an effective educator coach. Why didn’t you persuade them to stay?”
The last straw conversation is one I have had with many teachers, and in the end, each person knows what their limit is.
How do you tell a teacher to stay — a teacher who is attending a meeting with the security officers at their school, with school administrators, and with a parent who has been violent at the school before and proceeds to verbally attack and tries to physically assault the teacher?
How do you tell a teacher to stay who is being asked to institute yet another safety protocol to protect their students, but the policy is one of dozens that in actuality is more policing of their students and in the end makes their students and the teacher feel more unsafe? How do you tell a teacher to stay when they love teaching and their students, but they feel the weight of the systems of oppression working against their students more and more each day?
In early 2022, the Rand Corporation conducted an educator wellbeing and working conditions survey. When comparing teachers with working adults in other professions, 73% of teachers reported experiencing frequent job-related stress, in contrast to 35% of the other working adults who reported this. Supporting students’ academic learning was a top-ranked source of job-related stress for teachers.
Thirty-seven percent of teachers reported being harassed because of their school’s COVID-19 safety measures and policies, or for teaching about race, racism, or bias during the first half of the 2021-2022 school year. Forty percent of teachers reported the intrusion of political issues and opinions into their professions was a job-related stressor. Teachers of color were more likely to report experiencing symptoms of depression, and Latino teachers reported particularly a poor sense of well-being.
“The pandemic is a portal,” wrote Indian author and screenwriter Arundhati Roy. She is still right. The push to get back to 2019 is wrong; even before the pandemic, our school systems were not built for and with ALL children and families and communities at the heart. What has been happening in the last few years during COVID is not new in education. Teachers have been going above and beyond for our children without being valued or compensated fairly for too long. They were not listened to before 2020 and still, too often, many teachers are not listened to now, even though our students and teachers are the ones experiencing our educational system daily and they have solutions!
In New Haven, we have some schools where students, teachers, and families are becoming more and more integral in decision-making. Those school-based examples of community collaboration, in conjunction with the efforts of the New Haven Federation of Teachers and AFT-CT to improve teacher working conditions and morale, bring me renewed hope that we can do more to retain our teachers and co-create change.
Each of us, whether we have school-aged children or not, has a responsibility to our community, to our society, and to our democracy to support teachers, because they are working with our future and fighting for our future daily.
How can each of us help? Start by talking to a teacher that you know or to whom you are connected. Ask them what ongoing resources and professional development they need to better teach all of our children. Ask them what we all can do to create cultures of care with them in our schools, where their mental health and sustainability matter.
We need to stop attacking and blaming teachers, and work with them.
Jennifer Heikkila Díaz is a member of the Connecticut Mirror Community Editorial Board.