With the end of the academic year in sight, an overwhelming number of educators are planning to close the book on their teaching careers.
Much of this stems from post-pandemic classroom behavioral challenges with students and ongoing staff shortages that create excessive workloads for teachers.
Many educators who have 25 years or more under their belt are opting to retire, but even less seasoned ones are walking away and choosing different career paths.
Back in February, the National Education Association (NEA) released a study conducted by GBAO Strategies that revealed a startling 55 percent of teachers planned to leave their profession ahead of schedule.
The NEA is the most prominent teachers union in the United States and represents 3 million educators.
Widespread educator shortages pre-date the arrival of COVID-19, but the pandemic also served as the last straw for many, kicking off the trend of an early departure.
A RAND study from January 2021 showed nearly a quarter of those surveyed expressed the desire to quit after just one year of teaching during the pandemic.
The average national turnover rate was only 16 percent before COVID-19. However, in 2021, that number jumped to 25 percent.
This year, 80 percent of NEA members reported that unfilled job openings at schools have led to more work obligations for the educators who’ve chosen to stay in their profession.
“I think people are leaving because it’s all too much. It’s a firestorm. It’s all eroding,” Heidi Rickard told The Epoch Times.
Rickard has been an educator since 1999. After spending some time teaching in Colorado Springs, she put down roots in the Alameda Unified school district in the San Francisco Bay Area.
She explained that many veteran teachers “just can’t take it” anymore and are leaving due, in part, to the scale of mental health challenges students brought back to the classroom after two years of online learning.
“As a veteran teacher, when the best of my best isn’t working, that’s so defeating,” Rickard said.
Two years of excessive screen time at home and the disengagement of online learning have left students struggling, falling behind, and adrift in a sea of depression.
COVID-19 and its subsequent restrictions created a mental health crisis for youth, which is now manifesting as aggressive or excessively troublesome behavior in the classroom.
In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association acknowledged the pandemic-fueled decline in child and adolescent mental health had become a national emergency.
And the dire shortage of counselors in school districts to assist students has added to this.
Rickard noted, “We haven’t had a counselor all year. Nobody even applied.”
Findings from a joint study on the role of school counselors from the Connecticut State Department of Education, the Connecticut School Counselor Association, and the Center for School Counseling Outcome Research and Evaluation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst revealed schools with fewer students and more counselors had lower rates of student suspensions and disciplinary actions.
Former superintendent, educator, and school counselor Gary Marks spent decades working in Nebraska schools. He agreed that student counseling and support for teachers in the classroom have hit a critical point.
“You need way more counselors when you’re having all these mental health issues,” Marks told The Epoch Times.
For example, he pointed to where his grandchildren go to school in Tennessee’s Farragut school district, which has only two counselors for about 600 students.
He also thinks a general lack of respect for educators underscores why more are leaving their jobs early, and others are reluctant to apply.
“The respect situation is just a huge issue,” he said.
Marks was candid when asked about the difficulties of hiring new talent in schools. “I don’t know right now, given the way the world is, if I’d be interested in being a classroom teacher.”
Yet the struggle to keep existing educators and hire new ones is only half the battle. A new report from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education indicates that university students pursuing teaching degrees are declining.
In 2019, U.S. colleges awarded fewer than 90,000 undergraduate degrees in education. That’s down from nearly 200,000 a year in the 1970s. Over the past 10 years alone, the number of people completing traditional teacher preparation programs has dropped by 35 percent.
“This is a five-alarm crisis,” said NEA president Becky Pringle.
One of the hurdles administrators face amid the staff scarcity is a lengthy certification and training process even after qualified university graduates apply to teach.
“I want to continue teaching—however, I’m being forced out,” Lisa Carley Hotaling told The Epoch Times.
Having taught in Michigan and New York, Hotaling found herself between a rock and a hard place after she took a teaching job in California as an emergency hire in the Alameda Unified school district.
Despite already having a master’s degree and more than a decade of education and classroom experience, she still has to take the California Basic Skills Test (CBEST) and go back to school specifically for her master’s in education to continue teaching.