This spring, after 16 years in the classroom, math teacher Justin Aion decided he wouldn’t return in the fall. At the small school in Pittsburgh where Aion taught, the four math teachers decided to leave this summer.
“My school didn’t kick me out of school. My students didn’t kick me out of education,” says Aion. Instead, he says he left because the lack of support and deep systemic flaws in education had finally become too great. Aion says he was tired of pretending things were back to their pre-pandemic “normal” and tired of pretending “normal” worked for the students in the first place.
In a small school district in Arizona, math teacher Stephanie Bowyer had a similar experience. She decided to leave her neighborhood after nine years in the classroom.
“I think one of the reasons this constant refrain of ‘back to normal’ was so frustrating is because normal wasn’t that great,” Bowyer explains. “There have been months of tears. The days when I broke down crying and couldn’t even recover, I felt so sad. I started having these thoughts in September, I felt like I didn’t think I could do this any longer, I think maybe I should make a change.
Bowyer and Aion’s experiences are not uncommon. The teacher shortage shattered the dreams of students, parents and educators who hoped the 2022-2023 school year would lead to a return to pre-pandemic conditions. For educators like Aion and Bowyer, the expectation that public education will “return to normal” is one of the factors that pushed them out of the profession.
EdSurge has connected with educators who have decided to leave the classroom this year and with researchers focused on child psychology and student achievement to better understand how turnover affects teachers and students and why the retention crisis persists, despite efforts to return to normal.
The consequences of teacher turnover
A myriad of factors can cause a teacher to leave the classroom, from the inability to make ends meet on their teaching salary at preservation of mental health to deep frustration with systemic challenges, as Aion and Bowyer experienced. And turnover is problematic for many stakeholders.
Some of the consequences of high turnover have been well documented. This can lead to burnout, low job satisfaction and increased responsibilities for teachers who remain. For schools and districts, high turnover is not only problematic for school culture, it is also a significant waste of time, resources and money. Research shows that replacing a single teacher can cost the school system between $15,000 and $30,000adjusted for inflation, including administrative expenses, teacher training and recruitment.
And the students? Students benefit from stability and consistency. “A positive teacher-student relationship is a protective factor for students’ mental health,” says Caroline Mendel, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting children and families struggling with mental illness. mental health and learning disabilities. “Having the ability to connect with a teacher and have someone in your corner can really be a buffer for the adversity a child may encounter.” It can also influence a child’s sense of belonging at school, which Mendel says “can help them feel seen and motivated, and increase their likelihood of going to school and Do not abandon”.
The teacher-student relationship has been studied across ages, grades, and school subjects, Mendel notes, describing how research indicates a critical two-way relationship: “Student well-being and behavior can impact on teacher burnout, and vice versa.
There is evidence that classroom behavior also has worsened by the pandemic, with some studies finding that there are generally more behavioral problems among students whose teachers are inexperienced. When classrooms are led by new teachers or substitute teachers who don’t have previous relationships with their students, “they don’t have certain standards that they’ve practiced and can faithfully execute,” Mendel says. “That could contribute to bad behavior, which again contributes to burnout and the cycle continues.”
And research has shown that when teachers leave, many schools struggle to attract new ones and instead hire less experienced or less prepared teachers. A study highlights how student performance may suffer under inexperienced teachers, resulting in lower scores in English and math. Another study found that the loss of a teacher in the middle of the year could mean a loss of 30-70 days of instruction.
The shortage of teachers could contribute to a sense of instability or increased stress among students, especially after the turmoil of the pandemic, adds Mendel.
Why some teachers don’t want a return to normal
The true toll of the pandemic on education personnel may not yet be known, as teachers like Aion grapple with the emotional toll of the COVID era and its outsized impact on teachers.
“We had this opportunity to make major systemic changes to the curriculum based on the needs of children, based on research,” he says. “And we just didn’t. Instead, we chose to fight like hell to get back to the status quo, ignoring the fact that the status quo was incredibly detrimental to the majority of our students.
Aion was frustrated with directives from above that did little to help students, he said. “We don’t provide the kinds of support needed.” Aion explains that his students came back to the building traumatized. “We told them the world was not a safe place. They kind of already knew that, but then we went to tell them that the world was not a safe place to eat and breathe around other people. And then we were like, ‘No, it’s fine.’ And then we brought them back.
The decision to leave the classroom tore Aion apart, but he felt it was better for him, his family and his students. “It really became this idea that I could stay for the students, but it wouldn’t be for the students,” Aion says. “Because burnt-out teachers are doing the students a disservice. My stay is very detrimental to them, because I am not able to give them the best of myself.
Bowyer also couldn’t bear the thought of returning to the pre-pandemic situation. She decided in December 2021 that this would be her last year of teaching.
Bowyer says directors kept putting more on her plate, despite how busy she was already.
“It’s just this constant feeling that we’re being put on more and more every day,” she says. “Teaching was already incredibly difficult, then we had a global pandemic.” She says the pandemic has also increased her stress levels, as she struggles to juggle the increased needs of her students, her family life and her mental health. She had trouble sleeping.
Bowyer decided to tell his students about it soon after telling his supervisors. Her students were sad to see her go, but were supportive when she explained why she had to, Bowyer says. Her students were thrilled for her and excitedly asked what she would do instead of teaching them math. “I started crying in the middle of class,” Bowyer says. “And I said, ‘I don’t know, I don’t really want to leave, I want to be here and I want to do this. But I don’t think I can do it anymore.
After her resignation, she made no formal announcement to her students, but she was open with them about her plans when they discussed the future. In the spring, when she took time off to begin her new career as a project manager, her students supported her, she says. “They figured it was, frankly, probably better for everyone,” she says.
Bowyer isn’t the only one feeling stressed and overwhelmed. According to 2021 Survey of the State of Teachers in the United Statesadministered by the RAND Corporation, most teachers reported sleeping about an hour less per night than before the pandemic.
“About three-quarters of teachers report experiencing frequent work-related stress, compared to about a third of the general population of working adults,” Elizabeth Steiner, education policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, told EdSurge. in an interview in the spring. “Teachers also report that they are more likely to experience symptoms of depression, that they do not manage their work-related stress well, and that they are also less likely to say that they feel resilient to stressful events. .” Half of the teachers surveyed agree with the statement that the stress and disappointments of teaching aren’t really worth it.
Aion and Bowyer’s experiences echo trends researchers are seeing across the country. Teacher satisfaction is at its lowest point in nearly four decades, according to annual teacher surveys conducted by MetLife from 1984 to 2012.
A survey conducted this winter among teachers by Merrimack College and EdWeek Research Center only 12% of teachers are “very satisfied” with their work, and more than half of the teachers questioned would not advise their young people to enter the profession. More than half of dissatisfied teachers say they are very likely to leave the profession in the next two years, pointing out that many are not optimistic about ‘returning to normal’.
Aion says he would not be surprised if the teacher shortage becomes more severe in the coming years.
“Things are going to go from bad to worse. And the teachers who stay – rather than being supported – will just be given more work, and it will wear them out faster,” he says.
This dire prediction, if true, would lead to worse outcomes for students. Aion says, “The system will simply collapse under its own weight.”