Without significant change—like pay raises, increased number of support staff, and strategies to reduce burnout—the U.S. faces a massive teacher shortage that will cripple democracy for years to come.
Tameike Washington, a middle school math teacher in Texas, arrives to work before 7 a.m. to prepare for the day. Washington’s day is nonstop once the first bells rings, moving from teaching classes, completing duty assignments—such as monitoring students at lunch or teaching a social-emotional lesson—and leading after-school clubs and tutorials. Her workday isn’t over when she gets home at 7 p.m.; after a quick 30-minute workout, she sits down to grade and develop lesson plans until 11 p.m.
Washington’s day will be familiar to teachers across the country. It’s an exhausting routine, made even tougher during the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s pushing teachers out. According to the Labor Department, 143,000 education sector workers quit their jobs in December alone. Schools cannot safely function without enough adults in the building, which has increased the need for substitute teachers. And substitute teachers are getting hard to come by, with principals even pleading for parents and college students to step up. In some states, the situation has gotten so dire that members of the National Guard are serving as substitute teachers.
Why are so many teachers at their breaking point? COVID-19 has not only caused anxiety and fears among teachers for their own health and that of their families; they are also facing increased responsibility. Planning periods have been replaced with coverage periods, where teachers have to teach other classes when their colleagues are out—often due to illness—because the supply of substitute teachers cannot meet the demand. This means most, if not all, planning must be done outside of the school day.
The pandemic has also contributed to a mental health crisis among students, one that teachers are unequipped to handle alone. Leigh Anne Rayburn, a high school English teacher in Texas explained, “While the focus has been getting [students] back on track academically, I don’t think that any one school system has cracked the code on how to heal them from the trauma [of the pandemic.”
The trauma students have experienced throughout the pandemic is now manifesting itself in misbehavior in classrooms, and schools should invest in supporting students’ social and emotional health—something that is often left to already overworked teachers.
To add to the stress and additional workload caused by the pandemic, state legislatures are upping the stakes for teachers, introducing bills eerily reminiscent of 1984. In Iowa, a new bill would put cameras in classrooms, allowing parents to watch live footage of their kids’ classes. In Indiana, teachers would have to submit their lesson plans to an online portal so that parents could oversee what is being taught each day and opt out if they opposed the content, forcing teachers to create entirely new content for those students. While the supporters of these bills claim they would protect and even “showcase” teachers, the reality is much darker. In addition to creating extra work for educators, these bills could weaponize modern technology against teachers, opening the door to parental interference and lawsuits.
The number one thing my teacher friends and I have discussed for the last two years is how beyond drained we feel.Klara Aizupitis, a U.S. history teacher in Mississippi
A new National Education Association (NEA) poll puts teachers’ burnout in stark reality. Fifty-five percent of teachers say they will leave the profession earlier than originally intended. And it’s even worse for teachers of color: 62 percent of Black teachers and 59 percent of Hispanic teachers are looking for an early exit.
The NEA’s poll results are not shocking to Klara Aizupitis, a U.S. history teacher in Mississippi. “Honestly, I think I’m surprised it’s not higher,” she told us. “The number one thing my teacher friends and I have discussed for the last two years is how beyond drained we feel. Every semester we’ve talked about how we’ve never been so tired, and the exhaustion has just kept compounding.”
While student-to-teacher ratios hover around 15:1 in U.S. public schools, a mass exodus of teachers would cause this number to skyrocket, leading to crammed classrooms, more work for teachers who remain and lower quality student learning conditions.
But teachers who remain in classrooms are worried about what it could mean if they decide to walk away. Washington emphasized the pain of burnout with the guilt of considering leaving: “It’s like, I no longer have too much on my plate. The plate is broken and the shards are digging into my skin, but I can’t drop what I am carrying. If I drop it, I don’t think anyone else will pick it up.”
Not all the turmoil within the profession is new. While COVID-19 has certainly pushed many teachers to their breaking point, it has also revealed existing systemic problems within the profession. Even in 2022, teaching is still often seen as a woman’s job, and gender pay gaps exist even within schools. And while over two-thirds of teachers are women, only 54 percent of principals are women, showing that leadership positions are often still inaccessible for women.
I no longer have too much on my plate. The plate is broken and the shards are digging into my skin, but I can’t drop what I am carrying. If I drop it, I don’t think anyone else will pick it up.Tameike Washington, a middle school math teacher in Texas
The “feminization” of the profession has allowed it to exist in the lower rungs of society. On one hand, teachers are motherly figures who care for our society’s youngest members. On the other hand, our society turns a blind eye to teachers’ low salaries and blames teachers when test scores fall—and, as we have all heard before, “Those who can’t do, teach.”
Despite low wages, teachers often work longer hours than most other professionals, as Washington’s average weekday schedule shows. Even when the bell rings at 3 p.m., signaling the end of the day for students, teachers have hours of work ahead, from bus duty and professional development to lesson planning and grading. And we rely on the passion teachers often bring to the profession, the commitment to children and learning, to exploit their labor. The expectation is that teachers will do whatever it takes to help kids succeed: Pay for supplies out of pocket. Stay after school to host tutoring sessions and clubs. Give up their Saturdays to prepare students for state tests. Attend every football game. Devote Sundays to plan lessons and grade papers.
It simply is not sustainable.
These systemic challenges, coupled with COVID-19 and legislative interference, are driving a crisis within our education system that we are unequipped to handle. Rayburn emphasized the severity of the situation: “There are many of us who can perceive just how grave the situation is becoming at a rapid pace, and we don’t see a national response from society at large, from the parents of the students we educate, from our governments to address what is becoming such a critical issue that it could implode American education for a generation or two to come. I can’t overstate how depressing and frightening that feels.”
People take teachers for granted, assuming that their kids will be able to attend a school staffed with eager professionals. But that may not be a reality for much longer. Without significant change—including, but not limited to, pay raises, increased number of permanent support staff, especially social workers, and strategies from administrators to reduce burnout—we are facing a massive teacher shortage that will cripple our democracy for years to come.