The pandemic is our collective national nightmare, but few professions have been as frontline as America’s public school teachers—essential workers, in enclosed classrooms, filling in for absent colleagues, while also supporting frazzled students.
The country’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association (NEA), released a new poll today that it conducted to gauge the amount of stress on their members’ shoulders right now. The results suggest that a full-on, sector-wide breakdown could be on the horizon. The survey shows that 55% of teachers now say that because of the pandemic, they’re going to leave the profession sooner than they’d planned. When the NEA asked the same question last August, the number stood at only 37%.
The teachers’ group argues that the problems caused by the pandemic are myriad, but the biggest of all is that staff shortages are leaving teachers “exhausted and increasingly burned out.” In the past two years, it says staff shortages have spread beyond the classroom to include bus drivers, school nurses, and cafeteria workers.
Meanwhile, data elsewhere suggests that interest in the teaching profession has been waning for a decade, for a variety of reasons—the low pay, difficult working conditions, and little to no room for career advancement. (Here’s a 2019 study, by the Center for American Progress, showing that enrollment in teacher-prep programs has plummeted by more than a third since 2010, yielding as many as 340,000 fewer future teachers.) But whatever accounts for the staff shortages, the situation has been made worse by the pandemic. Federal data, the NEA notes, shows that America’s public schools have 567,000 fewer educators today than they did pre-pandemic, and the education sector is presently hiring 0.57 people for every job opening.
“This is a five-alarm crisis,” NEA president Becky Pringle said in a statement. “School staffing shortages are not new, but what we are seeing now is an unprecedented staffing crisis across every job category.”
She argues that it’s a crisis preventing teachers from giving students adequate care and attention (thereby making their jobs feel futile), forcing them to spend their off-time filling in for colleagues who are sick (thereby affecting their personal lives), and preventing the students from receiving the proper mental and emotional support they need (thereby hurting the students, in and out of the classroom). “If we’re serious about getting every child the support they need to thrive, our elected leaders across the nation need to address this crisis now,” Pringle adds.
The survey’s specific findings show that:
Schools are understaffed
Teachers are fed up
And they’re starting to eye the exits