Unable to take the stress, teachers are walking away in record numbers. Can we fix this?

By: Jeff Nazzaro

For going on two years now, the coronavirus pandemic has exacted a heavy toll on school systems both home and abroad, with teachers bearing the brunt on the front lines through a series of disruptive changes and challenges: remote learning, masked learning, increased behavioral issues, pressure from parents to return to normal, constant threat of illness, professional burnout. While so many have valiantly held down the educational fort, so many others have opted for early retirement or even a career change. And of those still getting after it down in the trenches, close to half have revealed in a recent survey that they have at least entertained the idea of making the big transition to what’s next. The questions now seem to have become those of if and when things normalize, how many teachers will be left, and will there be enough new recruits matriculating through teacher-trainer programs to replenish the decimated ranks?

“…so many teachers have opted for early retirement or career changes…”

According to a report compiled by UNESCO, UNICEF, and the World Bank, the stakes for today’s students due to school closures and other effects of the pandemic are staggering: some 14 percent of present GDP, equaling $17 trillion, in lifetime earnings worldwide could be lost. Students everywhere lost ground in their education during COVID-19’s first year and have been struggling to catch up ever since. Below average reading and math levels have been reported among US third through eight graders, with school districts in low-income areas and those serving Black and Hispanic students reporting the largest drops in ability. Across the world, the pandemic has resulted in more education inequality, in addition to greater levels of domestic violence and gun violence against children.

Meanwhile, classroom behavior as a general rule has deteriorated, with disturbing increases in verbal attacks against teachers, problems exacerbated by aggravated mental health outcomes among children and teenagers. More alarming, according to the CDC, suicide attempts among adolescents in the US have risen, including by a staggering 51 percent among girls.

“…classroom behavior has deteriorated…”

All of this has placed inordinate pressure on educators to continue to provide the stable, nurturing environments that are their stock-in-trade. For within those stimulating milieus are where the virtuous cycles that are the hallmark of quality education are allowed to take root—positive connections between teacher and student form, students learn and perform, and teachers feel valued, rewarded, and thus energized to reach more students. Alternatively, operating under the constant fear of getting sick, wearing a mask, even fearing their students, who may be acting up more, are less receptive to discipline than normal, and have fallen well behind where they should be, risks the vicious cycle of a greater onus on teachers to coax good performances out of students, all with less time and energy to create meaningful human, let alone pedagogical, connections. Disruptions continue in many school districts, with COVID policies affecting everything from teacher-parent conferences to lunch. These changes often hinder those virtuous cycles in favor of the vicious.

“The situation became so dire in New Mexico recently, the governor called in the National Guard to provide substitute teachers.”

While enrollment in teacher-training programs has been on a downward trajectory for years now, the drop seems to be accelerating, and the present teacher shortage could be nothing compared to what lies ahead. In light of the teacher shortage, school districts have been scrambling to find enough substitutes to cover understaffed schools, with administrators routinely stepping back into classrooms.

The situation became so dire in New Mexico recently, the governor called in the National Guard to provide substitute teachers. Some in the profession worry that the shortages will result in a lowering of standards for teacher credentials and that, coupled with what many see as inevitable mushrooming of class sizes, could add up to a major drop in the overall quality of public education. From there, given present downward enrollment trends for higher education, some experts fear that not only will college enrollees continue to decline but also that there will be a trickle-down effect where fewer students stay to graduate from high school.

But like with so many of the negatives to come out of the pandemic, this one has garnered a lot of attention in the mainstream media and brought to light just how valuable and irreplaceable our teachers are. It could serve as a wakeup call to school boards today and as inspiration to the next generation of our teaching vanguards.