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Are Teachers Leaving Because of Pandemic Stress? It’s Complicated.

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Are Teachers Leaving Because of Pandemic Stress? It’s Complicated.

Are Teachers Leaving Because of Pandemic Stress? It’s Complicated.

Plenty of news stories have raised concerns about mass teacher shortages due to pandemic stress. And it’s true that teachers, principals and district leaders have been experiencing heavy stress. But, are they leaving?

Overall, we’re not seeing a mass exodus of teachers, as some predicted last fall. But, a patchwork of teacher shortages by specialty and location existed pre-pandemic, and pandemic stress on educators could be making those shortages worse. 

Getting a handle on the overall numbers of teachers leaving nationally is not easy. Because there is no national labor market for teachers—credentials don’t transfer easily from state to state—there’s no single source to tell us how many teachers are leaving across the country. Data from a number of states, including California, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, show teacher retirements have increased significantly since the pandemic hit. 

While retirements have increased, they appear to be largely fueled by teachers who were close to retiring anyway. Also, the effect of retirements is quite localized. For example, as reported by Chalkbeat Chicago, while Illinois overall saw teacher retirements rise by 10%, the Chicago Public Schools has not seen a significant uptick. Educators close to retirement may be more motivated to leave due to health concerns, but younger teachers may be staying for other reasons, from loyalty to their students to fears of an uncertain economy.

Are those retiring teachers being replaced? Again, it depends where you look. As researcher Dan Goldhaber recently wrote in The 74, our best national data sources don’t offer a clear picture of how many people are entering the profession. But we do know that, though there has been a downward trend in the number of college students majoring in education, colleges continue to graduate more than enough credentialed teachers—many of whom enter other careers and never teach.

The real concern about shortages lies in geographic and specialty areas that struggled to attract, train and retain enough teachers before the pandemic started. One of these chronic problem areas attracted much attention in winter 2021: the lack of substitute teachers. Though some areas may see sub shortages ease up as the pandemic eases, cities like Chicago, which have grappled with severe sub shortages in underserved neighborhoods for decades, are not likely to see improvement.

WHAT KINDS OF SHORTAGES EXISTED BEFORE THE PANDEMIC?

Even before the pandemic hit, experts disagreed on whether a national teacher shortage existed. Here’s what we know about the state of the field going into the pandemic.

Traditionally, there has been a national glut of general elementary teachers, which has held true even as enrollment in teacher preparation programs declined over the last decade. The declining numbers of prospective teachers accelerated during the pandemic, but the downward trend in new teacher applicants already existed, without creating general shortages.

However, there are persistent teacher shortages by specific locale and specialty area. Teachers of all kinds are most needed in rural communities and in urban areas where disinvestment has created high concentrations of Black, Brown and poor students.

For decades, there have also been widespread shortages of teachers in particular subjects: math, science and special education. Also in short supply are teachers qualified to help English learners, especially teachers who know their students’ home languages. These shortages occur even in well-resourced urban and suburban schools, which are the schools least likely to experience problems hiring qualified staff.

WHO’S LEAVING NOW?

It’s not easy to map what we know about who is leaving now due to the pandemic on to the chronic teacher shortage areas. But we do have some idea about the kinds of educators leaving because of the pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, older teachers are leaving, squeezed by the double whammy of health concerns and the demands of remote, hybrid, and even teaching virtually and in-person at the same time. While less attention has been focused on principals, a fall 2020 poll suggested that more principals were considering leaving their jobs. 

School superintendents are also leaving, especially in big cities. In Chicago, three key district leaders left within months of each other. Churn among urban superintendents has been a problem since long before the pandemic, and it’s part of why we can’t sustain good urban schools at scale. 

Meanwhile, the majority of teachers appear to be saying that though this year has been very hard, they will be coming back next year. This leaves particular schools and districts looking for particular kinds of educators, but not a system paralyzed by a complete lack of personnel.

IS THERE A QUICK-FIX?

Even if the nation isn’t facing a mass exodus of teachers, stemming those persistent, pre-existing, limited shortages remains important. Finding and keeping good teachers now could improve students’ ability to rebound from pandemic learning losses. And, students least likely to have access to qualified, consistent teachers—low-income students in isolated rural and urban communities—are also the students most likely to have had the most difficult time learning during the pandemic. 

All this means that now is an opportune time to be tackling chronic but specialized teacher shortages. While no single magic bullet will fix teacher shortages immediately, here are some short-term things states and districts could do to ensure more kids have access to well-qualified teachers:

  • Raise overall pay, coupled with targeted bonuses. This is best done only in areas with very high concentrations of hard to staff schools. For example, Detroit had begun raising its base pay pre-pandemic, then offered hazard pay for teachers during the pandemic. Now it is offering $15,000 annual, recurring bonuses to draw and keep teachers in shortage subjects like special education.
  • Differentiate teacher pay—in other words, pay more for teachers who can fill hard-to-staff vacancies. Due to union contracts, which usually create uniform teacher pay scales based on degrees and years of experience, it can be hard to differentiate teacher pay without an across-the-board raise. However, some locales have been able to differentiate pay for in-demand specialties like math and special education. In the wake of the pandemic, Texas is launching differentiated pay to reward excellent teachers in high-poverty schools. Recent research shows that Georgia’s longstanding bonuses for math and science teachers reduced departures but did not encourage more prospective teachers to specialize in math and science.
  • Improve working conditions in hard-to-staff schools. Federal Covid relief money could be helping to do this in a number of ways. Improvements to air quality and deferred maintenance can make school buildings safer and healthier places to work. Bringing in tutors and mental health professionals to help kids recover from the learning and social-emotional effects of pandemic isolation could help ease the psychological burdens teachers have felt throughout the pandemic, too.

WHAT ARE SOME LONGER-TERM SOLUTIONS?

In the long run, we’ll need more emphasis on recruiting and supporting prospective teachers, starting very early. There’s a chicken-and-egg situation here, too. If we taught more children well in math and science, and in languages other than English, we’d later have a larger pool of adults with the basic academic skills needed to teach in those shortage areas. So this means addressing long-standing teacher shortages won’t come easily.

However, there are programs that are looking to draw young people into teaching starting as early as high school. Programs like Illinois’ Golden Apple Scholars and Philadelphia’s Center for Black Educator Development provide paid training and college scholarships to young people willing to commit to teaching.

The teacher residency model—where teachers train and are supported like medical residents, in exchange for a multi-year commitment to teach in a high-need district—has a track record of developing and placing effective teachers, and encouraging them to stay where they are needed most. Already, some teacher residencies exist to ease these shortages in rural areas, and more are launching. However, these programs work well in part because they work intensively with small cohorts of beginning teachers, which makes them hard to scale.

Grow-your-own programs support working adults in schools, like teacher aides and parent mentors, who want to become teachers and need to complete further education to do so. These programs are understudied but appear to create teachers who are more likely to stay in high-poverty, high-need schools.

Ultimately, enduring solutions won’t be easy. They would require major changes, not just in pay, but overhauling college-based teacher preparation, creating better professional relationships between teachers and principals and reducing teacher stress, now and in the future.

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