Without meaningful change — like pay raises, more support staff, and strategies to reduce burnout — the United States faces a massive teacher shortage that will cripple democracy for years to come.
Texas math teacher Tameike Washington arrives at work before 7 a.m. to get ready for the day. Washington’s day is uninterrupted once the first bells ring, passing teaching classes, completing tasks — like watching over students at lunch or teaching a social-emotional lesson — and leading after-school clubs and tutorials. Her work day is not over when she returns home at 7 p.m.; after a quick 30-minute practice session, she sits down to grade and make lesson plans until 11 p.m.
Washington Day will be familiar to teachers across the country. It’s a grueling routine, made even harder during the COVID-19 pandemic. And that pushes teachers away. According to the Labor Department, 143,000 education workers left their jobs in December alone. Schools cannot operate safely without enough adults in the building, which has increased the need for substitute teachers. And substitute teachers are becoming hard to find, with principals even begging parents and students to step up. In some states, the situation has become 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 fear among teachers for their own health and that of their families; they also face increased responsibility. Scheduling periods have been replaced by cover periods, where teachers have to teach other classes when their colleagues are absent – often due to illness – because the supply of substitute teachers cannot meet the demand. . This means that most, if not all, of the 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 not equipped to handle on their own. Leigh Anne Rayburn, a high school English teacher in Texas, explained: “While the focus has been on [students] on the right track academically, I don’t think a single school system has cracked the code on how to heal them from the trauma[delapandémie[ofthepandemic”[delapandémie[ofthepandemic”
The trauma students have endured throughout the pandemic is now manifesting in misbehavior in the classroom, and schools should invest in supporting students’ social and emotional health, which is often left to teachers. already overworked.
To add to the stress and extra workload caused by the pandemic, state legislatures are raising the stakes for teachers, introducing bills eerily reminiscent 1984. In Iowa, a new bill would install cameras in classrooms, allowing parents to watch live footage of their children’s lessons. In Indiana, teachers should submit their lesson plans to an online portal so parents can oversee what is taught each day and opt out if they object to content, requiring teachers to create content entirely new for these students. While proponents of these bills claim they would protect and even “enhance” teachers, the reality is much grimmer. 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 first thing my teacher friends and I have discussed over the past two years is how drained we feel.
Klara Aizupitis, professor of American history in Mississippi
A new survey from the National Education Association (NEA) puts teacher burnout in stark reality. Fifty-five percent of teachers say they will leave the profession sooner than initially expected. And it’s even worse for teachers of color: 62% of black teachers and 59% of Hispanic teachers are looking for an early exit.
The NEA’s poll results aren’t shocking to Klara Aizupitis, a professor of American history in Mississippi. “Honestly, I think I’m surprised it’s not higher,” she told Us. “The first thing my teacher friends and I have discussed over the past two years is how drained we feel. Every semester we talked about the fact that we had never been so tired and that the exhaustion was only getting worse.
As student-teacher ratios hover around 15:1 in US public schools, a mass exodus of teachers would cause that number to skyrocket, resulting in crowded classrooms, more work for teachers who remain, and harsher conditions. lower quality learning for students.
But teachers who remain in classrooms worry about what it could mean if they decide to leave. Washington emphasized the pain of burnout with the guilt of considering leaving: “It’s like I don’t have too much to do anymore. The plate is broken and the shards are digging into my skin, but I can’t drop what I’m 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 breaking point, it has also exposed existing systemic issues within the profession. Even in 2022, teaching is still often seen as a female job and gender pay gaps exist even within schools. And while more than two-thirds of teachers are women, only 54% of principals are women, showing that leadership positions are often still inaccessible to women.
I don’t have too many on my plate. The plate is broken and the shards are digging into my skin, but I can’t drop what I’m carrying. If I drop it, I don’t think anyone else will pick it up.
Tameike Washington, Texas middle school math teacher
The “feminization” of the profession has allowed it to exist in the lower strata of society. On the one hand, teachers are mother figures who care for the youngest members of our society. On the other hand, our society turns a blind eye to low teacher salaries and blames teachers when test scores drop – and, as we’ve all heard before, “Those who can’t, teach.”
Despite low salaries, teachers often work longer hours than most other professionals, as the average weekday schedule in Washington shows. Even when the bell rings at 3 p.m., signaling the end of the day for students, teachers have hours of work ahead of them, from bus service and professional development to lesson planning and grading. And we rely on the passion that teachers often bring to the profession, the commitment to children and learning, to harness their work. Teachers are expected to do whatever it takes to help children succeed: pay for supplies out of pocket. Stay after school to organize tutoring sessions and clubs. Give up their Saturdays to prepare students for state tests. Attend all football matches. Spend Sundays planning lessons and grading homework.
It’s just not sustainable.
These systemic challenges, coupled with COVID-19 and legislative interference, are creating a crisis within our education system that we are not equipped to handle. Rayburn underlined the seriousness of the situation: “Many of us perceive how serious the situation is becoming at a rapid pace, and we do not see a national response from society as a whole, from the parents of the students we educate, of our governments to solve what is becoming a problem so critical it could implode American education for a generation or two to come. I can’t overstate how depressing and scary this is.
People take teachers for granted, assuming that their children will be able to attend a school staffed by enthusiastic professionals. But that may not be a reality for very long. Without significant change, including but not limited to salary increases, increased numbers of permanent support staff, especially social workers, and administrator strategies to reduce burnout, we face a massive teacher shortage that will cripple our democracy for years to come.
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