TeacherSays: Why We're Leaving
Recently, I saw a teacher’s post on Facebook that she was leaving. Oh no, not another great one, I thought to myself. And that’s what prompted a new question that I posed to my teacher-friends:
Teacher-friends, if you are seriously considering leaving teaching at the end of this school year, will you send me a PM and tell me what factors led to your decision? And for everyone: What are some things that are making you stay at your job next year? What makes it worthwhile to you, to continue?
Seeing teachers choose to move on is nothing new. This year, it is predicted that there will be a large uptick in resignations, but that has not yet materialized. Nationwide, recent polling done by CBS News estimates a potential 25% of teachers leaving the profession at the end of this year. In California, an EdSource poll predicts one in 10 teachers in their state will choose to either retire early or find another profession, and in Colorado, the Denver Post estimates that as many as 40% of teachers statewide are seriously considering leaving teaching for good.
Clearly, the estimates vary widely. Still, what I know for sure is this: in the 19 years I’ve been an educator, I’ve seen many, many good people go: there was Tim*, a second or third year teacher who was starting a family and left in October for a job that paid much better; Susan, who had a handful of years in and the loving devotion of her students, but decided she’d rather have family time and a career with better life-work balance; and June, a veteran teacher with about two decades in who felt unappreciated and undervalued.
These are just a few of the departed, who took their valuable experience and skills with them.
Every year, teachers walk out the school doors and don’t return. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
While low pay is a lingering factor for many teachers who choose to leave, it’s not the number one concern. Debbie, a teacher who’s been at it for at least a decade has decided to leave this year. “Every year teachers have to fight for every dollar we are paid. I have knocked on doors, I have stood on street corners with signs asking for fair wages for educators, manageable class sizes, adequate professional development, reasonable hours, and a work/personal life balance… I have purchased thousands of dollars in books…and school supplies,” she says. But that’s not the reason she’s leaving.
Another veteran teacher, Jenny, agreed about low pay being an issue: “I think about leaving teaching all the time. To be honest the lack of pay is really THE thing that always pulls at me…” While pay may be the larger reason for her, being that she is a single mom and sole breadwinner for her kids, it is not the only big reason.
Both veteran teachers said the same thing: it comes down to a lack of respect and support.
Why Teachers Are LeavingThere is no question that teacher burnout has been accelerated this year, like gas on a fire, however, it would be remiss for the pandemic alone to be scapegoated for teachers’ exits this year. In fact, as one teacher says, “I think the pandemic is being over-emphasized when people talk about how many teachers are leaving right now…for me, the problems are mostly systemic and have been a part of teaching for a long time…that’s not it at all,” Julie says, about her decision to leave at the end of this school year. “It’s just a question of whether the pros outweigh the cons for each of us, and for me they no longer do.” Earlier in the school year, Julie started making a pros and cons list. When she shared it with me, in early April, the list was ample.
While every job in every career path has frustrations and downsides, when it comes to teaching, there were three major reasons for leaving that emerged, with one that far surpassed the other two. Teachers who are leaving this year cited lack of respect from leadership as the biggest reason why they are calling it quits. Wanda, a veteran teacher of over twenty years says, “I was harassed and micromanaged… Admin didn’t care about the lack of time. Do it all. It’s all got to be done. [It’s] a toxic environment.” Connie is another teacher who has had enough. She says, “My boss made some sweeping assumptions about me yesterday during our evaluation. Been doing this for 13 years and I’m over it.” Apparently, she had sent in her resignation letter just two minutes before she saw my question on Facebook. “It’s the adults,” says Jim, a 27-year veteran teacher. “I am leaving teaching, not because of the kids, but because of the adults (who have never been in the classroom or haven’t been…in a while). …I believe I am a master teacher and to have some administrator step in…and evaluate me and what I do with kids makes me angry…” And Laura has this message to share: “…we are humans that want to be compensated for the many hats we wear in our positions, want to be treated with dignity and respect and don’t have the ability to be everything for everyone at our own expense…”
Lack of respect, it seems, while not the only reason why educators leave, is a noxious weed in many schools, causing many to give up the yard and move on.
The second reason why teachers leave is closely related: a lack of support. One teacher, Abra, says, “…after five years in a small rural district I put in my resignation… I went into debt because my cost of living was so high and I put 100K miles on my car to commute to a community that didn’t respect me or my fellow teachers.” Sadly, her perception of the community’s lack of respect and support was echoed by someone in a position of power. “I overheard a board member say teachers should expect to have a second job…I had 4 w2s that year.” But that wasn’t the ultimate reason why she decided to pack it in, once this year ends. Her school apparently took the saying ‘Students First’ to the max: “The icing on the cake was when I came down with Covid that I contracted from the school. I was encouraged not to get tested so the football season could be saved…[others] were told to lie about it, too.” Abra is leaving teaching to go wait tables, something she says pays twice as much and is far less stressful, in her view.
Another teacher, Nancy, who is planning to leave next year so that she can get her retirement, has felt a glaring lack of support not from her building leadership, but from her community. She says, “I have been shocked and hurt by the number of people in our community who have openly expressed that they think teachers should sacrifice their health and life so that their kids could go to school full time…” She goes on to say that she understands the need for in-person school for essential workers’ children, but she found that it wasn’t essential workers who were getting nasty. “the loudest and meanest people were stay-at-home and work-from-home folks who wanted their kids to be “normal”… I can’t forget the names of the people who were so mean and dismissive of teachers’ lives.” Something teachers realized this year is that while they were initially applauded for their work and efforts at the start of the pandemic, that goodwill quickly evaporated, and in its place, entitlement and some demanding parents descended.
Other teachers, like Sarah, say that it’s not the parents who are the problem — the parents are fine. For her, she says the “lack of support” is felt more locally than that. She feels let down “Not by the parents, but by people [in my school] that never set foot in the classroom.”
The third primary reason why teachers are deciding to leave is the ever-growing demands in the face of highly limited time. One teacher, Dana, says, “I have sacrificed my health and so much time with my family, and I am at a life stage where these things have become essential. They are more important than working 80 hours a week and not being valued.” When I asked Dana if there was any way she might change her mind, she said no. She had consulted with her family, her friends, and even her doctor — and they all said it was time for her to stop. Another school employee, Billie, also left for health reasons, and the root cause was the same as Dana’s: “I resigned a few years ago due to a health/mental health crisis that was essentially caused by a totally unmanageable workload and a lack of support at more than one building/program.”
And the demands on teachers’ time isn’t only seen through negative effects on their health — it takes a toll on an important reason teachers show up: to enjoy their students and have some fun through learning. Jim, who felt a lack of support, commented on this aspect, too: “As teachers we are asked to do more and more. Towards the end I was doing three jobs…We were so tied to the state standards it just wasn’t fun anymore…” Limiting the creativity and autonomy of teachers is problematic, as it can feel like a degradation of the art of teaching — and makes it sound like anyone can do it — a massive misconception of some of the general public.
Stuck“My non-teacher friends don’t get how complicated professionally or emotionally our jobs really are,” Wendy, a veteran teacher with more of a decade of experience says. She is one of many teachers who reached out to me, saying that they wish they could leave teaching, but they feel stuck. “I’m willing to leave teaching… it’s hard to find employers willing to take a chance on a teacher who has been in the classroom for the last 15 or so years…” A teacher’s years of experience often translate into — starting over, if a teacher chooses to leave the profession. Many teachers spoke of the constraints of the pay system, and how they feel locked in to a particular district after only a handful of years, as years of experience beyond five usually don’t follow the teacher to her new district. It can be even worse for teachers who change states — not only do they lose years on the salary scale, they lose Social Security, if they move to a state like Colorado, which has its own state-run retirement system.
Whether or not a teacher has lost years of experience or retirement through a move, once the end is approaching, it can be financially devastating to leave. One teacher, Martha, said, “If I could afford to [leave] I would, but I have to continue paying into Colorado PERA for another 9 years at least.” Another teacher, Tara, said, “I am staying solely because I am stuck: need benefits, good retirement, steady income, and similar work schedule to my daughter’s school schedule, being a single mom.”
If a teacher is burnt out and unhappy, it can have an effect not only on the teacher, but on students, as well. There’s a saying that goes, “If momma ain’t happy, then nobody’s happy,” and the same could be said for teachers and students. The teacher is the architect and engineer of a classroom’s atmosphere, and if the teacher isn’t emotionally invested, it can spell trouble for student engagement and learning.
Those Who Choose to StayIt’s not some miraculous formula that makes teachers happier and more satisfied at work. Based on my respondents’ input, the reasons for why teachers stay can be boiled down to five simple things:
Many teachers cited liking their principal as a major reason for staying — and though some might say that it’s easy enough to shut your door and ignore an ineffectual principal, that’s not always the case. Leadership matters — especially when times get tough. Having a supportive principal can mean that the bad times may feel more like bumps in the road, rather than bottomless sinkholes. “I have a great admin team, and honestly, this year hasn’t been that bad, even though we were remote for the first three quarters. I am thankful and grateful…” Molly says. George concurs, saying that the two powerfully magnetic qualities he has at his school are “Flexibility and compassion from the admin team. They understand when teachers are supported, they will do the best for kids, whatever the situation.” It seems that George’s admin follows the ‘momma’ rule. Other teachers acknowledge that a good principal is not always easy to find, something akin to kissing a bunch of frogs before finding your prince. Andie says, “My school community is truly great. My principal and admin believes in me, which is a VERY rare find, and I don’t want to give that up yet.” Fortunately, some ‘princes’ are not only in fairytales.
Teachers also commented on how important school culture is. Rhonda says, “It has been a rough year for everyone by after 27 years of teaching and 4 different schools — I have found my dream job: students, colleagues, admin and could be luckier (even though we are one of the lowest paid counties and one of the wealthiest counties in the US). Gotta love the politics of education!” After a few jumps between schools, Rhonda has found her happy place, despite the low pay. And she’s not the only one who says the feel of the school outweighs compensation. For many teachers, while extra pay would be much appreciated, it’s the way they are treated that has the greatest impact on whether or not they stay.
I was once at a school where I heard a counselor say, “When you leave a job, you’re not leaving because of the job. You’re leaving because of the people.” Though I overheard this from a distance while waiting for an end-of-year staff meeting to get started, it struck a chord with me. And I believe it’s true: if a teacher has friends in the building, she is more likely to stick it out.
One teacher, Sylvia, who was about to resign, turned to her friends at work to talk about her decision. As close as she was to closing the door, they helped her decide to stay. “I had a conversation with my colleague friends…and they reminded me I am a good teacher…I couldn’t step away from the fact that when I am in the class with students, I really enjoy it.” Friends can help when a teacher needs a shoulder to cry on, but they are also there to cheer you on when you need it — and in months like October or February — or the entirety of a pandemic year — friends are a must. Sylvia is not 100% sure if she’s staying forever, but for next year, she’s made up her mind. “I am going to teach again next year, and I told myself to re-evaluate after Christmas if I want to stay in teaching or not at that point,” she says. Without her teacher-friends, she surely would have left at the end of this year.
And then, of course, there’s the kids. Becky says, “On my 19th year of teaching and I love it! …I have a drawer filled with notes [of encouragement and gratitude from students] and whenever I get down, I read them. Plus just seeing the excitement on their faces lately has done a lot…” Despite the ups and downs, Becky has coping strategies in place for the tough times. Teaching is definitely not an easy job, but one teacher says it best for many who responded: “As always, I stay for the kids!”
So How Do We Make This a Reality for More Teachers?
Teaching has become a more complex job than ever, and it has become much more difficult in recent years, pandemic or not. But there are some solutions to make teachers want to stay — and while none of them are easy, quick fixes, if they were followed, they could have a big impact.
It all follows this aphorism, said by Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
A lot of the following solutions rest with the principal — as we know, when teachers feel respected and supported by their principal and administration, they are more likely to stay. Here are some systemic solutions to help teachers stay:
Looking AheadWill there be a mass exodus this year? I would guess probably not, but it’s never good when experienced professionals leave, no matter the numbers. There are a great many teachers who are passionate about the work they do, driven by purpose, receiving respect and support from their administration, camaraderie from friends, and more. But for those who do choose to leave, I thank you. We all should thank you for your service to our kids. And there are resources out there for you — on Facebook, a couple of groups called “Life After Teaching” exist in which teachers, past and present, offer empathy and solutions towards a successful exit. My wish is that everyone who leaves the profession can leave well, like my teacher-friend, who also happened to be my second grade teacher 34 years ago. He says, “I will be retiring this June after a total of 37 years. I think it’s a good time as I’m leaving before burning out. The last two years have been tough… It’s been a great career and I would do it all over again!”
Life’s too short to be desperately unhappy (if that’s what you are). Or, see what you can do to make it better for you, whether that’s a grade level switch, a building change, a change in role, or — if nothing else works — an entirely new career. If you can, see if it’s possible to take a year of leave (likely unpaid) to see if you are fulfilled in other ways or if you miss it. But don’t do nothing — don’t remain unhappy. There is always a choice and you always have options; it just may not be easy, at first.
If you’re on the fence and unsure of what to do, you can make lists, like Julie, you can talk with friends and colleagues like Sylvia, or you can go with your gut. Kyla says she has found a new path “teaching online on Outschool during my evenings and weekends… It’s amazing, and so different than what we experienced as a school district with distance learning.”
Whatever you do, don’t do nothing — either find your way to make it work or find your way to the exit, towards your next adventure. You deserve to be happy — and like I said before, If the teacher ain’t happy, ain’t nobody (in the classroom) happy.
I hope you find your way towards happiness and fulfillment, whatever that may look like. And as always, thank you for your service.
*As always, all teachers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
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Cindy Shapiro is long-time teacher living in Colorado. She is the founder of Teacher Says, a budding podcast and website designed with the idea in mind of listening to and raising up teachers' voices. She has two school-aged children. Her book, For the Love of (Remote) Teaching is available on Amazon for Kindle.