The Great Resignation. The mass school staff exodus. Desperate staff shortages.
Horror stories about the teaching profession are well-documented online, and teacher retention rates have been on the decrease for some time now. But the COVID-19 pandemic has without a doubt exacerbated issues within the industry. According to the National Education Association (NEA), 55% of educators in the US now want to leave the profession and 86% of survey respondents say that they have never before seen so many educators leaving the profession (2022).
But why is this the case? District leaders working to improve the culture and climate of their schools in a bid to increase teacher retention and remedy staff dissatisfaction can only achieve this if they know where the problems lay in the first place. Therefore in this blog, our in-house education expert Ashley Shannon, a teacher for 10 years in Colorado and Oklahoma, gives a personal insight into the main reasons why teachers are leaving the profession in droves.
Pushed to the limits
A teacher’s workload is extensive even in well-staffed districts, but the mass teacher resignation has incited a crisis for those still working in the industry. The smaller the manpower in a school district, the bigger the burden on existing staff. In fact, around 75% of NEA respondents reported that they have had to fulfil job responsibilities on behalf of colleagues and around 80% say that unfilled vacancies have led to an increase in work obligations (2022). This means that educators are spread thin across a variety of roles and responsibilities not generally considered as part of their job description. As a result of being pushed to the limits, they have little time left to dedicate to the reason they likely joined the profession in the first place - to teach.
Budget cuts and low pay
A common problem across many industries, low salaries and few financial incentives demotivate existing staff and deter newcomers from teaching. Then, when state or nation-wide budget cuts are thrown into the mix, the profession becomes even less attractive to teachers. For example, the proposed $5.6billion cut (8% lower than that of the previous year) to US education in 2020 (American Progress, 2020).
Not only that, but teachers often have to use their own money towards costs such as classroom supplies, just so that they can teach to a sufficient standard. A survey taken in 2021 across 5,400 teachers in the USA reports that, on average, teachers pay $750 out of pocket each year (AdoptAClassroom.org). This increases the financial burden on educators - not only are they compensated very little for their work, but expectations are also such that they must pay out of pocket for necessary expenses.
Lack of clear direction
Finance aside, the education system is consistently affected by the political climate within the US, which continues to swing on a pendulum. Back and forth changes and expectations have taken its toll over time on educators, pushing them towards resignation and early retirement. “One of the most surprising things to me when I began my teaching career was the lack of clear direction within the education system,” Ashley confirms.
To make the problem worse, there is no straightforward path for teachers regarding their career trajectory. Educators are at risk of reassignment every year, and it is not uncommon for them to be moved from grade to grade or from one school to another. They are also not likely to be given much warning for this, or even an explanation as to why it is the case beyond a vague “it’s because of funding”. This means that teachers whose expertise and/or key interest lies in one particular area, such as 9th grade math or teaching children under 10 years old, are sent to work in new environments outside of their skillset. As a result, this could lead to these young learners receiving lower-quality teaching than if they were being taught by an expert in that field. “It is not uncommon for teachers to maintain a storage full of materials based on the various grades they have taught,” says Ashley, “knowing full well that they may move again.”
As a result of being pushed to the limits, teachers have little time left to dedicate to the reason they likely joined the profession in the first place - to teach.
Demands are different than other professions
Not every profession is created equally, and not every role within a profession is, either. The demands and responsibilities of teachers, especially those working with at-risk populations, are incredibly high, and the stress of these burdens can cause severe mental strain. Ashley says that: “As a teacher, it can be very difficult to ‘leave work at work’ and not bring the needs of students and their families home. If you can’t switch off from your job, then you don’t get the rest you need”.
The mental taxation on educators has been well-documented for decades now. Research done in the 1980s and 1990s concluded that teachers made around 1,500 decisions a day (at least 4 a minute!), but newer thought leadership suggests that the total is actually higher. For example, educators in an interview with Edweek (2021) spoke of “totally nonstop” decisions and how they believed that in reality, they make many more decisions on a daily basis than what prior research concluded. This is largely due to the multiple hats teachers must wear each day, as information providers, role models, disciplinarians, assessors, administrators, and facilitators (just to name a few). Couple the pre-existing responsibilities of teachers with the understaffing problem discussed earlier, and it’s difficult to deny the mental burden teachers have to deal with.
Lack of support
There is also a lack of support for teachers needing to deal with this. Teachers have more demands placed on them every year by the federal government, state, district, or building administrators, but very little is often done to give them the help they may need. Not only does this impact the teachers themselves, often leading to burnout and demoralization, but students are affected, too. Student needs are increasing and, since there are not enough resources to support them, teachers are the ones tasked with solving this problem.
Additionally, threats of lawsuits from students and their families are not unlikely, either, which in turn affects the support level of schools to teachers. New bills and legislation can be passed with little explanation or guidance given to educators, who then become fearful of breaking the rules and losing their license.
Detachment from district leaders
A major and common complaint teachers have about their profession is that rules, regulations, and standards are being written and enforced by people who have never been a teacher and who do not spend time in the classroom. Expectations can therefore feel arbitrary and overwhelming, and only serve to demoralize educators on the whole. Additionally, reassignments of teachers and their classes and/or subjects are often delegated from a district level, meaning that there’s a common sense of detachment between those making the decisions and those having to act on them.
So what can district leaders do to improve this situation?
You know why teachers are leaving in droves, but what can be done to remedy this situation? For district leaders looking to improve the wellness, culture, and climate of their teachers, there’s good news and bad news.
The bad news is that, unfortunately, there isn’t any one-size-fits-all solution or even any one quick fix. Plus, since a lot of common problems educators face are instigated by the federal government, for some of the issues listed above there’s not a lot that district leaders alone can do.
But the good news is that in many cases, there are steps leaders can take to improve the workplace for their teachers and ultimately increase their staff retention rates. And whilst the Satchel Pulse team can’t help increase teacher salaries or change federal law, we can help leaders manage their district’s culture and climate and stop minor work issues from escalating into major issues causing poor mental health and mass resignations.
Don’t let problems snowball
When educators inform district leaders of their resignation or early retirement and the reasons why, leaders may feel ‘confronted’ by these ‘new’ problems and make vague promises to fix them in the future. But chances are these problems have been going on for some time (at least long enough to push an employee to quit!) and are well-known to certain circles of the school community. This means that district leaders aren’t keeping in touch with their staff and not keeping their finger firmly on their district’s pulse to know what’s happening, when it happens.
In short, district leaders must work hard to maintain close communication with their community stakeholders, especially their educators. But effective work doesn’t have to equal hard work - our Culture and Climate solution effortlessly collects data from school community members via culture and climate surveys. The platform then feeds back to district leaders via intuitive, easy-to-use dashboards. What are climate and culture surveys? Climate and culture surveys are frequent, short questionnaires that aim to measure the feelings of district staff throughout the year. Ideally, they should be presented to stakeholders on a regular basis and in short segments. The data insights developed by our online tool mean district leaders are kept up-to-date with how their district is feeling throughout the school year, as opposed to traditional pulse surveys carried out only once. By staying in the know, district leaders can get early warnings of issues and work to stop them from snowballing into obstructive roadblocks, improving teacher wellbeing and satisfaction in the process.
And that’s exactly how Satchel Pulse helped Hickman Mills C-1 School District.
Their Associate Superintendent, Casey Klapmeyer, told us that:
“As an urban district, one of the things we experience is an annual high turnover of certified teaching staff. We had tried to improve this and refine our exit surveys to get better insights from staff when they leave the district. However, we didn't know the issues they had until they left the school and by that time it was too late to fix it… Culture and climate were constantly cropping up as one of the top three factors that played into the staffs’ decision to leave the district.”
You can read more about what Casey has to say about Culture and Climate here.
Don’t restrict when and how teachers feedback
Sometimes an issue arises and teachers may wish to give feedback right away, but this may not coincide with the schedules of their culture and climate surveys. It may also be that teachers would like to go into more detail than a quick survey would allow them to, and the opportunity to really dig deep about the issue at hand would be most beneficial to them. But, since district leaders are busy and do not always have time available to go over issues right away, a clear and streamlined approach to feedback is ideal.
Voice is the next best thing to one-on-one, in-person meetings with teachers. This online platform can be seamlessly embedded into a district’s homepage, allowing teachers (and other school community members, too) to simply go online and leave suggestions, comments, questions, and compliments. Not only is this convenient for users, but logging feedback through Voice ensures messages reach the right people to take action and fix the issues at hand. As a result, teachers get their problems solved before they escalate and worsen the mass school staff exodus even more.
AdoptAClassroom.org. (2021). How much do teachers spend on supplies? Read it here.
Edweek. (2021). 1,500 Decisions a Day (At Least!): How Teachers Cope With a Dizzying Array of Questions. Read it here.
National Education Association Survey. (2022). Read it here.