Most educators leaving the field aren’t retiring or being laid off — they’re quitting.
Nearly half of the public education employees — working in elementary, secondary and postsecondary institutions — who left the profession in March resigned, according to preliminary numbers released in May by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Quits peaked early into the Covid-19 pandemic, before taking a downturn in late 2020. But over the last two years, resignations have ticked back up, worsening the already-serious teacher shortage in the United States as school districts struggle to hire new teachers.
With school shootings on the rise and pandemic-disrupted learning taking a toll on teachers who feel increasingly burned out, public education is struggling to attract — and retain — qualified school staff, says Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the country.
One in three teachers say they’re likely to quit and find another job in the next two years, according to a recent survey by the EdWeek Research Center and Merrimack College.
Quits have consistently outpaced other reasons for leaving over the last decade – with the exception of the early pandemic months when teacher layoffs surged.
“It’s like a five-alarm fire right now,” Pringle said. “This is not new, but like everything else, the pandemic made it worse.”
Since the Uvalde school shooting in May 2022, there have been 66 shootings in schools across the country, including on college campuses, and 41 shootings at K-12 schools, according to data collected by CNN as of May 25.
Educators feel the weight of grief one year after the shooting, Pringle says. More than 60% of teachers say they worry about a mass shooting occurring at their schools, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the NEA.
“[Teachers] are anxious, and they’re mourning,” Pringle said.“The grief — because grief is cyclical, not finite — is rising up in them again.”
Briana Takhtani was one of those teachers who decided to hand in her resignation letter. She quit what she called her “dream job” teaching high school in upstate New York in 2021, after being heavily affected by rising school shootings and the pandemic. After taking a year off, she’s since returned to the classroom teaching seventh grade in New Jersey.
“We’re not just teachers, we’re kind of like counselors or babysitters a little bit. Sometimes we act as mothers,” Takhtani told CNN. “With Covid and everything else, it kind of just became too much for me to handle on a day-to-day basis and still feel sane.”
As teachers head for the exits, jobs are opening up in public education, but nobody’s taking them. There were more than twice as many job openings than new hires in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Openings began outpacing hires before the Covid-19 pandemic, but the gap has only intensified since, exacerbating the educator shortage.
More than half of US educators say they were more likely to retire early because of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a 2022 survey conducted by the NEA. That rate was higher for Hispanic or Latino and Black teachers.
Just 20% of public elementary and secondary school teachers are people of color, according to the National Center for Education Statistics data for the 2020-21 school year.
“At the moment, when we need more [teachers of color], we have less of them,” Pringle said. “And our teachers of color, particularly Black teachers… they disproportionately are leaving.”
Teachers say school systems need to be doing more for their students. High on the list of proposals educators said they support to combat burnout – after raising salaries and hiring more teachers — was providing additional mental health and behavioral support for students, according to the 2022 NEA survey.
“We don’t have the number of counselors, mental health professionals or nurses…that educators need, writ large, to assist,” Pringle said. “[Teachers] are leaving, because they don’t feel like the system is helping them take care of their kids.”
The educator shortage is also in part attributable to notoriously low teacher salaries, Pringle says.
Compensation for educators has flat-lined in the past two decades when adjusted for inflation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It also pales in comparison to other career paths that require similar levels of education and expertise.
“We get them in, and they leave really quickly because of pay,” Pringle said. Nearly half — 45% — of teachers say they did not feel respected or seen as professionals by the general public, according to the EdWeek/Merrimack College survey.
“In America, respect for your job is equivalent to pay,” said Melissa Parrish, a first-grade teacher in Los Angeles, California. “So the lack of pay is like a lack of respect for the work that people are doing.”