The New Three R's

Why are so many teachers leaving the profession—and how do we hold on to them ?

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What is driving teachers from the classroom can be summarized by the new three R’s of education: a lack of respect, remuneration and recovery from remote fatigue. (GETTY IMAGES)

With all its disruption, the pandemic highlighted the creativity, resilience and determination of educators to continue teaching their students while learning new ways of teaching themselves—remote and with technology. However, 55 percent of them said they will leave teaching earlier than planned according to a January 2022 survey conducted by the country's largest teachers' union, the National Education Association (NEA), among its members. Studies have shown that the teacher is the single-most important factor in successful student learning, so the growing shortage of teachers would compound an already critical problem for public education as most of the anticipated exits would be in instructional roles.

When National Public Radio reported on the NEA survey results, it noted that teachers were exhausted, overwhelmed and feeling underappreciated. Ninety percent of NEA members who responded reported that burnout is a serious problem. Eighty-six percent said they have seen more educators leaving the profession or retiring early since the pandemic began, and 80 percent reported that unfilled job openings have led to even more work for the teachers who remain.

The survey found that while 55 percent of teachers overall wanted to leave, 62 percent of African American teachers and 59 percent of Hispanic teachers said they would leave earlier than planned. Younger, less experienced teachers planned to exit at a slightly higher rate than others. The reality is that the desire to leave the profession was comparable among apprentices, midcareer educators and those closer to retirement.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said there are 567,000 fewer educators in America's public schools today than before the pandemic. Forty-three percent of posted jobs are unfilled. The difficulty of running schools that are so understaffed would likely result in more teacher resignations.

Of course, the pandemic did not create the teacher shortage. But it did exacerbate it. For many teachers, it has been the combination of mental, financial, physical and emotional strain of teaching during and post-lockdown, while also taking care of their own families, that has proved too much.

There have been escalating departures throughout the pandemic. In Florida, teacher vacancies increased 67 percent in August 2021 as compared with August 2020, causing shortages in language arts, math, science and special education. The teacher shortage in New York state has affected all grades and nearly all areas, including bilingual education, special education, language arts, science and social studies from the seventh grade up. Some Denver public schools reverted back to remote learning to address shortages last fall. Across the country, teacher shortages can be found in every state and district.

Teachers are deciding that the combined demands and strains of the job are simply not worth sacrificing their physical and mental health. What is driving them out of the classroom can be summarized as the new three R's of education: a lack of respect, remuneration and recovery from remote fatigue (replacing the standard three R's of a generation ago: reading, writing and arithmetic).

Respect—or Lack Thereof

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Respect, appreciation and acknowledgment for teachers’ experience, professionalism and hard work have been lacking but could go a long way toward slowing their exodus. (GETTY IMAGES)

When surveyed, exiting teachers most often cited the desire for more autonomy over the academic decisions that directly impacted their effectiveness. Two-thirds stated that they wanted to have more of a voice and influence over the materials used.

Respect, appreciation and acknowledgement for their experience, professionalism and hard work could go a long way toward slowing the teacher exodus. Input into curriculum and administrative support for their ideas would also be helpful.

Remuneration

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For most educators, it’s not all about salary. It’s also the acknowledgment of their contributions during a high-stress period and of their making a difference in a student’s life. (GETTY IMAGES)

Teacher compensation has been an issue for some time. Teachers earned an average of 21 percent less than their comparable peers in 2018, a gap that has grown nonstop for more than 20 years, according to the Economic Policy Institute. CNBC reported that U.S. educators are paid less than their counterparts in Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia and Ireland.

Low pay and high stress come with the job, but it was the addition of an overwhelming workload, lack of work-life balance and frustrations in connecting with students remotely that pushed an already low paycheck to the top of the bridge-too-far list. Researchers found a clear correlation between higher salaries and retention. While better compensation is an issue, many teachers also want to be acknowledged for their contributions during a difficult time that schools were unprepared to facilitate.

Remote Fatigue and Lack of Recovery

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Teachers were overburdened before the pandemic. The shifts in environments, protocols and students’ needs have added to their workloads. (GETTY IMAGES)

Teachers were already overburdened and beleaguered before the pandemic. The moves to and from remote learning, hybrid learning and, now, a return to the classroom have only added to their frustration. All three of these modes require different skills. The technology demands and unfamiliarity with distance learning were leading frustrations for teachers.

However, many teachers rose to the challenge during the pandemic; now they are in need of a wellness break. The difficulties of the last two years have further highlighted that physical and mental health are non-negotiables.

A Generation Problem

The ongoing effects of the "great resignation" have seen millions of people looking for new jobs that prioritize work-life balance. Teachers are no different. For some, there has been no more fulfilling job than teaching: They entered the profession because they love children and have a passion to see them learn and grow. However, the challenges that education has been facing are proving too onerous to remain on the job.

It's time to work together to reverse the trend of losing experienced and effective teachers, and especially teachers of color. Research has shown that teachers of color have helped close the opportunity gap for students of color and have been highly rated by all students. And yet these teachers represent fewer than 20 percent of all educators but are leaving the profession at a faster rate.

This teacher shortage will have generational consequences. We're already seeing fewer college students pursuing careers in teaching. How long before this crisis results in untenable class sizes and declining efficacy? What can we do to solve this problem?

We All Play a Part

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We depend heavily on top teachers to help guide the next generation of students. (GETTY IMAGES)

It will take the best minds in our communities to solve this crisis in teaching. Collaboration between businesses and legislators, parents and communities, and universities and nonprofits is critical.

At Lexia Learning, we see literacy as the foundation for all learning because literacy can and should be for all. Our mission is to support teachers by creating "opportunities for every student through the power of literacy education." As an education company, we have the opportunity to help foster a more equitable, safe, diverse environment for our students and an empowering teaching experience for teachers.

Education-focused organizations, like Lexia, can use the power of their platforms to celebrate and affirm teachers; advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion; provide recognition for teachers' contributions; and give them autonomy to manage their own classrooms.

It's time to ask new questions: What can state and federal legislators do to increase funding for teachers' salaries beyond the three years of the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER)? What can be done to increase the number of qualified people selecting the education field as a career option, especially candidates of color? How can we streamline the teacher certification process across state lines? If we want the best and the brightest people to choose teaching as a career, then we have to create a new vision for teaching with matching compensation.

Schools and districts can help retain teachers by providing significant professional learning opportunities that can shape a career path. Digital teaching tools can't stand alone. They require good pedagogy, research-proven instructional programs and experienced teachers to bring them to life for learning success. Studies have shown that teachers make the most discernible difference in a child's education. And although we can also use technology for what it does best—personalizing the learning path to meet the needs of every learner—it also enables teachers to focus on building relationships with their students to make them feel seen and heard.

Schools are one of the foundations of our lives as citizens of this country. We depend on good educators to help guide the next generation of students. Teachers have an awesome responsibility. They deserve the best support we can offer them as a wider community of legislators, education leaders, parents, businesses and nonprofit organizations coming together for a common—and critical—cause.