Teachers are picking up slack for absent colleagues. They're covering for unfilled positions. And 55% of them say they will leave teaching sooner than they had originally planned, according to a poll of its members by the nation's largest teachers union.
The National Education Association poll, conducted in January, helps quantify the stress being placed on educators right now. It found that the number who say they'll leave the profession sooner has risen significantly since August. Among the NEA poll's other findings:
- 90% of its members say that feeling burned out is a serious problem.
- 86% say they have seen more educators leaving the profession or retiring early since the start of the pandemic.
- 80% report that unfilled job openings have led to more work obligations for those left.
"Last summer, I started traveling across the country," says Becky Pringle, president of the NEA, which has nearly 3 million members, talking about the impetus for the survey. "Without exception, every stop I made, from Kentucky to Oakland, I heard those similar stories of educators who were exhausted, overwhelmed, feeling unloved, disrespected."
The poll found a racial gap in discontent: 62% of Black teachers and 59% of Hispanic teachers say they will leave earlier than planned, compared with 55% overall. But the desire to leave the profession was at similar levels for rookies, midcareer educators and those closer to retirement.
"Our morning emails every day start with the vacancies that have been unfilled," says Amber McCoy, an NEA member who teaches fourth grade in Huntington, W.Va. "[It] will tell us where we have staffing shortages in the building and [ask] us to step in in any way or any time that we can."
She says it's less the 20-year veterans like herself and more the young teachers that are leaving, or considering leaving.
"This is just not what they bargained for," McCoy says. "I also mentor new teachers in my county and one of the girls that had done some clinical work in my classroom, she called me and she just said, 'Is it normal for me to cry every single day after school?' And I said, 'Honey, it's not normal. But this year it's not uncommon.' "
Of course, saying that you're thinking about leaving, or reporting the perception that others are leaving, is not the same as actually putting in your notice. Still, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are 567,000 fewer educators in America's public schools today than there were before the pandemic. And the NEA's analysis of BLS data indicates that 43% of jobs posted are going unfilled.
When it comes to solutions, the NEA says money is uppermost in its members' minds. They support raising salaries and hiring more people. Pringle says the union has been amplifying the Biden administration's message that American Rescue Plan money — $122 billion in federal aid to K-12 schools — can and should be used to improve pay and create new positions.
"We were asked to assist [U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona] to really push on this part of the use of those funds," Pringle says, "because some school districts were a little leery about using them to hire staff."
One big reason for that, she explained, is that the extra money is set to sunset within three years, whereas hiring someone or giving them a raise is an indefinite financial commitment.
Yet even if the funding is temporary, Pringle argues, it's needed right now.