Teaching during the pandemic has been hard. I italicized that because hard doesn’t fully capture the extent of difficulty and challenge our educators have faced in these past two years. Even before the pandemic, teaching was hard. It’s a profession guaranteeing long hours, draining days, traditionally low pay, and the constant questioning of “Am I helping my students?”
Yet, teachers continued to be drawn to this profession year after year. We enrolled in education programs, spent months studying under veteran educators, and looked forward to the day when we would stand at the front of that classroom. Known as a “passion profession,” teaching is truly a calling—it’s a belief that we can make a difference, even with sacrifices to our own lives. But within the last year, exhaustion has grown to dim that incredible passion.
Teachers are quitting at a startling rate, and many of those sticking around for June aren’t planning on coming back. A recent NEA survey of over 3,600 teachers revealed that at least 55% of public schools teachers, administrators, and other staff plan to leave the profession earlier than anticipated. But we don’t have to look far to see the writing on the wall. With the trending LinkedIn hashtags, #GreatResignation and #transitioningteachers, along with countless Facebook groups dedicated to coaching teachers on how to change professions, there is a clear trajectory that many districts will be facing a permanent staff shortage sooner rather than later.
As a former teacher myself, I understand challenges and demands that can weigh upon an educator. I was one of the many who chose to change professions in 2021, citing the same reasons for leaving that teachers are stating today. We’ve outlined many of those reasons below, but it comes down to a simple truth—teachers are tired.
COVID-19, politics, teacher shortages, and demanding scheduling have all played a part in this current crisis. But we are not powerless against the tide of burn-out and resignations. Proactive actions taken by district leadership can help alleviate the burden and stresses that are forcing dedicated educators to look elsewhere for employment. While there is no copy and paste solution that will address the multifaceted issue, education leaders can learn what is driving this “Great Resignation” and take steps to address it—before we are left in buildings of empty classrooms and silent halls.
In the recent NEA survey, over 90% of respondents reported that burnout is a serious problem and is one of the major contributing factors to their decision to leave. Burnout is the limit of endurance a professional faces when executing their daily tasks. The feeling of hopelessness, fatigue, and depression drives individuals to quit their jobs to pursue a fresh start in another profession.
COVID-19 has caused teachers to be in constant flux for over two years. They have quickly adapted to remote learning, teaching during a pandemic, juggling tasks in response to staff shortages, and societal disruptions which carry into the classroom. This has led to increased burnout throughout the education system and has contributed to the rise of teacher resignations and early retirements, ultimately creating a teacher shortage.
But burnout is not the only contributing factor leading to the loss of teaching staff. Teacher demoralization is also on the rise and should be on the radar of any district leader. Doris Santoro, a professor of education at Bowdoin College, argues that demoralization results from ongoing value conflicts with a work environment. For teachers, demoralization occurs when educators struggle to access their ability to positively impact their students and contribute to student success.
With the additional burdens of COVID-19, teachers are battling years worth of building exhaustion and changing instructional delivery models. The past years have seen countless interruptions to instruction, with teachers very often not having an active voice in decisions related to schools, instructional models, and new initiatives. This can lead to the feeling of disconnect and lack of autonomy of an educator’s power over their classroom.
Both of these factors are important for a school leader to recognize and understand when considering their school staff. Burnout may occur when a teacher has been dealing with an elevated level of stress, such as limited planning time or additional responsibilities unrelated to instruction. Demoralization may occur when a teacher is prevented from participating in decision-making on decisions impacting their classrooms.
Demoralization can also occur when teachers feel as if school policy or mandates can be harmful to students or their profession. School leaders need to understand how burnout and demoralization can manifest to identify warning signs. While this list is not comprehensive (nor are these symptoms always signals of burnout), here are a few red flags signaling staff may be experiencing professional dissatisfaction:
While some variables that contribute to burnout and demoralization may be impossible to address (such as a global pandemic), education leaders do have power over how our systems respond and support our staff. Let’s take a look at some strategies leaders can be proactive in implementing that are directly tied to leading causes of professional dissatisfaction.
It’s not a surprise to see reports of districts across the nation struggling to attract new teachers. Michigan saw a 44% increase in teacher retirements at the end of the 2021 school year, with projections anticipating an even higher number at the end of the 2022 school year. More retirements mean more vacancies, but universities are seeing a drastic decline in student enrollment in education programs. At the start of 2022, Oklahoma City University announced that it will be permanently shutting the doors of its education program. It was one of many universities to end its education program within the last five years.
New teachers are hard to find. With fewer graduates in education fields, there is a diminishing number of qualified applicants for a teaching position. As more teachers leave the profession, this gap will grow even wider, and we have already started to see where this crisis could lead. During a recent COVID surge, New Mexico was forced to use National Guard troops to step into classroom positions so schools could remain open.
The Economic Policy Institute has reported that teacher resignations are a leading contributor to the growing teacher shortage. But simply hiring new teachers to fill these vacancies is no longer an option. Beyond the added benefit of maintaining a skilled and experienced staff, districts need to prioritize retaining the teachers they already have—so they can avoid a future of not having any teachers.
District leaders will need to address why teachers leave to increase teacher retention. While low salaries are a contributing factor, research shows that pay raises and bonuses play a small role in teacher burnout and retention. Salary levels, benefits, and retirement can impact burnout, especially in areas where pay is significantly below national levels or salary schedules are stagnant.
However, a pay raise or bonus is not the only solution to prevent a wave of resignations. During the Edweek survey of teachers, educators reported that their work environment, school culture, and work/life balance were the main contributors to their decision to leave the profession. Experienced educators are also electing for early retirement to avoid burnout and demoralization.
School leaders have been forced to adapt to an ever-changing environment, and through this change, extra burdens and tasks have often fallen on the shoulders of already overwhelmed educators. The hard reality is that schools are very often understaffed—whether from unfilled classroom positions or limited budgets for additional support staff. While reducing the amount of responsibilities unrelated to instruction should always be a priority, addressing retention and work satisfaction requires a system-level evaluation and correction.
School culture impacts a teacher’s daily life. Culture determines if teachers and students feel safe and respected, and bad school culture can lead to drastic increases in stress and anxiety. We covered school culture extensively in a previous post discussing strategies for continuing MTSS during staff shortages. In this post, we addressed key strategies that leaders can utilize in improving school cultures, such as a PBIS (Positive Behavior Incentive Program) and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) programs for students and staff.
The programs mentioned above remain excellent tools in facilitating a healthier school climate, and school culture should be a priority for leaders seeking to improve their teacher retention rates. However, current pressure points of burnout and demoralization require us to dive deeper. Let’s take a moment to talk about toxic positivity and collective efficacy.
During the past two years, many schools have fallen into the trap of toxic positivity. We have been so focused on surviving the day to day, that we have forced ourselves to suppress negative emotions that come naturally when combating a global pandemic. This has led to the rise of toxic positivity within many schools. Paul Emerich France describes this mindset perfectly: “[Toxic positivity] is the pervasive mindset that, no matter the circumstance, one should always see the positive.”
While always staying positive may sound like a good strategy, supporting teachers who are struggling to deliver effective instruction and combat rising disengagement with a response of, “We’re all in this together,” can dismiss and diminish the teacher’s reality. When educators are forced to put on a smile, regardless of their situation, it creates a culture where dissenting teachers may be labeled as negative and receive consequences for sharing their opinion.
This toxic positivity mindset encourages educators to suppress their negative emotions, look on the bright side, and refrain from engaging in constructive conversations that may seek to address a rising problem. This suppression robs teachers of their autonomy to voice their opinions and leads directly to exhaustion, burnout, and demoralization. While toxic positivity does not come from a place of ill intent, it also doesn’t create any solutions. Rather than sweeping negative emotions under the rug, schools can address these issues straight on by incorporating collective efficacy.
Jenni Donohoo, a leader in education research and consulting, describes collective efficacy as “a staff’s shared belief that through their collective action, they can positively influence student outcomes.” Rather than ignoring the negative to focus on the positive, collective efficacy places the focus on educators, school leaders, and communities working together to solve problems. Donohoo outlines six enabling conditions required for schools to reach collective efficacy.
1. Advance Teacher Influence
Advancing teacher influence is characterized by increasing the opportunity for educators to participate in school-wide decision-making. This means including staff and allowing staff to vote/voice opinions during the adoption stage of new initiatives. During COVID-19, many staff lost their ability to participate in the decision-making process of new protocols and transitions, as decisions had to be made quickly and sometimes with little communication. Recent political initiatives have even furthered this loss of autonomy and influence. By spending time to build buy-in for new changes and incorporating a continuous feedback structure (which allows feedback to flow both ways), school leaders can give back some of the autonomy teachers have lost.
2. Create Goal Consensus
Schools can address challenges as a group, rather than as individuals by working as a collective. When faced with a challenge, school leaders can bring the challenge forward to all staff, so staff can collectively decide how they will address this challenge. For example, if mental health is a major concern facing students and staff, staff can work together to decide on how they may implement an SEL program or provide support to their colleagues. While school leaders are tasked with facilitating this process, they must also be prepared to supply all resources to achieve this goal.
Educators can take action, but leaders must supply the resources required to take that action. For example, if time is needed to actively plan and implement new initiatives to address a challenge, that time needs to be factored into the master schedule. If intervention is needed, then educators need access to research-based interventions and the time to apply them. If more data-tracking is needed to understand instructional needs, then proper data-tracking tools and software should be provided that create flow and efficiency.
3. Enable Teachers' Knowledge About One Another's Work
Fellow teachers are one of our best resources for alleviating the burden of analyzing data, creating lessons, finding resources, and so much more. However, many teachers don’t work together as a cohesive unit, taking on the burden of instruction and planning all on their own.
Leaders need to create an environment that encourages collaboration, not competition. By focusing on and celebrating department goals and grade-level success, leaders can set the stage for this culture to grow. However, scheduling must also play a part. If teachers do not have time set aside during their workday to meet with their teams, this barrier can prevent collaboration from occurring. Schedules need to account for this mandatory collaboration time, where there are no other meetings, mandatory/voluntary class covering, or responsibilities to intercede. The Branching Minds Meeting Guide can also help set the foundation for maximizing cooperative planning and facilitating collaboration.
4. Create a Cohesive Staff
It feels at times that our world has never been more divided. While we would like to think that schools exist outside of these divisions, recent occurrences have made them a battleground. Students and staff are not spared from this divisive mentality. Leaders are tasked with creating an environment that creates cohesion, despite individual differences and opinions.
By focusing on issues we have control over, such as instructional loss and intervention, leaders can create a consensus on how to address these issues. Similar to creating a goal consensus, leaders must prioritize allowing every voice to be heard, but not allowing one voice to divide the team. Open and honest communication is key, as well as empowering staff to take action together.
➡️ Related resource: Communication Planning for MTSS
5. Enact Responsiveness of Leadership
We remember good bosses. That's true no matter our profession. A good leader who listens to staff and proactively responds to challenges is the foundation of a healthy work environment. Leaders are tasked with ensuring that their staff is supported in every way possible, especially when that support needs to come from a system-level change. Teachers cannot individually change school culture; only leaders can.
6. Implement an Effective System of Intervention
I’ve gone this entire blog without mentioning MTSS, which is remarkable coming from a company that sells MTSS software. That’s because MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports) applies to everything I have listed so far. One of the leading causes of demoralization was the belief that a teacher could no longer support their students. Education is changing, and meeting the needs of our diverse students takes time and resources. An effective system of intervention needs to be naturally integrated into a school’s environment and account for every need that could be impacting a student’s academic achievement. MTSS provides that systematic approach.
Creating an effective system of intervention should not create an overwhelming situation of data-tracking. Investment in an MTSS software to track data and interventions can lead to higher fidelity of MTSS and cut down the time educators spend on gathering data and tracking students. It also creates a cohesive system of collaboration between educators, leading to a stronger schoolwide practice.
“The Final Straw.” What an odd saying, but it accurately conveys many teachers' current mentality. Educators are exhausted with the education system. They are depleted and emotionally drained—but they continue to show up every day.
We need teachers. They are the foundation of our society and the builders of our future. Instead of asking more of them, it’s time that we ask more of our system. How can we make it easier? How can we move forward together?
We can advise best practices on SEL for teachers, advocate for a healthy work/life balance, and provide support to facilitate instruction. Still, at the end of the day, the actions that will prevent dedicated teachers from quitting will not come from the teachers. The actions to address the rising problem of burnout and demoralization must begin with our leaders.
It comes from school administrators and district officials who can implement a system-level change. It comes from leaders who can identify the signs of professional dissatisfaction within their staff, and take proactive steps in addressing it. It comes from leaders willing to see that there is a problem, seek to understand the problem, and work together as a team to find a healthier and stronger environment for their students, their communities, and their staff.
March 8th, 1 PM ET / 10 AM PT
In this hour-long webinar, we will discuss the current state of education and how staff shortages can impact our MTSS practice. We will break down the causes of staff shortages, strategies to maintain MTSS fidelity during reduced staffing periods, and how to evaluate your systems to promote a positive and healthy educational environment.
Donohoo, J. (2017). Collective Teacher Efficacy: The Effect Size Research and Six Enabling Conditions. The Learning Exchange, January 11, 2017.
Doris. A Santoro, Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay, Harvard Education Press, 2018
Mollie Breese is the Content Manager at Branching Minds. She helps streamline the support library, so schools can identify and access the interventions they need to support student success. She researches the newest strategies, activities, and programs to add to the robust library, providing a wealth of resources for partner schools. Prior to joining Branching Minds, Mollie worked in the classroom as an English teacher, Reading teacher, and ESL instructor. Mollie earned her B.A. in Political Science from the University of Missouri, and her M.A. in English Literature from the University of Glasgow.