For Carolyn Silva-Sanchez, a second-grade teacher at Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain, the hardest challenge teachers faced during the pandemic was the loss of control over what was going on in their virtual classrooms — who was present or absent and whether learning was happening.
“During the pandemic, teachers were experiencing a lot of changes every day: Are we teaching remote? Are we teaching in person? Are we hybrid? Who is coming to school? Who is not?” said Silva-Sanchez during a Harvard Graduate School of Education webinar last Thursday.
Couple that with anxiety over personal health risks and pressures related to district- and state-mandated curricula and testing accountability, it’s no wonder so many educators are calling it quits, even as the pandemic begins to ease, said participants at “Why Teachers Leave Teaching and How to Support and Retain Them.”
The statistics are sobering. There has been a net loss of 600,000 educators in the U.S. since January of 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And in a recent survey by the National Education Association, the country’s largest union representing about 3 million educators, 55 percent of teachers said they are planning to leave the field.
Some of the toughest challenges faced by teachers were already present but made worse by the COVID outbreak and the switch to remote and hybrid learning. Increasing accountability pressures have led to a “heavy regulation of teaching,” one that didn’t stop during the pandemic, said Heather Hill, Hazen-Nicoli Professorship in Teacher Learning and Practice and Faculty Co-Chair, Teaching and Teacher Leadership, at the Ed School.
“All the mandated things are taking away agency from teachers to make decisions, and that is at the heart of what teaching actually is,” said Hill. “Teachers also stay in the profession because they feel successful in helping kids learn. If they’re not experiencing that, that’s another reason why teachers can become demoralized and want to leave the classroom.”
That sense of a loss of autonomy was underscored by issues that arose during the pandemic. Many teachers, for instance, felt they couldn’t slow down to offer mental health support to students or devote more time to social-emotional learning to help children develop self-control and interpersonal skills, said Silva-Sanchez. “The time and ability to do that was nonexistent for teachers in the classroom,” she said.
Hill said the growing exodus of teachers clearly creates an administrative problem, but it could very well have a more profound systemic effect. Studies show teacher attrition has a negative impact on educational outcomes. To help retain teachers, Hill said school districts have to try to foster a good working environment in schools by hiring good school leaders and principals, offering mental health support for educators, and helping teachers improve their teaching. Teachers deserve it, said Hill.
“Teachers experienced mental health challenges that we all experienced, and then more by working in classrooms with kids in a public health emergency,” said Hill. “In March, this time last year, you saw surveys of teachers saying, ‘I’m really done,’ ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ ‘It’s just too much.’ It turns out that many of them came back in the fall. And that speaks to the commitment that teachers have to their kids and not wanting to leave the kids or abandon their kids in their school.”