Story at a glance
- A preexisting shortage of teachers in the United States is growing worse due to the coronavirus pandemic.
- A new survey of public school teachers found stress is the leading reason teachers gave for leaving the profession both before and after the pandemic.
- The study shows that some are willing to return, although not in time for the next school year.
American teachers are stressed, and more of them are leaving the profession because they’re not getting paid enough to put up with it — especially in a pandemic.
“Different COVID-19 stressors affected pandemic teachers differently,” said Melissa Diliberti, lead author of a new report and an assistant policy researcher at RAND, in a statement. “Insufficient pay and childcare responsibilities drove out younger teachers under 40, while older teachers were more likely to say health conditions made them leave.”
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Researchers have been warning of a "coming crisis in teaching" for years amid declining enrollment in teacher preparation programs, increasing student enrollment and high teacher attrition. In 2016, the Learning Policy Institute said more than 100,000 additional full-time licensed teachers were needed nationwide — and the coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.
Stress is the root of the problem, the study concluded, both before the pandemic and even now, even more so than insufficient salaries. Three out of 4 former teachers said that work was "often" or "always" stressful, with many of them working more than 40 hours a week and one-third working second jobs. After COVID-19 forced schools to pivot to remote learning, many were left unprepared and with little support.
It's not all bad news, however, and to put it like a teacher: There's room for improvement. The survey found that more than half of the teachers who voluntarily left because of the pandemic were somewhat or definitely willing to return to public schools once staff and students were vaccinated. Most of them aren't making more, and 3 in 10 have taken jobs with no health insurance or retirement benefits.
“Despite the many reasons public school teachers left, about half of those who left primarily because of COVID-19 said they would be willing to come back once most staff are vaccinated or there was regular rapid COVID-19 testing of staff and students,” said Heather Schwartz, co-author and director of the Pre-K to 12 educational systems program at RAND.
But this isn't likely to happen in time for the next school year. Seven out of 10 teachers who were employed in a new position planned to remain through 2022, raising concerns about teacher shortages for the coming year. Even if they do, however, the study warns of “persistent structural problems that likely will outlast the pandemic unless there are changes to the teaching profession.”
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