The Great Malaise: Educators and the Pandemic, It’s Worse Than You Think
Teachers are in crisis. Unfortunately, this is not a new story, but it has taken on a new sense of urgency in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teaching, without a doubt, is one of the most challenging professions, even before the pandemic. In addition to being content instructors, teachers are also disciplinarians, assessors, administrators, facilitators, foster parents, social workers, role models, and according to Teachthought.com, make up to 1,500 educational decisions every school day. This would be difficult enough in the best of circumstances, but many teachers work in chronically underfunded education systems with meager wages that don’t reflect the education levels required of the job compared to similar vocations. Other hardships include a lack of respect, overcrowded classrooms, unruly students, school violence, absentee parents, and out-of-touch administrators. And while all these issues have stubbornly remained over the years, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these problems and has created new ones leaving teachers, administrators, and support staff in a Great Malaise.
Fortunately, for the time being, the data suggests that the “Big Quit” or “Great Resignation” has not materialized in the public education space. But as the pandemic persists and new variants emerge, prolonging the scourge, the pressure may become unbearable, and we could see a mass exodus of teachers leaving the profession. The nonprofit RAND Corporation recently published a report that should give all educators and stakeholders in the educational space pause. Among its key findings are that one in four teachers is considering quitting after the 2020-2021 school year, compared with only one in six teachers contemplating a career change before the pandemic. Further, Black and African American teachers were particularly likely to leave. The potential exodus of teachers of color is particularly alarming because it could happen when districts are making a concerted effort to attract and retain diverse teachers to reflect the demographic realities of our nation’s classrooms. Additionally, data suggests that COVID-19 is pushing veteran educators into early retirement. For example, the Brooking Institute reported that among teachers 55 and older, 34 percent of teachers had considered leaving the profession or retiring compared to 23 percent for all other respondents (Zamarro, Camp, Fuchsman, & McGee, 2021).
The report points out that a high proportion of teachers have complained of job-related stress, depression, and burnout compared to the general adult population. These challenges, while not new, have been exacerbated by working conditions that intensified dissatisfaction with the profession. Challenges include dated and insufficient technology, a decline in student engagement and increased behavioral issues, fear of contracting COVID-19, personal childcare or caretaking responsibilities, political tensions caused by ideological debates over mask mandates, and critical race theory, and limited guidance from administrators. One high school teacher in the Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nevada, told me, “I love what I do, and teaching has never been perfect, but since COVD, things have gotten so tough due to administrators, parents, and student behavior. But I have never felt as disconnected, discouraged, or dissatisfied with being a teacher as I do now. And I fear that there is nothing at this point that can reignite my passion for the job.” After 15 years in the classroom, this teacher is actively looking for employment outside of education. Unfortunately, this is not an anomaly. As a 20-year veteran educator, currently in the classroom, I constantly hear statements like this from amazing teachers who have reached the breaking point. But you don’t need to be in the profession to hear directly from teachers. A YouTube search for “why I quit teaching” yields videos with titles such as “Why So Many Teachers Are Leaving this Year: A Teacher’s Rant,” “Saying Good-Bye to Classroom Teaching,” and “Why I quit Teaching the Brutal Truth,” in which teachers describe in detail why they left the classroom.
And while teachers leaving the profession in mass is mostly anecdotal and it remains to be seen if the teacher exodus will materialize, the study highlights the level of frustration and hopelessness felt by many educators during the Great Malaise. As Elizabeth Steiner, co-author of the report, points out, “Teachers were almost twice as likely to report that they were experiencing frequent job-related stress as the general employed adult population. And about three times as many teachers said that they were experiencing symptoms of depression as the general adult population. Teachers are not the only ones thinking about calling it quits. Nurses, substitute teachers, bus drivers, and administrators leave or seriously think about going at alarming numbers. For example, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that schools staff one full-time nurse for every 750 students. Yet, amid the pandemic, when schools need nurses more than ever, it is estimated that a quarter of schools will have no nurses at all. A paper published by the University of Washington’s Center for Education Data & Research in Seattle found that the statewide student to nurse ratio during the 2019-2020 school year averaged one nurse to every 1,173 students. The problem rests in part on simple economics. Registered nurses working in a hospital setting can make between $10,000 to $20,000 more than school nurses and don’t have to deal with the tension and ever-expanding workload.
Additionally, there are critical shortages of substitute teachers. For example, in the CCSD, In the 2019-2020 school year, the fill rate for substitute teachers was 82%. The fill rate is the percentage of classes successfully filled by a substitute teacher. However, the fill rate as of September 2021 dropped to 62.4% and continues to fall. In response to these significant staffing shortages, school administrators have had to make tough staffing decisions such as canceling some classes, doubling up on others, and requesting teachers to use their preparation periods to cover classes that substitute teachers have not covered. In addition to nurses and substitute teachers, the CCSD is short more than 200 bus drivers this year, causing substantial disruptions to students’ educations, especially in the first few periods of the morning. Reasons for the shortage include health concerns, particularly for the large number of retirees who drive busses, low pay, and stiff competition from other industries that compete for drivers who hold commercial licenses.
School administrators have felt the pressure too. The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) survey indicates that the pandemic could lead to a “mass exodus of principals.” The report stated that 79% of principals have been working harder since the pandemic began and that 62% of principals say that doing their job during the pandemic has been the most difficult challenge of their careers. Principal Joseph Uy at Gwendolyn Woolley Elementary in the CCSD exemplifies administrators' challenges. With 17% current vacancies at his school of 600 students, Mr. Uy finds himself doing various jobs around the school, including emptying the trash, vacuuming the floors, and serving lunch, in addition to his responsibilities as a building principal. He says of the staffing shortage, “I’d be lying to you if I said it’s not stressful.” In addition to the staffing shortages in the school, Mr. Uy has to contend with chronically late buses due to the lack of drivers. In turn, this is impacting teachers who have to wait with students after school until they can get a ride home. Mark Wilson, a special education teacher at the school, points out, “They're just incredibly late. Forty-five minutes late sometimes." "We're not paid overtime for that. We just wait. We're not just going to abandon kids, so we just have to sit there and wait for parents, some of whom say, 'Look, I'm sorry, I don't get off 'til 4.”
The COVID-19 Pandemic has been devastating for educators, support staff, administrators, and of course, students and families. And despite the Great Malaise that has overtaken many, the pandemic has demonstrated teachers’ resiliency during tough times and their incredible ability to soldier on. It is no secret that most educators do what they do, not for the money, prestige, or power. But because they care deeply about their students, and they put them first in everything they do. However, there are inherent dangers to this approach, as suggested by the old simile that says, “A good teacher is like a candle that consumes itself while lighting the way for others.” If educators are to be effective in the long run, they must have the tools to replenish what they lose in the service of others. Only through deliberate self-care can teachers mitigate the anxiety, stress, and burnout associated with the Great Malaise. In my next blog post, I will examine the steps teachers can take to ensure physical, mental, and emotional health through self-care.
Steiner, Elizabeth D., and Ashley Woo, Job-Related Stress Threatens the Teacher Supply: Key Findings from the 2021 State of the U.S. Teacher Survey. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2021. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA1108-1.html.
Zamarro, G., Camp, A., Fuchsman, D., & McGee, J. B. (2021). Understanding how COVID-19 has Changed Teachers’ Chances of Remaining in the Classroom. Education Reform Faculty and Graduate Students Publications.