Key takeaways

  • The post-pandemic era has exacerbated teacher burnout, with educators leaving the profession at high rates due to the compounded stress of personal and professional responsibilities.
  • Effective leadership is critical in developing and implementing strategies to support teachers and combat the heightened challenges of teacher shortages and burnout¹.
  • Even before the pandemic, there were initiatives to promote teaching and address retention issues. The pandemic has intensified these challenges, signaling a long journey towards stabilization of the teaching profession.
  • A strategic approach involving all stakeholders in education is needed to enhance the attractiveness of teaching, with intentional, data-driven actions focusing on teacher retention and recruitment.

Our expert panel

Dr. Alicia Thompson | Former superintendent of Kansas’ largest school district. She worked as an educator at Wichita Public School for 31 years and received a Doctorate in Educational Leadership. Her honors include a Leadership in Diversity Award and a Martin Luther King Education Award from the Kansas African American Museum.

MaryEllen Elia | Former New York State Commissioner of Education and President of the University of the State of New York (USNY). Before her appointment in New York, Elia served for a decade as the superintendent of schools in Hillsborough County, Florida, the 6th largest school district in the nation.

This blog is the fifth installment in our blog series, focusing on leadership and decision-making in schools. If you haven’t had the chance to read the other blogs in our series, you can check them out by clicking this link. For this blog, we invited Dr. Alicia Thompson and MaryEllen Elia, two of the country’s leading educational experts and former superintendents of major districts, to participate in our discussion on teacher burnout.

The pandemic: cause or catalyst of burnout?

Schools in the US have encountered a transformative post-pandemic period, where adapting to new norms has unsettled many educators and system leaders. We’ve seen a sharp spike in teachers leaving the profession and a significant slump in those choosing to enter it2. Educators are not isolated from the pressures of this era — they carry the weight of familial responsibilities and personal stresses, all while being the linchpins in a system striving for successful amelioration. Elia and Dr. Thompson agree that the post-pandemic era has catalyzed teacher burnout, exacerbating existing issues within educational organizations.

They illuminate the stark reality that no district is insulated from teacher scarcity. Educators are “retiring at much higher rates than in the past,” likely spurred by the trials of recent years, worsening shortages. Elia emphasized the critical role of leaders in devising and implementing strategies that provide robust support to teachers. The synergy between leadership and educators is imperative in navigating the complexities that different communities encounter.

Even before the pandemic, efforts were underway, as noted by Elia during her tenure as commissioner in New York State, to bolster the teaching profession. Initiatives to promote teaching as a career to high school students conflicted with students’ candid perceptions about the profession’s challenges. These pre-existing efforts signify that the pandemic, although a significant factor, is not the sole culprit in the evolving narrative of teacher retention and attrition.

Whether the exodus of educators is a temporary surge or indicative of a more permanent shift is an inquiry that encapsulates the uncertainty of the times and the daunting task ahead for superintendents nationwide. Elia and Dr. Thompson underscore that “the core issue leaders must address” is the need for a protracted journey toward stabilization and the reinvigoration of the teaching profession.

Section summary
  • The post-pandemic era has amplified the challenge of teacher burnout, with educators shouldering the dual burdens of professional responsibility and personal stress.
  • Leadership is pivotal in supporting teachers and addressing the shortages and challenges exacerbated by the pandemic.
  • Before the pandemic, the teaching profession faced retention issues, which current conditions have only intensified, indicating a long road to recovery and the need for enduring solutions.

A time for strategy

In the face of growing concerns about teacher burnout, education leaders are being called to action. With a note of urgency in their voices, experts like Elia and Dr. Thompson emphasize the necessity for a cohesive and robust strategy to “bring back the attractiveness of teaching in the United States.”

Elia stressed the critical importance of including “retention and recruitment of teachers” in district strategic plans. Dr. Thompson reinforced this position, adding that “everything has to be intentional.” Their calls to action are not just for superintendents and principals but for teachers and the community to engage in a concerted effort to address the crisis of teacher burnout and retention.

Embedded in their discourse is the shared understanding that strategy must be more than a concept — it must manifest in data-driven actions that align school goals with district-wide objectives. The focus on teacher retention and recruitment is clear in Dr. Thompson’s advice: “Be intentional and have a strategy that you focus on. Collect data and tackle the issue.” This approach reminded us of Dr. Micheal Hinojosa’s advice for superintendents tackling budgeting strategy, which you can read about in the first blog of this series.

Section summary
  • A strategic, nationwide approach is needed to restore the appeal of teaching and strengthen the profession.
  • Dr. Thompson and Elia urge districts to adopt specific, intentional strategies with clear goals focused on teacher retention and recruitment.
  • Data-driven actions are vital in tackling the issue of teacher burnout, with involvement from all levels of the education community.

What’s turning teachers from the classroom?

The challenges teachers face in today’s classrooms are multifaceted and often lead to burnout — a troubling trend in the US education system. Dr. Thompson and Elia shed light on the weighty responsibilities placed on teachers’ shoulders, the inefficiencies of current systems, and the psychological toll exerted by the sociopolitical climate.

Elia keenly points out that teachers are inundated with tasks that may not align with the core mission of educating students. “We’ve not taken a lot of things off of the teacher’s plate,” she notes, emphasizing the need for a proactive approach to eliminate unnecessary burdens. Elia suggests that school systems must listen to teachers and remove tasks that are unanimously seen as extraneous, thereby improving efficiency and focus. This suggestion aligns with one of the key messages in our latest Teacher Wellbeing Report.

Dr. Thompson brings attention to the external pressures teachers face, from the political to the personal. “I hear teachers say they’re afraid to be creative and innovative because they might offend someone,” she recounts, highlighting the fear of repercussions for using certain materials in class. This stress, compounded by challenging student behavior and lack of parental support, creates an environment ripe for teacher burnout.

Additionally, financial compensation is often overlooked but remains crucial for retaining and recruiting talent (78% of educators think low pay is a central issue for teachers³). As Thompson articulates, a robust strategy is needed to address the myriad challenges, including mental health support for teachers and students, and to bolster the partnership between educators and parents.

Section summary
  • Teachers today are confronted with various challenges that contribute to professional exhaustion and attrition in the field of education.
  • The stress factors for teachers are diverse, including the overloading of responsibilities, societal pressures, and the complexities of student and parent relationships.
  • Essential to the solution are improved compensation, mental health support, and strengthened partnerships between educators and parents.

Success stories

Amidst a backdrop of challenges and high turnover, there are successful practices that can be emulated and expanded across the nation. Elia stated, “Leaders who allow teachers to be part of the decision-making in a school or district” are seeing positive outcomes regarding teacher satisfaction and retention. This empowerment is essential, allowing teachers to design their classroom work and tailor success for the diverse student bodies they encounter.

Dr. Thompson promotes the value of advisory groups and actionable feedback mechanisms. She emphasized creating a “safe space for teachers to feel comfortable sharing the information superintendents need to be able to change the trajectory.” The sentiment here echoes the broader need for not just a listening ear but a responsive system that values the input of its educators.

Initiatives that lighten teachers’ loads are effective. Elia points out the need for superintendents to ask their teachers, “What are five things that I can take off your plate so that you can be as productive as possible?” This strategy resonates with the needs of educators, addressing the often overwhelming burden that can come with the profession.

Dr. Thompson and Elia touched on the success of community recognition and support for educators, alongside the pivotal role of mental and physical health provisions in fostering a nurturing work environment. Such support, as Thompson described, is about ensuring educators are “physically and mentally ready to accept their students when they enter class,” acknowledging the profound impact of wellbeing on educational outcomes.

Section summary
  • Empowering educators through participatory decision-making processes can lead to increased satisfaction and retention.
  • Creating mechanisms for actionable feedback and a supportive community helps teachers feel valued and heard, contributing to a more positive and sustainable teaching experience.
  • Ensuring the wellbeing of educators is paramount, as their physical and mental readiness directly correlates with their ability to nurture and educate students effectively.

The role of superintendents

The evolving educational landscape demands innovative approaches to fostering a conducive work environment for educators. School superintendents are finding themselves at the heart of this transformation, tasked with the critical role of not just managing but inspiring and retaining talented teachers.

In a profession marked by high turnover (10% in 2021/224), it’s essential to understand what keeps teachers committed to their roles. Dr. Thompson shared the proactive approach used in her district, which was simply to ask teachers why they stayed instead of conducting exit surveys when it was already too late. She added, “Utilizing this data, we addressed the culture and environment, making it a place where teachers want to work and feel like they’re making a difference.” This shift from a reactive to a proactive stance is an excellent example of how superintendents can keep their fingers on the pulse and make changes when they still have the opportunity.

Superintendents are not only administrators but also culture shapers. They have the power to mold an environment that honors dignity and respect. “When you have happy employees,” Thompson noted, “they go out and tell others about their profession, which becomes contagious.” Contentment among teachers can lead to a cycle of positive reinforcement and advocacy for the profession, which will ultimately bring better outcomes for students.

Elia echoed this sentiment and added a layer of support for new teachers. Reflecting on her time as superintendent in Hillsborough, she said, “We found support for teachers increased when we put in place certain factors like mentorship.” In Hillsborough, Elia paired each new teacher with an experienced mentor, a strategy that not only provided support but also created a sense of belonging and community among educators.

Furthermore, structured support through initiatives like new teacher orientation programs is invaluable. Elia stated, “We extended support beyond the first year, building into the third year, allowing teachers to gather, share strategies, and build camaraderie.” Such structured, ongoing support is crucial in nurturing the growth and satisfaction of teachers, especially when 35% of teachers say they are likely to quit within the next two years5.

In discussing the multifaceted role of superintendents, it’s essential to acknowledge the link between teacher satisfaction and the effectiveness of their immediate supervisors — the school principals. Superintendents must ensure their principals inspire excellence while maintaining a genuinely supportive relationship, promoting job satisfaction and, ultimately, retention.

Section summary
  • Transitioning from a reactive to a proactive approach by addressing workplace environment issues before teachers resign is critical for teacher satisfaction and retention.
  • Strategies such as providing mentorship to new teachers and extending support programs beyond the first year increase teacher commitment and create a supportive community.
  • The role of superintendents extends to ensuring school principals are effective leaders who inspire excellence and support teachers.

The role of principals

“People don’t leave businesses; they leave their managers.” Principals, as the immediate managers of teachers, are pivotal in retention. They must be adept not only in administrative duties but also in people management. As the vanguards of educational morale, principals have a profound impact on the welfare of their staff.

During Dr. Thompson’s time as superintendent, she observed that “principals with positive reputations can always fill the openings at their school.” She explained that schools are not a vacuum, but rather, teachers are communicative and part of a community that extends beyond the campus. Dr. Thompson noted that teachers “follow principals they admire anywhere,” so it’s essential to “take successful people as principals and have them mentor other principals.”

Elia added that there are “savvy superintendents who are starting to realize that they’ve got to not take their great principals out of schools, but have them share their successful methodologies with other principals.”

Section summary
  • Effective principals are crucial for staff retention due to their influence on school morale and welfare.
  • Teachers are attracted to and tend to stay at schools led by principals with positive reputations, as they are part of a broader communicative community.
  • To improve school leadership, successful principals should mentor their peers rather than being moved from their schools, sharing their successful management practices.

Education leadership is as much about supporting and valuing our educators as it is about strategic planning and policy implementation. As we pivot from discussion to action, the task ahead for school leaders and communities is straightforward: cultivate an environment where teachers are empowered, supported, and recognized as the foundation of our children’s future. It’s a call to action for all of us involved in education to champion change, foster resilience, and rekindle the passion for teaching that has dimmed for too many. Let us move forward with intention, knowing that the success of our educational system hinges on the wellbeing and stability of those at its heart — the teachers.


¹ Will, Madeline, Teachers Are Not Okay, Even Though We Need Them to Be: Administrators must think about teacher well-being differently, Education Week, September 14, 2021,,Research%20Center%20conducted%20in%20July

² Educators for Excellence, Voice From the Classroom: A Survey of America’s Educators 2022,

³ Diliberti, Melissa Kay, and Heather L. Schwartz, Educator Turnover Has Markedly Increased, but Districts Have Taken Actions to Boost Teacher Ranks: Selected Findings from the Sixth American School District Panel Survey. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2023,

4 Will, Madeline, Teachers Are Stressed and Disrespected, But Happier Than Last Year: 7 Takeaways From New Poll, Education Week, May 22, 2023,

5  Koenig, Rebecca, What It Takes to Recruit Future Teachers During the Pandemic, EdSurge, February 7, 2022,