“These kids are doomed”, isn’t something you want to hear when enquiring about the current state of education, but it is the opinion of high school mathematics teacher Oliver R. Tingling. Tingling isn’t alone; teacher mental health is at an all-time low as COVID continues to push educators to the brink and out of the industry. But the cracks were prevalent long before the virus arrived.
Overworked, underpaid, exhausted, and depressed. That’s the current state of affairs for almost 70% of teachers, according to new research released by EdTech company, Kami, today. With numbers like these, it should come as no surprise that almost 50% of teachers are either considering leaving the profession or doubting their future as an educator. It’s particularly devastating when you consider the passion and dedication the industry requires; those who once saw education as their calling, are now calling to surrender.
Educator resignation rates are up by 148%, a figure lost amongst statistics of the current “Great Resignation”. But the numbers for teachers aren’t simply the product of a global movement; they’re spurred by a broken system that, without immediate action, will only continue to worsen.
The conditions were set for a perfect storm. Take a flawed hierarchy governing an already-depleted workforce; add in Omicron, funding cuts, and divisive strategies (like Virginia’s teacher tip line), and you’re left with a cyclone of chaos heading straight for our classrooms – trapping everyone inside.
The issue is complex and too far gone for a silver-bullet solution. However, one thing remains clear: if we don’t start listening and acting accordingly, teachers’ mental health will be the latest global pandemic on our hands.
Wellbeing well beyond breaking point
Belsa Rios, a 15-year teaching veteran, recently walked away from the job and students she once dedicated her life to, because the demand for her time and energy became too much.
“It just became very overwhelming. You have to understand that there comes a breaking point.” – Rios
This is a classic case of burnout. Rios’ resignation was just one of 1.35 million across private, state, and local education since the start of the COVID pandemic. From day one, teachers have been expected to maintain learning standards and results; all while battling school closures, staff shortages, and a lack of remote learning resources. Of course, all these sacrifices go unnoticed in an era where stress and exhaustion have become the norm.
Teacher resilience is flatlining; by the end of 2021, one in two teachers reported having no time to engage with family or friends outside of work.
“Teachers are already burnt out by spring break as it’s just ‘go go go’. But now, with the pandemic, it’s even worse. They’re having to plan months or maybe even a whole quarter ahead so that kids without internet access don’t miss out.” – Youngs
Former middle-school teacher Sophie Youngs has experienced first-hand the impact COVID has had on teachers. “It’s stressful. Every day you go in, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Every day you go to work, you risk bringing it home to your family. It was already bad with gun violence and practicing lockdowns. Then you add in something you can’t even see that’s attacking you.”
Over time, the risks associated with teaching have risen, while the rewards have all but disappeared. Regardless, teachers have fought tooth and nail to provide the best for their students, now they need someone to do the same for them.
Teachers need allies, not enemies
An ongoing struggle exacerbated by COVID—and yet another attack on teacher wellbeing—is the erosion of trust between teachers, parents, and administrators. Parents aren’t trusting teachers to do a good job; administrators aren’t trusting teachers to get the job done; districts and Governors aren’t trusting teachers to supply the right curriculum.
“And now they’re trying to pass legislation where parents can also see the curriculum and parents can request different things from the teachers. When do you want me to teach? I either cater to the parents or I cater to the students – which one would you like me to do, ‘cause at this point, I can’t do both?” – Rios
Teachers have been filling gaps in the education system for so long, it’s become an unwritten clause in the job description – now, doing it all is seen as doing the bare minimum. Yet it’s done with a smile, as teachers selflessly put aside their own needs for the needs of their students – even if that means paying for student resources out of their own pockets. And the unreasonable expectations don’t end there.
“It got to the point where it became our job to discipline the kids, our job to be counselors and parents, and if we had snacks we would gladly give the kids our food because they are hungry.” – Rios
While facing immense pressure from every angle, it’s coming from above too. One of the biggest issues with the current system is that decisions are being made by those who haven’t taught in decades—let alone through a pandemic—and can’t grasp the reality of the situation.
“All of the folks who are higher up, who are making these decisions, they are not in the trenches. They’re not there to really have a say, they just have the power – and they think ‘Well because you’re getting this chump change to be a teacher, you don’t really hold a lot of water, why do I need to listen to you?” explains Tingling.
Despite his dedication to his students, Tingling is in the process of leaving the classroom for a more administrative role. He sees a need for more support and knows he can have a bigger impact by moving onto the sidelines to support the younger, up-and-coming teachers.
“I want to pass the baton to this younger generation of folks who are coming along, who are growing up now in this pandemic, and are already behind – they have such a huge challenge up against them.” – Tingling
The irreversible impact on education
Kami’s Teacher Wellbeing Report clearly highlights just how bleak the current situation is. It found that 75% of teachers surveyed have thought about leaving the teaching profession, with one in four thinking about it regularly or always.
This should be sounding alarm bells, as the incentives to enter the teaching profession are at an all-time low. Students pursuing a role in education not only have to go through a rigorous and expensive process, but the waning light at the end of the tunnel is an underpaid salary – on top of the personal sacrifices that come with boundless working hours.
With a lack of fresh, motivated talent, and unprecedented sick-leave requests, schools are scrambling to find stand-in teachers, often resulting in non-certified substitutes.
“It becomes a catch 22; ‘Don’t come to work if you’re sick’, ‘But we don’t have anyone here you need to come to work’. ‘Don’t come to work if you need to take a break’, ‘We don’t have anyone here you need to come to work’.” – Youngs
It’s a basic equation: unwell and overworked teachers, plus no support, equals a drop in student success. In Rios’ state of Texas, students can make up for lost grades with accelerated courses – another activity teachers are willingly sacrificing their time for. Rios agreed that it’s no more than an “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” approach that simply isn’t working.
Even with catch-up classes, experienced teachers like Tingling are only just getting through two-thirds of the curriculum – sometimes less. Yet these same students are still expected to pass their grade and move onto the next level while having missed out on some valuable learning.
“Kids who really do care about going to that top school and trying to be competitive, they’re going to care about not having those foundational things that are going to be on SATs… especially if you want to go Ivy League.” – Tingling
Knowing just how much is at stake, Tingling describes how teachers feel responsible for the futures of these students, often going above and beyond to provide the learnings lost through the COVID pandemic. It’s taxing, and potentially life-threatening, with Tingling citing a rise in students on suicide watch and increased demand on school counselors in his community.
To care for kids, we need to care for teachers
The connection is clear: To allow students to thrive, teachers need to do more than just survive. Without consistency, students are unable to make strong emotional connections with their teachers.
“They say the kids need to be at school so we can see when they’re being neglected, and give them the support that they need. But that’s not happening because we can’t make relationships with these kids – they’re coming in and then they are going out on quarantine, or the teacher is out on quarantine and they are being shoved in with a bunch of teachers that don’t know them.” – Youngs
Since teachers don’t have time for their own mental health, they’re unable to find the energy to develop crucial relationships with their students; without regular one-to-one sessions, students are missing out on the quality time that’s key to supporting their mental health. And the cycle continues.
To break out of this, many teachers are taking a bet on themselves and moving to adjacent roles – often in training or EdTech. This allows them to continue to have a positive impact on students by helping teachers learn and develop new skills.
“I can help more kids if I help more teachers” – Youngs
It’s a prospect much more enticing, as roles outside of the classroom or behind the scenes often offer more balance, freedom, and as Rios puts it, “time to chew my food”. Now working for Kami, she’s re-energized by the idea of having a career that allows her to help students, while also allowing time for a personal life.
COVID or no COVID, teachers are reluctantly leaving the industry they love due to unresolved issues that continue to be ignored. They want this failing system to be acknowledged, they want solutions, and above all, they want to be heard. Change won’t happen overnight, but a start needs to be made if we want to prevent the pandemic that is The Teaching Crisis.