This is part one in a two-part series. The second part focuses on potential solutions to challenges faced by the teaching profession. Sign up for Chalkbeat’s free weekly newsletter to get these stories and more delivered straight to your inbox.
Howard McLean is worried.
The superintendent of a rural school district 50 miles outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, McLean is not sure how he is going to be able to fill every classroom next year with a qualified teacher. He’s considering some drastic alternatives, like having a certified teacher instruct students virtually while an aide supervises the class in person.
The issue is not altogether new for Anson County schools, which as a high-poverty rural community is doubly disadvantaged in the hunt for talent. But McLean said the challenges have heightened since the pandemic destabilized schools and demoralized teachers. He faces a daunting equation: More teachers are leaving and fewer are applying for open positions.
“The pandemic created a perfect storm for us,” he said. “The results are: public education, we’re in trouble.”
Dire warnings of teacher shortages are nothing new, especially during the pandemic, and are sometimes overblown. But a confluence of warning signs suggest that the country is at a post-pandemic inflection point.
More teachers really have left the classroom, according to a new Chalkbeat analysis of data, the most thorough national look at teacher turnover to date. A number of them, including North Carolina, saw more teachers exit last year than any time in recent memory. Teachers who remain appear demoralized and stressed. Fewer young people want to join the profession. And there are long-standing shortages in certain subjects and schools.
“We are in an acutely serious and severe moment for the health of the teaching profession,” said Matthew Kraft, a Brown University researcher who co-authored a recent study titled “The Rise and Fall of the Teaching Profession.” The study showed that across an array of metrics, the profession was “at or near its lowest levels in 50 years.”
These problems could get better as the pandemic recedes and policymakers respond, or they could shape a generation of teachers and their students.
More teachers left the classroom last year, new data confirms
But more recently the story changed, as data has trickled in in the last few months. Chalkbeat obtained numbers from 15 states: Every single one showed an increase in teachers exiting the classroom, compared to the year before the pandemic. A number of individual districts have also reported jumps in teachers leaving.
In some cases this change was small, but in many states, more teachers left than any other year on record.
Consider Texas, a large state that now employs over 370,000 teachers. In the decade before the pandemic, just over 10% of the state’s teachers (35,000 people, give or take) departed each year. The numbers were strikingly consistent. But going into this most recent school year, turnover jumped to 13.4%. That meant the state lost nearly 50,000 teachers, by far the highest since at least 2007, the last year on record.
Colorado, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Washington all also saw more teachers leave than at any point on record. So did Iowa and Virginia after the summer of 2021. (More recent data in those two states is not available.)
“We were surprised to see that change coming in now, a couple years out,” said Sarah Fuller, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, who co-authored a report on the state’s turnover rate.
Bailey Fern, who taught elementary school in the Denver area until last year, said it wasn’t one thing that pushed her out of the classroom. It was the constant demands of the job. It was the lockdown drills that made her fearful of a school shooting. It was the feeling that she wasn’t equipped to give her students the support that they needed.
She recalls one incident when a student had an emotional breakdown in the middle of class. “He lost it. He was crying really, really hard. And then I started crying,” she said. “I was like I don’t know how to help him. All the social workers were gone and not available.”
“It just wrecked me,” she said. Fern left teaching after five years and now works in IT at a nonprofit. “And I love it — much, much better.”
Teacher turnover has a disruptive effect on schools. When a teacher like Fern leaves, students lose a trusted face, the school loses institutional knowledge, and the remaining teachers often shuffle between grades. Not surprisingly, researchers have linked the loss of teachers to lower student test scores.
Teacher morale has dropped sharply since the pandemic
Teachers have been experiencing higher stress and lower morale since the start of the pandemic, according to multiple surveys.
There’s been a steep drop in teachers saying they’re enthusiastic about their work or that the stress of the job is worth it, for instance. Nearly three-quarters said that the 2021-22 school year was one of the worst in their careers. Another survey from 2021 found that teachers had experienced higher levels of job-related stress than most other workers.
Some teachers say they’re struggling with more student misbehavior and classroom disruptions. Others feel that they’ve been villainized in the political discourse. Some are frustrated at what they see as a rising workload.
Have things gotten any better of late? Perhaps. A RAND poll found that teachers’ job stress had dropped back down to pre-pandemic levels, but was still higher than other workers. A recent Education Week survey found that 20% of teachers were very satisfied with their job. This was an increase from 12% last year, but it was still much lower than in prior years.
Carrie Dennis, an eighth-grade science teacher in San Antonio, Texas, says she and colleagues have been much more stressed than usual. “This most recent school year was one of the harder ones coming back from COVID,” she said.
Students, she said, got used to laxer academic standards and doing school virtually. The transition has been tough for them and their teachers. Ultimately, Dennis said, teachers’ own struggles enter their classrooms. “The whole reason you get into this is to help others,” she said. “If you’re not good, you can’t help others.”
Higher stress also means teachers are taking more days off, which is then putting more of a load on colleagues, especially since there’s a shortage of substitutes.
The news is not all dire. One poll found that most teachers planned to stay in the classroom their whole career. Another recent survey found that most teachers were still glad that they went into teaching. Dennis counts herself in this group.
But would she recommend the profession to someone considering their options? It depends, and it would come with a warning. “It is a grueling schedule when we’re in session,” she said. “You have to be willing to struggle with these kids.”
Fewer people want to become teachers
Since 2006, the number of people earning a teaching license has plummeted — from over 320,000 to 215,000, according to an analysis of federal data by Kraft and Melissa Arnold Lyon, a professor at University at Albany. A separate analysis showed that the number of people training to become teachers has fallen from a peak of 700,000 in 2009 to just over 400,000 in 2020.
Data through 2020 suggests this decline in teacher supply has stopped but not come close to rebounding. There’s little indication that it will bounce back any time soon. Surveys show that fewer college and high school students are interested in teaching careers. There’s even been a persistent drop in the share of parents who want their kids to go into teaching. Last year, just 37% of parents said they wanted their children to go into teaching, the lowest since the question was first asked more than five decades ago.
Why do fewer people want to be teachers? Researchers don’t have definitive answers, though many point out that teacher salaries have fallen further and further behind those of other college-educated workers.
Whatever the reason, the results are concerning. “If a friend says, are you worried about the prestige and desirability of the teaching profession? My answer would be yes,” said Dan Goldhaber, an education researcher at the University of Washington.
In extreme cases, this might mean schools do not hire as many teachers as they might like or fill jobs with long-term substitutes. In North Carolina, for instance, far more teachers left than were hired last year.
Texas, on the other hand, was able to hire more than enough teachers to replace those who left last year (despite the higher exit rate). Even then, the decline in supply is worrying. School leaders nationally have reported having a harder time filling empty teaching roles in 2020 compared to 2011. States might then lower their standards for who becomes a teacher, and schools might end up hiring someone who isn’t a good fit.
Hiring challenges could get better as COVID relief money runs out and schools have less money to bring on new staff. But the problem could remain if higher turnover rates persist.
Some schools and subjects have longed faced major shortages — and continue to
The challenges facing the teaching profession are not spread evenly across subjects and schools, though.
Schools face persistent challenges hiring in certain subject areas — typically special education, English as a second language, math, and science. One national survey from 2020 found that school officials were two to three times as likely to say they struggled to fill open positions in those areas, compared to social studies, English, and general elementary education.
High-poverty schools also face particular hurdles in attracting and keeping staff. Teachers in those schools leave more frequently, creating harmful churn. This problem is not new. A recent analysis in Virginia found that the highest-poverty schools lost more teachers than the most affluent schools all eight years before the pandemic and in the years after. A study in Washington state showed an identical pattern.
“If it’s a crisis now because attrition is up,” said Goldhaber, “well then it’s always a crisis when you look at the differential between high- and low-poverty schools.”
This helps explain why McLean, the North Carolina superintendent, is worried that his high-needs, rural district will bear the brunt of the teaching staffing challenges in the state. “We’re competing for the same teachers,” he said. “Somebody’s going to be left out.”
Matt Barnum is a national reporter covering education policy, politics, and research. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.