Public schools are hemorrhaging teachers.
And they have been for almost 50 years.
Although Covid played a large part in the teacher burnout crisis, the rush of teachers dropping out of the profession is simply the boiling-over point of a crisis that began brewing decades ago.
Christopher Morphew, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Education, said:
This is a pipeline issue. There’s been a trend of dwindling enrollment for teacher education programs for 10-plus years, and then two years of Covid pushed a lot of teachers out of the field. Now it’s being labeled as a crisis and people are paying attention.
When did this pipeline problem of education begin? How has it progressed? And what on earth are we supposed to do about it?
The system has abandoned teachers
To understand the beginnings of teacher burnout, we must first understand the beginnings of public school itself.
Public schools were never intended to invest in kids. They are an institution to churn out cogs for an industrial machine; an effort to produce adults who would be compliant, obedient, and fearful of questioning authority – the rule-following robots HR managers were (and sometimes still are) looking for.
Public schools were never intended to invest in teachers, either.
The system took a turn for the worst in the 1960s, when the independent flame of local schools was snuffed out by distant, bureaucratic authorities. These authorities wanted to pursue an even more top-down approach to education and erase the independent identities of schools.
School districts began losing valuable collaboration with students and parents as they were governed from afar – and teachers began losing control over their own classrooms.
It is no surprise, then, that we saw a drastic drop in the pursuit of education degrees, as teachers realized they were stepping even further into the shackles of bureaucracy.
In 1970, 21% of undergraduate students majored in education. In 1985, that number plunged to a mere 9%.
Standardization, it seems, was not a fan favorite among teachers. Then, of course, came the nail in the coffin. Common Core.
In the 2010s, Common Core was introduced as:
a federally devised, standardized rubric of what every teacher nationwide should to teach every kid at exactly the same age. Teachers were instructed to teach only the standards, never beyond them….Teachers should not be guided willy-nilly by what students are actually anxious to learn.
A centrally controlled, curriculum-first classroom is a zero-sum outcome for both sides of the podium.
It is not math, science, nor language arts at fault here, but rather, the one-size-fits-all standardization that makes kids, parents, and teachers alike want to pull their hair out at the roots.
And by 2019, the percentage of students pursuing a degree in education dropped to just 4%.
While standardization was a universally unsavory idea, there were many other factors leading to teachers losing interest in teaching – salary, specifically.
Teacher salaries and moonlighting
From 1996 to 2021, average weekly pay for college graduates in professions other than teaching increased $445.
During the same time range, the average weekly pay for teachers increased just $29.
It’s worth noting that while teacher salaries have remained stagnant, school expenditures have spiked significantly. What are we investing in, if not our teachers?
Due to low salaries, teachers often work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. This is known as “moonlighting” – working as a teacher by day, and an Uber driver, waitress, or Walmart cashier by night.
Although few studies have been conducted on teacher moonlighting, we did see a rise in moonlighting teachers from 20% in 1990 to 33% in 2001. And research shows that moonlighting has a negative impact on teacher’s overall health, wellbeing, and performance.
A former public school teacher-slash-waitress, Eleanor Blair, even published a book on the dark underbelly of being a teacher: “By the Light of the Silvery Moon: Teacher Moonlighting and the Dark Side of Teachers’ Work.”
On the topic of poor teacher pay, Christopher Morphew said:
I don’t think you can ask people to take out $50,000 in loans and then teach for $40,000 a year. Historically, we’ve accepted this fallacy of ‘They’ll do this out of the goodness of their hearts because they love the kids so much,’ but that thinking doesn’t cut it anymore.
Salaries are stagnant, administrative pressure is up, and student achievement is down.
The public school system has relied on teachers’ passion for kids for years, but the profession has become so exhausting that this passion can sustain the system no longer.
While the number of teachers entering the system has been dwindling for decades, the number of teachers exiting the system has only accelerated.
Teachers are exiting public school…quickly
From 2020 to 2022, 600,000 educators left the public school system.
As COVID-19 swept through the halls of public schools, “school” consisted of hours-long Zoom calls from home – a nightmare for both teachers and their students. Hopefully, the return of post-pandemic normalcy would draw everyone back into the halls, right?
This was not the case.
Teachers who returned from the pandemic experienced an incredible lack of resources and a workload that was far above their pay grade.
NCES Commissioner Peggy G. Carr said:
Public schools report they are struggling with a variety of staffing issues, including widespread vacancies, and a lack of prospective teachers. These issues are disrupting school operations. Schools have resorted to using more teachers as well as non-teaching staff outside of their intended duties, increasing class sizes, sharing teachers and staff with other schools, and curtailing student transportation due to staff shortages.
Exhausted, underpaid, overworked teachers.
Future teachers are discouraged by what’s happening within the system and are losing interest in K-12 teaching altogether, which only further complicates the issue.
Theresa Montano, an education professor at Cal State Northridge, admitted that her students view K-12 teaching as “uninteresting.”
They were the ones who say, ‘I remember my teachers. They had a manual, they opened it up, and they taught from it.’ All they knew were teachers who read out of these books, and there was no creativity. They’re saying they want to be creative.
The pandemic did not initiate teacher burnout. It simply exposed and exacerbated the issue.
So, what can we do about it?
Teach like John Keating
In the famous movie Dead Poets Society, John Keating is a new English teacher at an elite boarding school steeped in tradition, status, and high standards.
Keating immediately notices that his students are stumbling beneath the pressure to perform at an extremely high academic level.
His solution is to take an unorthodox approach to teaching.
For example, he encourages his students to stand on their desks as they read so they can see life differently. He tells them to rip out the introduction of their poetry books, which explains a mathematical formula for writing poetry. He has them spend an entire class period inventing their own way of walking to spark their individualism. He constantly encourages his students to “make their lives extraordinary.”
The result is that Keating’s students begin to love learning again. The stress of test scores and standardization falls away as each taps into their inner child and becomes voraciously curious about the world around them.
This is the revival that teachers and students both need.
Where teachers (and students) can find solace
We must remember that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.
Decades of standardization, stagnant salaries, and “administrangling” – combined with the wakeup call of Covid exposing the inner workings of a broken system – have shown that it is time for a shift.
John Taylor Gatto, an American author and schoolteacher, once said:
Institutional goals, however sane and well-intentioned, are unable to harmonize deeply with the uniqueness of individual human goals.
More standardization and more institutional regulation will not alleviate teacher burnout. We cannot “regulate our way to educational excellence.”
What we can do is rebel against the system entirely.
Teachers can pivot to alternative education models or educational jobs outside of traditional teaching to fulfill their passion for kids and actually use their expertise in teaching.
The truth is that the teachers who have the most positive impact on their students are the ones who don’t do what they’re “supposed” to do – they do what benefits their students.
The best teachers harness the ethos of John Keating: a subversion of regulations and mandates and teaching from manuals to inspire kids to stand on desks and make their lives extraordinary.