A noble profession has reduced teachers to being overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated – and leaving education in droves.
Public school teachers are in the midst of a burnout crisis, and it’s far more serious than the school system is letting on.
In January of 2020, there were around 10.6 million educators in the public school system. By February of 2022, 600,000 of those educators had abandoned ship. Almost 50% of new teachers quit within the first five years – an alarmingly fast rate compared to other industries.
Teacher attrition is becoming an increasingly severe issue. The achievement and wellbeing of our teachers is, of course, directly related to the achievement and wellbeing of our kids, not to mention the function of education at large.
If teachers are so passionate about helping kids, then why are they mass exiting the system?
I asked my public school teacher friend (for the sake of privacy, we’ll call her Sarah) this question. Although her greatest joy is working with kids, Sarah decided to heed her coworkers advice to “get out while she still can” because “education is literally falling apart.”
At the end of the school year, Sarah is making a speedy exit from public education after just two years of teaching. Her goal is to get into private counseling so she can work directly with kids – without the unsavory side effects of bureaucratic constraints.
In our interview, Sarah sheds light on her personal experience within the system:
- the long-term damages of standardization for kids
- teacher expectations vs. reality
- how higher-ups in education just “sit there and get money” while teachers struggle
- the crucial role that parents play in their kid’s education
- what the future of education looks like
The following conversation with Sarah gives us an inside look into what it’s actually like inside public education (and it’s not pretty).
Tell me about your role as a teacher.
“I’m a sixth grade EC teacher, which stands for Exceptional Children: kids who have learning disabilities or autism, and they need more help than a GenEd setting.
What I do is called “co-teaching.”
I teach with a math teacher in a GenEd setting and if I notice a student falling behind or failing due to a disability, I can pull them to my classroom and work with them one on one or in a smaller group instruction, depending on what their goals are.
This personalized learning is really helpful for kids.
I’ve seen so many of my kids grow because I’ve just taken the time to sit down with them and help them do the simple things, like multiplication or reading out loud.”
What made you want to get into teaching?
“Honestly, I struggled a lot in school growing up.
I grew up with severe ADHD and anxiety and I always felt really stupid in the classroom. I believe one thing in particular really ruined me for the rest of my life, and it was how classes were divided into A, B, and C groups – A students were in A class, B students in B class, and C students in C class.
I was always in C class, and that led me to believe that I just wasn’t as smart as all my friends in A class. This affected me for the rest of my life.
I got into teaching because I didn’t want kids to feel that way growing up.”
What were some expectations you had going into teaching that turned out to be different in reality?
“I expected to get way more resources and help.
I have a great personal mentor and nice administration, but they’re not the state. The county pretty much tells us:
“Okay, you have to do this and we’re going to give you one training on it and then you have to do it with credibility. And on top of that, you have to give instruction and do this, this, this, and this, and if you don’t, you’re a bad teacher.”
For example, they recently gave me this textbook called TransMath.
It’s supposed to help EC kids build knowledge of basic things, and it slowly builds upon itself. I got one training on it and then randomly had to hop on a Zoom call, where they said, “Okay, now show us how you’re applying this in the classroom.”
On top of this, the kids have the SpecialEd stuff we work on as well as their GenEd stuff.
The kids are only in the classroom for one hour. One hour. I do not have time to do this on top of teaching them and helping them with their homework.
See, the county doesn’t come into the classroom. The county stays up in the county and doesn’t do anything. They just sit there and get money.
I thought teaching would be a lot more about actually teaching kids and getting to know them. Instead, it’s pretty much just the county telling me:
“Make sure you do everything we say and make sure that this classroom of 30 kids isn’t disrupting each other and make sure that you’re disciplining them. Oh, and you’re not just their teacher, you’re also their counselor and their parent. Good luck.”
It’s exhausting. I just don’t have the capacity for it anymore.
I also expected parents to be more involved in helping their kids “buy in.”
I thought kids would be excited to learn, but that’s just not the case. COVID absolutely destroyed education. Kids lost so much instruction and guidance during the pandemic that they have no idea how to behave in a social setting. And some parents expect school to completely parent their kids.
The biggest thing for me is that if parents aren’t teaching their kid grit, resilience, to keep working hard even when things are tough – things like that – then the kid isn’t going to do that at school.
Something needs to change in the education system so that kids will have that “buy in” even if they’re not getting it at home.”
What do you think that change is?
“At this point, I don’t even know what a solution is.
I stay awake at night wondering, “What is our education system coming to?”
I genuinely believe at one point that free education is just going to be gone, and the people who can’t afford private education will be left to figure it out on their own. It freaks me out.
Anyway, let’s see…
First, I think the school boards and the county need to stop trying so hard to people-please.
A lot of parents think their kid is perfect and they aren’t willing to teach their kid about responsibility. So, if a kid gets sent to the principal’s office, the first question out of a parent’s mouth is, “What did the teacher do?” And because the board doesn’t want to upset the parents, the teachers get the brunt of it.
I think teachers would be more motivated if they were paid more.
I think kids need to be tested less. Way less. The whole reason there’s testing in the first place is because the education system has turned into a business, and the higher-ups just want money.
There’s more, of course, but this is what comes to mind first.”
Are the teachers around you having similar experiences?
“Oh my gosh, yes.
Teachers talk about it all the time. I’m only a second year teacher, so older teachers will tell me, “Get out while you can. Education is falling apart.”
Are you looking to completely leave education?
“I really want to get into counseling – not school counseling! Private counseling.
There’s a huge mental health crisis, and I really think that social media and the internet are the reason.
Kids have terrible attention spans; they’re doomscrolling Twitter; they’re seeing other people live “perfect” lives; they’re seeing terrible, terrible news all the time, and it’s leading to depression and anxiety.
I really want to work with middle schoolers and high schoolers. I love this age. I just have such a heart for kids. I love knowing about their life. I love laughing with them. They’re hilarious, and wonderful to talk to.
The teaching aspect just becomes too much when I’m pulled in five different directions at once.
But with counseling, I can work with them directly on their mental health and give them coping skills to take with them when they are at school.”
Are other teachings trying to pivot within the industry, or are they leaving completely?
“Pretty much everyone I know is leaving education completely because they’re so burnt out.
Most of them are going corporate: business, marketing, all that. They’re basically willing to do anything except teach.”
Now that you’ve been on the inside of public education, how would you want to educate your future kids?
“I’m a big fan of Montessori and classical education.
Montessori is a great model for younger kids because kids learn by doing. It’s a great way for them to learn about the world around them.
As they get older, I love the classical model. Honestly, I wish every single public school would take on the classical model.
Kids learn the basics really well through chanting and singing in grammar school; then they head into logic school, where they’re starting to form their own opinions; then, they head into rhetoric school, where their opinions are forming and they learn how to articulate them.
Yeah, I definitely think classical is the way to go.”
What’s next for education?
It’s easy for us to read about the statistics of teachers leaving the system and shake our heads in horror and disappointment (“how terrible!”) before going back to scrolling Twitter.
But when sitting in front of a teacher on the front lines of this current burnout crisis, seeing an emotional blend of passion, dismay, and heartbreak bleed out of her, those cold and distant statistics become concrete and immediate.
My conversation with Sarah ended on a haunting note. She said:
“Hitler burned books for a reason. He didn’t want people to know what was going on. Knowledge truly is power. It’s important that people understand what’s going on in education.”
We know that public school is failing us: parents, teachers, and kids alike.
And if knowledge truly is power, then it’s not too late for us to stop the books from burning.