There is one common denominator in why some public-school teachers left their profession early both before COVID-19 and during it, according to a new analysis.
About three-quarters of former teachers — including those who quit in the two years leading up to the pandemic and those who quit after March of 2020 — indicated that their jobs were “always” or “often” stressful during their most recent year of teaching, according to a new RAND Corporation survey of almost 1,000 ex-public school teachers.
One-third of former teachers across both groups deemed work “always” stressful.
Stress, in fact, emerged as the most common overall reason for respondents’ leaving public-school teaching: 43% said that the stress and disappointments of teaching weren’t worth it, nearly twice the share who left due to insufficient pay (24%).
“ Teachers younger than 40 who left early due to the pandemic were particularly likely to attribute the move to their pay not justifying the stress and the risks. ”
As it has with so many other aspects of life, the pandemic appeared to make this situation worse: “At least for some teachers, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have exacerbated what were high stress levels pre-pandemic by forcing teachers to, among other things, work more hours and navigate an unfamiliar remote environment, often with frequent technical problems,” the authors said.
Meanwhile, about 44% of teachers who left voluntarily pre-retirement during COVID-19 cited the pandemic as the primary reason for their exit.
Among teachers’ COVID-19-related reasons for quitting public-school teaching, of which respondents could select multiple options, “the pay wasn’t sufficient to merit the risks or stress” was most commonly cited at 64%. One in five teachers who left due to COVID-19 also cited stress as their “single biggest” pandemic-related reason for quitting.
Public-school teachers are feeling burned out
Teachers younger than 40 who left early due to the pandemic were particularly likely to attribute the move to their pay not justifying the stress and risks, as well as to child-care responsibilities. Teachers aged 40 and up, meanwhile, were most likely to have left due to a health condition that put them at heightened COVID-19 risk.
The survey, conducted in December, included responses from 527 teachers who left in the two years preceding the pandemic, as well as 431 teachers who departed after the pandemic was declared in March 2020.
Responses came from former public-school teachers who were members of the RAND American Teacher Panel. While that broader sample is nationally representative, the authors noted, “this teacher leaver survey is a self-selected group of former teachers,” and it’s hard to say how well this survey represents the national population of teachers who left the profession.
Many teachers who chose to leave their profession prematurely “could be lured back,” the paper noted: More than half who left because of COVID-19 said they would be willing to return after most students and staff were vaccinated against the virus.
“ The report on teacher attrition came amid worries of an impending teacher shortage. ”
The report on teacher attrition came amid worries of an impending teacher shortage. That issue, just like teaching-related stress, also predated the pandemic. School officials in states like Illinois, Michigan and North Carolina expressed pre-pandemic concerns about teacher shortages, though it’s difficult to generalize those trends nationally, MarketWatch previously reported.
The number of students enrolling in programs to become teachers, meanwhile, has fallen over the past decade.
It’s too soon to tell whether COVID-19 will result in an increase in the overall number of teachers leaving the profession, the RAND report’s authors wrote, though “early signs indicate that it will, which will put additional strain on the already daunting prospects for the 2021–2022 school year.”
The survey results don’t show a change so far between the profile of teachers who left leading up to the pandemic and those who left during it, they said.
While some pandemic-related problems may eventually fade, they added, “that still leaves the persistent structural problems that likely will outlast the pandemic unless there are changes to the teaching profession,” such as long hours, lack of schedule flexibility, low pay and poor work climate for some teachers.
“Collectively, these problems generate stress for teachers,” they said.