Sarah Caswell is stressed about her job every day. The science and special-education teacher in Philadelphia sees things going wrong everywhere she looks. Her high school students have been falling behind during the COVID-19 pandemic, the students and even the teachers in her school rarely wear masks, and a shooting just outside her school in October left a bystander dead and a 16-year-old student in the hospital with critical injuries.
She’s unhappy. But her solution isn’t to quit — it’s to get more involved.
“We need to double down,” Caswell said.
She isn’t the only one who thinks so. Throughout the past year, surveys and polls have pointed to an oncoming crisis in education: a mass exodus of unhappy K-12 teachers. Surveys from unions and education-research groups have warned that anywhere from one-fourth to more than half of U.S. educators were considering a career change.
Except that doesn’t seem to have happened. The most recent statistics, though still limited, suggest that while some districts are reporting significant faculty shortages, the country overall is not facing a sudden teacher shortage. Any staffing shortages for full-time K-12 teachers appear far less severe and widespread than those for support staff like substitute teachers, bus drivers and paraprofessionals, who are paid less and encounter more job instability.
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In a female-dominated profession, these numbers notably contrast trends showing that women in particular have been leaving their jobs at high rates throughout COVID-19. While labor force participation for women dropped significantly at the start of the pandemic, and still remains about 2 percentage points below pre-pandemic levels, teachers, by and large, seem to be staying at their jobs.
So, why have the doomsday scenarios not come true? There are many explanations — and the ways they overlap tell us something about the state of American schools, the inner workings of America’s economy and the way gender shapes the American workforce.
By many accounts, teachers have been particularly unhappy and stressed out about their jobs since the pandemic hit, first struggling to adjust to difficult remote-learning requirements and then returning to sometimes unsafe working environments. A nationally representative survey of teachers by RAND Education and Labor in late January and early February found that educators were feeling depressed and burned out from their jobs at higher rates than the general population. These rates were higher for female teachers, with 82 percent reporting frequent job-related stress compared with 66 percent of male teachers.
In the survey, 1 in 4 teachers — particularly Black teachers — reported that they were considering leaving their jobs at the end of the school year. Only 1 in 6 said the same before the pandemic.
Yet the data on teacher employment shows a system that is stretched, not shattered. In an EdWeek Research Center report released in October, a significant number of district leaders and principals surveyed — a little less than half — said that their district had struggled to hire a sufficient number of full-time teachers. This number paled in comparison, though, with the nearly 80 percent of school leaders who said they were struggling to find substitute teachers, the nearly 70 percent who said they were struggling to find bus drivers and the 55 percent who said they were struggling to find paraprofessionals.
More concrete jobs data suggests that school employees have largely stayed put. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer public education professionals quit their jobs between the months of April and August the past two years than did so during that same time immediately before the pandemic. In 2019, around 470,000 public-education employees quit their jobs between April and August compared with around 285,000 in the same period in 2020 and around 300,000 in 2021. Notably, this data includes both full-time teachers, support staff and higher-education employees, though teachers make up a majority of those included, says Chad Aldeman, policy director of Edunomics Lab, an education-policy research center, at Georgetown University.
Experts point to multiple reasons for this trend. While women have been disproportionately affected by mass COVID-related job losses, teachers haven’t faced the types of widespread layoffs experienced by workers in other professions — including other types of public school employees like bus drivers. Moreover, relative to other types of jobs disproportionately held by women, teachers have more job stability and receive more generous benefits. Educators often get into their work for specifically mission-driven purposes, too, making them uniquely positioned to decide to stay at their jobs, even during particularly stressful periods, experts say.
“The early indicators we have show turnover hasn’t spiked this year as we anticipated,” said Aldeman.
Instead, he said, data shows that the hiring crunch might be because there are more jobs to hire for. Vacancies have increased, suggesting that districts might be beefing up hiring after a year of uncertainty and an influx in federal aid. In other words, labor shortages are not totally attributable to increased turnover. And while early data on teacher retirements suggests that there might have been increases on the margins in some places, fears of mass retirements have not, so far, borne out.
Still, some local districts are hurting. Sasha Pudelski, the assistant director for policy and advocacy for the School Superintendents Association, has spoken to school leaders around the country who are facing teacher shortages, sometimes at crisis levels. But her sense is that these shortages are uneven depending on a district’s resource level and how well they’re able to pay. Based on what she’s heard from school district leaders, she suspects shortages are more acute in low-income communities with a lower tax base for teacher salaries, potentially causing a further shortage of educators from underrepresented groups, who disproportionately teach in these areas.
Indeed, a fall 2021 study of school staffing shortages throughout the state of Washington shows that high-poverty districts are facing significantly more staffing challenges than their more affluent counterparts. In some places, there are significant numbers of unfilled positions.
Study co-author Dan Goldhaber, who directs the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington and serves as a vice president of the American Institutes for Research, is cautious about drawing conclusions about such an abnormal year. But he believes that fears of teacher shortages in the past have been overblown, pointing to a study by the Wheelock Education Policy Center at Boston University, which found that teacher turnover rates in Massachusetts remained largely stable throughout the 2020-21 school year.
“I have seen three different waves of people talking about teacher shortages, and I’ve seen policy briefs come out that suggest there are going to be 100,000 to 200,000 slots that can’t be filled for teachers,” said Goldhaber. “Those kinds of dire predictions have never come to pass.”
Rather than lean out, a significant number of teachers have become more engaged in workplace issues amid the turbulence. Evan Stone, the co-founder and co-CEO of Educators for Excellence, points to recent union elections in multiple cities that have seen unprecedented turnout — in late September and early October, for example, nearly 16,000 United Teachers Los Angeles members participated in a vote over school reopening issues, while less than 6,000 voted in a 2020 election of union leaders.
Indeed, the American Federation of Teachers saw a slight increase in membership this year. Randi Weingarten, the union’s president, traveled across the country this fall to get a sense of how her members around the country were feeling.
“Every place I went, yes, there’s trepidation, a lot of agita over the effects of COVID, but there’s a real joy of people being back in school with their kids,” said Weingarten.
Still, this increase in union participation isn’t across the board. The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, has lost around 47,000 members, or about 1.6 percent of its membership, since this point last year, according to figures the NEA supplied to FiveThirtyEight and The Fuller Project. The organization attributes most of the losses to a decline in hiring at the higher-education level and decreased employment for public K-12 support staff.
For teachers like Caswell, the past two years have driven her to get more involved with her union, unhappy as she may be at her job and unsafe as she may feel. (A spokesperson for Philadelphia public schools notes that the district has an indoor mask mandate that all individuals are expected to follow.) For a single mother supporting three kids, quitting isn’t an option. Caswell can’t imagine switching schools within the same district either, even though she describes her work environment as miserable. Her students, some of whom she’s worked with for years, mean too much to her.
Instead, Caswell has started working to organize members in her school to represent their interests on a larger level and effect change.
“I can’t just walk out, though there’s definitely moments where I would have liked to,” said Caswell. “We’re tired. The demands keep coming, and we can’t do it all.”
She sees her advocacy as directly related to her gender, believing the profession receives less support and resources than it deserves because the composition of the workforce is largely female. Indeed, union representation, and the perks that come along with it, is something that other sectors facing massive shortages of female workers, like service and hospitality industries, don’t necessarily receive. As of 2017, about 70 percent of teachers participated in a union or professional association, according to federal data. By comparison, the same is true for only about 17 percent of nurses, another predominantly female workforce.
“Female professions are undervalued by society, and I think that’s part of the reason teachers are more densely organized than almost any other worker in America right now,” said Weingarten.
Still, plenty of teachers are quitting — and they’re quitting at least in part because of the pandemic. According to a survey by the RAND Corporation, almost half of former public school teachers who left the field since March 2020 cited COVID-19 as the driving factor. The pandemic exacerbated already stressful working conditions, forcing teachers to work longer hours and navigate a challenging transition to remote learning.
For some teachers, the decision to quit was easy. High school science educator Sara Mielke, who had recently returned to teaching after taking time off to stay home with children, quit her job several weeks into this school year over the lack of COVID-safety protocols in her Pflugerville, Texas, school.
“I felt like I couldn’t trust these people to prioritize safety in general,” said Mielke, who adds that she was chastised by school administrators for showing her students accurate information about vaccine effectiveness and enforcing the school’s mandatory mask policy. (The district did not respond to a request for comment.)
Other teachers say that while they wanted to leave, the prospect of saying goodbye to their students was too much. So, they decided to stay and push for changes.
That was part of the calculation for Kiffany Cody, a special-education teacher in Gwinnett County, Georgia. She took a stress-related medical leave of absence last year, in part because she felt her district was neglecting worker safety. But Cody returned to the classroom after several months, noting she is “really, really, really passionate about the kids.”
This year she’s banded together with other educators to speak out about unsafe working conditions and start tracking violations of district safety protocols. They’ve become close friends, a support group who feel determined to hold their district accountable and make schools kinder and safer for students and staff. (A representative from Gwinnett County schools said that the “district follows the CDC recommendations for schools regarding layered mitigation strategies, isolation, and quarantine guidelines to promote a healthy and safe environment for our students, staff, and visitors.”)
Every now and then, Cody looks at LinkedIn and ponders working in another field. But for now, she’s in it for the long haul — for her students.
“We’re trying to work within the system to do what we can to help the students,” said Cody. “We can leave and find jobs in other districts and industries, but at the end of the day, the kids can’t go anywhere.”