Why Some Teachers Don’t Want to Go ‘Back to Normal’

This spring, after 16 years in the classroom, math teacher Justin Aion decided he wouldn’t be returning in the fall. At the small school in Pittsburgh where Aion taught, all four math teachers decided to leave this summer.

“My school did not drive me out of education. My students did not drive me out of education,” Aion says. Instead, he says he left because the lack of support and the deep systemic flaws in education had finally become too much. Aion says he was tired of pretending things were back to their pre-pandemic “normal,” and tired of pretending that “normal” had been working for students in the first place.

In a small school district in Arizona, math teacher Stephanie Bowyer had a similar experience. She decided to leave her district after nine years in the classroom.

“I think one of the reasons why that constant refrain of ‘back to normal’ was so frustrating is that normal wasn’t that great,” Bowyer explains. “There were months of tears. Days where I just broke down crying and couldn’t even recover, I just felt so sad. I started having those thoughts in September, I was feeling like I don’t think I can do this much longer, I think I might have to make a change.”

The experiences of Bowyer and Aion are not uncommon. The teacher shortage has dashed the dreams of students, parents and educators who hoped the 2022-2023 school year would bring about a return to how things were before the pandemic. For educators like Aion and Bowyer, the expectation that public education would “return to normal” is one of the factors that pushed them out of the profession.

EdSurge connected with educators who decided to leave the classroom this year and with researchers focused on child psychology and student achievement to better understand how turnover impacts teachers and students—and why the retention crisis remains, despite efforts to return to normalcy.

The Consequences of Teacher Turnover

Myriad factors can lead a teacher to leave the classroom, from being unable to make ends meet on their teaching salary to mental health preservation to the deep frustration with systemic challenges, like Aion and Bowyer experienced. And turnover is problematic for many stakeholders.

Some of the consequences of high turnover have been well documented. It can lead to burnout, low job satisfaction and expanded responsibilities for the teachers who remain. For schools and districts, high turnover is not only problematic for school culture, it is also a significant drain on time, resources and money. Research shows that replacing a single teacher can cost the school system between $15,000 and $30,000, when adjusted for inflation, including administrative expenses, teacher training and recruitment.

What about the students? Students benefit from stability and consistency. “A positive teacher-student relationship is a protective factor for student mental health,” says Caroline Mendel, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders. “Having the ability to connect with a teacher, and having somebody in your corner can really be a buffer for adversity that a child may be experiencing.” It can also influence a child’s sense of belonging at school, which Mendel says “can help them to feel seen and motivated, and help to increase their likelihood of attending school and not dropping out.”

The teacher-student relationship has been studied across ages, grades and school subjects, Mendel notes, describing how research points to a critical two-way relationship: “Student well-being and behavior can impact teacher burnout, and vice versa.”

There’s evidence that classroom behavior has also worsened due to the pandemic, with some studies revealing that there tend to be more behavioral issues among students with inexperienced teachers. When classrooms are led by new or substitute teachers who don’t have prior relationships with their students, “they don’t have certain norms that they’ve been practicing and can execute faithfully,” Mendel says. “That could contribute to misbehavior, which again, contributes to burnout and the cycle continues.”

And research has shown that when teachers leave, many schools have a difficult time attracting new ones, and instead hire less experienced or less prepared teachers. One study highlights how student performance can suffer under inexperienced teachers, leading to lower scores in both English and math. Another study found that losing a teacher mid-year could mean a loss of 30-70 instructional days.

Teacher shortages could contribute to a sense of instability or heightened stress among students, especially after the turbulence of the pandemic, adds Mendel.

Why Some Teachers Don’t Want a Return to Normalcy

The true toll of the pandemic on the education workforce may not yet be known, as teachers like Aion grapple with the emotional weight of the COVID era and its outsized impact on teachers.

“We had this opportunity to make major systemic changes to the curriculum based on the needs of the kids, based on research,” he says. “And we just didn’t. We made the choice instead to fight like hell to get back to the status quo, ignoring the fact that the status quo was incredibly detrimental to the majority of our students.”

Aion was frustrated with directives from above that did little to help students, he says. “We are not providing the kinds of supports that are necessary.” Aion explains that his students came back to the building traumatized. “We told them that the world was not a safe place. They already sort of knew that, but then we went and told them that the world was not a safe place to eat and breathe around other people. And then we went, ‘No, everything’s OK.’ And then we brought them back.”

The decision to leave the classroom tore at Aion, but he felt like it was best for him, his family and his students. “It’s really become this idea that I could stay for the students, but it wouldn’t be for the students,” Aion says. “Because burned out teachers are not doing a service to the students. My staying is very detrimental to them, because I’m not able to give them my best.”

Bowyer couldn’t bear the thought of returning to how things were before the pandemic either. She decided in December 2021 that this would be her last year teaching.

Bowyer says administrators kept putting more on her plate, despite how busy she already was.

“It’s just this constant feeling that we are getting more and more put on us every day,” she says. “Teaching was already incredibly hard, and then we had a global pandemic.” She says the pandemic heightened her stress level, too, as she struggled to juggle the increased needs of her students, her home life and her mental health. She had trouble sleeping.

Bowyer decided to tell her students shortly after she told her supervisors. Her students were sad to see her go, but were supportive when she explained the reasons why she had to, Bowyer says. Her students were excited for her, and enthusiastically asked about what she would do instead of teaching them math. “I started crying in the middle of class,” Bowyer says. “And I said, ‘I don’t know, I don’t actually want to leave, I want to be here and I want to do this. But I don’t think I can anymore.’”

After she resigned, she didn’t make a formal announcement to her students, but she was open with them about her plans when they discussed the future. In the spring, when she took time off to begin her new career as a project manager, her students were supportive, she says. “They understood that it was, frankly, probably better for everybody,” she says.

Bowyer isn’t alone in feeling stressed and overwhelmed. According to the 2021 State of the U.S. Teacher Survey, administered by the RAND Corporation, most teachers reported sleeping about an hour less a night than before the pandemic.

“About three quarters of teachers say that they experienced frequent job-related stress, compared to about a third of the general population of working adults,” Elizabeth Steiner, an education policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, told EdSurge in a spring interview. “Teachers are also reporting that they’re more likely to experience symptoms of depression, that they’re not coping well with their job-related stress, and they’re also less likely to say that they feel resilient to stressful events.” Half of the teachers surveyed agreed with the statement that the stress and disappointments of teaching aren’t really worth it.

Aion and Bowyer’s experiences echo trends researchers are seeing around the country. Teacher satisfaction is at its lowest point in almost four decades, according to annual teacher surveys conducted by MetLife from 1984-2012.

A survey of teachers conducted this winter by Merrimack College and EdWeek Research Center found only 12 percent of teachers are “very satisfied” with their jobs, and more than half of teachers surveyed would not advise their younger selves to enter the profession. More than half of dissatisfied teachers say they’re very likely to leave the profession in the next two years, highlighting that many aren’t optimistic about the “return to normal.”

Aion says he wouldn’t be surprised if the teacher shortage became more severe in the coming years.

“Things are going to get worse and worse. And the teachers who remain—rather than getting support—they will simply be given more work, and it will burn them out faster,” he says.

That dire prediction, if realized, would lead to worse outcomes for students. Aion says: “The system will simply collapse under its own weight.”

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