After America’s school systems were unexpectedly disrupted during the pandemic, teachers immediately began serving as the education system’s de facto front-line workers and first responders.
Unfortunately, the pandemic further exacerbated existing concerns about the safety, mental health and instructional challenges that are part of the teaching profession.
America’s shortage of teachers has long been an issue, but with the lingering effects of this pandemic, state leaders need to move quickly to prevent the foundation of our education system from collapsing. That means that as we reopen schools, policymakers must meet the needs of teachers in order to prevent burnout and increase retention.
I urge state policymakers to talk with educators and education leaders in their states to learn how they can best address the concerns teachers have for their physical and mental health, financial stability and ability to meet the needs of their students. Increasing teacher pay now is the best first step that states and districts can take. Also, establishing support systems has been shown to greatly increase teacher retention. These systems include professional development, individualized classroom support and mentoring that ensure teachers feel cared for and ready to teach.
America cannot afford a mass exodus from the teaching profession
During the pandemic, educators made Herculean efforts to support their students. They spent time learning new instructional methods. In many areas, they traveled significant distances to give the most vulnerable youth extra support, handing out food and monitoring student well-being.
When schools first closed and remote learning started, parents across the country awoke with a new realization of the vital role teachers play in students’ lives. Parents had to become educators and service providers.
Yet, as with front-line workers in the health sector, the pandemic disrupted the lives of teachers and increased their isolation, stress and feelings of burnout. A recent survey of public school teachers revealed that 84 percent of respondents said teaching is more stressful now than before the onset of the pandemic. The most common reason teachers in another poll gave for leaving was “the stress and disappointments of teaching,” which they said were not worth it.
America cannot afford a mass exodus from the teaching profession.
That is why we must listen to the concerns of our educators and take action. Research has already shown how high teacher turnover rates and under-resourced teachers impact student learning — especially for students in high-poverty areas.
Teacher supply and demand was already a concern, as demand exceeded supply in the years leading up to the pandemic, and schools across the country faced shortages of high-quality teachers. That intensified this last year. As schools reopen across the nation, state and national leaders must collaborate to close the nationwide teacher shortage and reevaluate how we support our country’s teachers.
As governor of Utah, I sought to increase teacher pay, gave teachers a $1,500 hardship bonus to reward their fearless service to our state during the pandemic and made sure that teachers received priority access to the vaccine while trying to address their pandemic-related concerns.
In my farewell address, I thanked teachers, professors and administrators who worked every day to help prepare future leaders in the state. I also called for communication, collaboration and consensus, which will be sorely needed if we hope to meet the needs of our teacher workforce.
Policymakers need to evaluate how they are communicating and working with educators to ensure that teachers do not leave the profession at this critical juncture in America’s recovery process.
We must prioritize the safety and wellness of teachers by providing adequate equipment for physical safety and also recognizing that new supports for teachers should go well beyond face masks and shields.
Research indicates that providing teachers with the information and support they need to make difficult choices improves their confidence in the decisions they make and likely helps them feel better about their work and about themselves.
States must also creatively address financial compensation issues that have plagued the teaching profession and are a key reason for turnover. Financial stress is a prevalent issue for teachers, especially those in high poverty schools.
Research found that, in 2018, after accounting for education and experience, teachers’ weekly wages are more than 20 percent lower than that of their non-teaching peers. Compensation and working condition issues are not new for America’s teachers, but the pandemic has brought them into greater focus.
As state leaders, we must work in collaboration with our teachers to meet their unique needs and provide supports that will prevent burnout and increase teacher retention rates. If we don’t, we risk losing the education system’s front-line heroes in the battle to recover from the pandemic.
Gary R. Herbert served as governor of Utah from January 2009 to January 2021.
This story about teacher retention was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.