Updated Jun 12, 2022 - Health

America is pushing teachers to the brink

Illustration of a person sitting somberly on the edge of a giant pencil
Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Teaching has become one of the most draining jobs in America. Today’s teachers are navigating the threat of school shootings, a pandemic and intensifying political interference in their lesson plans — all while their wages remain stagnant.

Why it matters: Teachers are asking themselves whether shouldering those burdens is still worth it, and many experts warn of a looming staffing crisis.

“I’m really worried about the profession in general, the amount of people leaving, the quality of the applicants who are out there,” said Brooke Olsen-Farrell, superintendent of the Slate Valley Unified School District in Vermont. “We have roles open with no applications, and it’s not just our district. It’s every district.”

The big picture: Teaching has long been an underpaid profession, but in the last two years, America’s demands on its educators have mounted.

  • "I’ve held a lot of crying teachers in my arms as I’ve crossed this country They are so overwhelmed and you can see the sense of hopelessness and powerlessness" said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers' union.

Details: When the pandemic hit, teachers were asked to take on virtual instruction overnight — a task many felt unprepared for, both in terms of their skills and the technology available to them and their students.

  • When schools reopened, teachers became essential workers who risked infection — and their lives — to come into classrooms.
  • They feel unsafe in a country that has already seen 27 school shootings this year — horrific events that cause teachers to fear for their lives and leave students desperate for answers and reassurances of their safety.
  • "I feel like we're sitting ducks in classrooms right now," says Sari Beth Rosenberg, who teaches high school history in New York City.
  • And their classrooms have become political minefields, as lawmakers dictate what they can teach, what students read and what programs are offered to help kids with their social and emotional needs.

The stakes: All of this is straining teachers, driving many of them out of the profession and contributing to a longstanding shortage that will outlast the pandemic.

  • In the 1970s, the U.S. minted roughly 200,000 new teachers a year. That has fallen to below 90,000.
  • A recent National Education Association survey found that 55% of educators — at different stages of their careers — are considering leaving the profession earlier than they planned, though it's unclear whether or not this wave of resignations will come.
  • And the shortage is hitting already under-resourced schools the hardest: Colleges in rural communities are seeing the steepest declines in young people studying to become teachers.

Between the lines: Many Americans don’t understand the full picture of what teachers do, and are quick to diminish their importance, says Jane Rochmes, a sociologist who studies education at Christopher Newport University.

  • On top of that, teachers don’t feel they're trusted on “how to teach, to develop rapport with their students, or to delve into complex issues over time,” Rochmes says. “That can be undermining and demoralizing.”

Still, the education system is still filled with passionate teachers who care deeply for their students.

  • “It is not necessarily appealing to just leave a career they are often very passionate about and feel is a calling,” Rochmes says.
  • "I have a passion for teaching young people," says Rosenberg, the history teacher. "They are coping with a panoply of pandemics: The pandemic of racism, the global pandemic, the gun pandemic, the climate crisis pandemic.
  • "Classrooms might be our last great hope in helping this generation come up with solutions to fix these crises," she says.

What’s next: Olsen-Farrell and other administrators around the country are trying to find small ways to ease the burden on teachers.

  • “We think about what we can take off their plates," Olsen-Farrell said.
  • That includes postponing professional development seminars, providing free breakfast and coffee, and extra paid time off. They’re also asking parents and other community members to send messages of support and cards of thanks.
  • “It doesn’t necessarily make the situation better, but it does make it more tolerable,” Olsen-Farrell said.

Editor's note: This story originally published on June 7.

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