Teachers are hitting a wall more than a year into the pandemic. Some have decided to walk away from the profession amid a growing educator shortage in the US.
In this March 11, 2014 photo, 14-year-old Lexi Hough is working on a math problem with her ready-made iPad in her eighth grade algebra class at St. Michael School in Clayton, Clayton, MO.
Teachers, who have borne the brunt of the pandemic, describe the toll that distance learning has put on them.
Five teachers shared their experiences with Insiders, some of whom have left or are considering leaving.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to a persistent teacher shortage in the United States.
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Before 2020, Dana Lizewski had considered leaving the teaching profession for a few years. But the past year of teaching during a pandemic cemented her decision.
"I've always said I'll just stick it out," Lizewski told Insider. "But I think this year has really solidified that it's just not my personality to deal with these constant changes ..."
After five years in a classroom, Lizewski said she made the "very difficult decision" to quit her job as a preschool teacher in New York this month to prioritize her mental health after a year of "constant chaos".
"It was pretty difficult to the point where I had severe anxiety, panic attacks and things I had never dealt with in my life," said Lizewski.
She said she did not take the choice lightly. But during her first week that she was officially unemployed, she had no second thoughts.
"Most of the time I feel relieved." She said. "A great sense of relief."
Teachers say their work has gotten significantly tougher during the pandemic.
Five teachers Insider spoke to said the past year had robbed them of their favorite part of the job - interacting and connecting with students - while demanding more administration and flexibility in the ever-changing pandemic.
Early teacher retirements have been recorded across the country, as have been absenteeism. According to an Education Week survey, 73% of school districts said their need for replacement teachers was higher in 2020 than it was in 2019, while 74% said replacement requests had decreased.
Between technology challenges, low student engagement, and the risk of developing COVID-19 as more schools return to class, teachers told Insiders they were struggling.
A central Florida teacher who asked to remain anonymous said she has had to teach three different classes of students since the start of the school year. She practically started teaching third grade in September but was moved to first grade in October to accommodate the number of students who stayed online when the school partially reopened. Now she is switching back to personal learning.
"At first I worked about 13 to 14 hours a day," she said. "And then I went to first grade, and because I had no training, I only worked from the sun until sunset."
The constant upheavals and the extra work took their toll. She said she was having a panic attack. Then she stopped eating and sleeping. Her mental health deteriorated.
Eventually, she had to take a month off to have an operation. She said that she and her doctor view stress at work as partially responsible for their health problems.
"If I could have quit this year, I would," she said. "It's so stressful. And if I have to do that again next year ... I'll just stop."
And she's not the only teacher who wants to leave the profession after the past year.
A fourth-grade teacher in San Francisco who has taught for more than 20 years told Insider that she "would retire if I could."
"It's too difficult, it cost me years. That's too much," said the teacher, who wanted to remain anonymous, to Insider. "Thirty-three kids and I am constantly expected to work in such a way that I have so little training for it."
"I'm a little locked up for the money because I have to build up my pension," she added. "As a teacher, if you walk out the door before 55 as a teacher at a California public school, you will lose a lot of money."
The San Francisco teacher said that while she had support from her husband, students, and parents, as well as school principals, it was not enough to save her from burnout when she tried distance learning at the beginning Finding your way through the pandemic.
"The amount expected and the support I received do not match, it is not enough," she said. "I'm not going to lie, I had to pay people to help me as well as keep up with certain things. I will pay out of my own pocket."
"I pay for curricula that make my life easier and an online program that evaluates the children's work," she said. "I'm going to pay a friend to help me do something. I'm going to pay Ubers to pick up my kids because I can't, I don't have the time or energy."
Chrystopher Camey Lopez raises a hand to ask a question from a socially distant desk during a personal hybrid learning day at Mount Vernon Community School in Alexandria, Virginia on March 2, 2021.
Another teacher from Fort Worth, Texas who has been in the education industry for 15 years said she felt family supported but "felt unsupported by my work."
The Texan teacher, who wanted to remain anonymous at work for fear of reprisals, told Insider that on a Friday in February she spent half a day at work for a zoom event on "personnel development" in order to " Reduce stress "of distant and hybrid learning. She said the school played a game of bingo where each square corresponded to an activity that needed to be done, such as a dance or a writing activity.
However, the teacher said she was already overwhelmed with the work ahead of her, including filing grades online, correcting electronic records for her students switching from online to face-to-face, and catching up with students at the last minute about missing work to vote.
"At that moment, this Friday, I knew that my sanity didn't mean anything to my district and that I would end my life the next day on Saturday," she said. "I knew the stress had gotten so bad. I didn't want to spend my entire weekend evaluating, correcting, bringing things in and knowing that this would never end."
"I knew I would have more work next Monday morning because I had to set all the grades for the children who switch between the two models [online and face-to-face learning]," she added. "Well, no, I didn't feel supported by our district all year round."
The teacher told Insider that she was on vacation for three weeks after trying to kill herself. She returned to work for a little over a week before taking another medical vacation and currently has no return flight date.
"I think I'm part of the extreme story where I tried to end my life and I'm slowly working on it," said the Texan teacher, "and I realize that [my work] isn't the reason over end my life you know? "
"But then I felt so helpless," she said.
After that school year, the Texan teacher told Insider that she certainly no longer wants to teach in the district she has been with for 10 years, but she said she was not sure what her next steps would be.
"I've worked so hard to advance my career," she said. "So I honestly have no idea. I'm in such limbo right now."
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated a pre-existing teacher shortage across the country.
A RAND Corporation survey of nearly 1,000 former school teachers found that stress, more than low wages or health concerns, was their main reason for leaving the company. Of the 45% of respondents who left during the pandemic, 64% said they weren't paid enough to deserve the risks or stresses of teaching.
A Pennsylvania high school family and consumer science teacher who also chose to remain anonymous told Insider that she also considered leaving the profession last year and will likely do so in the next few years.
"I love teaching, but this year has almost completely destroyed my love of the job," she said. "I don't think we've ever felt so overworked and underrated."
She said she was used to taking her work home with her, but her school's hybrid model this year has more than double the typical workload as she works to bring her classes to students both in class and online to be taught at the same time.
All of the teachers Insider spoke to said they should rewrite their curriculum, be on call almost 24/7 to answer emails, and be ready to adjust to unexpected changes as the year progresses - often without much support by their school districts or communities.
"The teachers were given so much vitriol," said the Pennsylvania teacher. "It makes it hard to go beyond that."
Some teachers have trouble seeing the end of their burnout in sight.
As the vaccinations increase and life slowly returns to normal, teachers are both excited and nervous for the next school year. They are eager to return to face-to-face interaction with their students, but fear that this "lost year" could mean catching up and another year of burnout.
"There is a fear that doubling our work will become the expected norm," said the Pennsylvania teacher.
The Florida elementary school teacher believes things get worse before they get better. But she said that interacting with her students and having her kids laugh will help her get through the dark days.
"We're trying our best," she said. "No teacher I know has declined. I think what teachers want is respect and recognition. We're trying. And it's really difficult."
Kristy Ritvalsky, a senior education and counseling specialist at Rutgers University, said prior to the pandemic she doesn't think burnout was "something we spent a lot of time about".
"When we think about the top of our work, I think the pandemic has obviously shed light on burnout and really understood how we as school communities must intentionally practice including staff wellness and self-care activities as standards," said Ritvalsky Insider.
“It is extremely important for all of us, but especially for educators, to be really clear about how you are feeling during this time, especially since burnout can be the precursor to many other mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression things like that, "she added.
Ritvalsky, who works on implementing educational programs in schools to improve school-based mental health services, said schools need to "purposely create a community of compassion" and give staff space "to express their feelings."
While she said that she recognized that some schools have such practices, she said that others do not necessarily include this work in standard practice, so "now they have to develop these things somehow".
"It's like building the plane and flying it at the same time," she said.
Ritvalsky urged both school administrators and teachers to build positive peer support networks - "like a buddy system," she said - where teachers could work with another staff member to hold them accountable for self-care practices and boundaries between Work and career put family life.
While some teachers Insider spoke to look forward to interacting with their children in a classroom again, others look to a new future.
The California teacher told Insider that being able to interact with the children in any way reminds them of their purpose as a teacher.
"I love them every day that I interact with the kids," she told Insider. "I mean, there is a purpose and there is energy, and even when I'm back in the classroom, I think, 'Oh my god, you know, it's going to be like young people in this room and their energy or their humor, their creativity 'and, you know, that nourishes my soul. "
Lizewski, who finally left class this month, said her school's attempts to support teachers with burnout were "too little, too late".
But the sadness of leaving her teaching job was somewhat mitigated by the prospect of her future endeavors. She said she was extremely passionate about opening a daycare.
"This is my love and passion for being around and caring for children," she said. "I'm good with the kids. I'm just not good with all the extra expectations that are placed on teachers."
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