Teacher Well-Being and Retention

Teacher Turnover is Not a New Phenomenon

FuelEd partner, Sheila Whittle, shares vulnerable reflections on burnout and hope.

If we want to fight burnout among educators, we have to flip the problem on its head and ask: how can we build hope among educators?

Sheila Whittle

Teacher turnover is not a new phenomenon.

We all know it happens, but one year, it impacted me more than usual. That fateful year, almost everyone in my department left, including my immediate team. The turnover wore me out so badly that it felt futile to even learn my new teammates’ names, let alone get to know them. In fact, I wouldn’t even try to learn their names. I was fed up, and it showed. My actions revealed a much deeper pain underneath. I was tired of the constant revolving door of colleagues.

Unfortunately, people leaving wasn’t the only difficulty. As one of the few veteran teachers left, my school leaders tasked me with a mountain of additional responsibilities on top of my own course load. The growing burden of expectations on my role was quickly outpacing my capacity as a professional. Burnout was just around the corner, if not already knocking at my door.

Was I next? Was exiting the profession the only way to survive? Maybe you’re asking those questions, too.

Like many other issues related to our well-being as humans, this one is not new but has been exacerbated by the pandemic. And contrary to what many may think, overwhelming workloads are not the only reason teachers leave education. Along with the workloads, teachers leave because they:

  • Desire a better quality of life
  • Feel unhappy and unappreciated
  • Experience impossible expectations
  • Are ultimately being treated poorly and need to set a boundary

Quality of Life

According to EdSurge, researchers have “coined a term, the ‘teacher pay penalty’ to refer to the fact that the average teacher earns about 20 percent less than accountants, journalists, inspectors, and computer engineers–professions that require a similar skill set and education. In a RAND survey of nearly a thousand former public school teachers, nearly two-thirds of those who left during the pandemic said their salary was a factor.”

What this is not saying is that money buys happiness. Instead, it communicates the reality that our pay, inherently tied to our work, has the power to either increase or decrease our quality of life. And beyond just having or not having financial means to purchase and access goods and services that can improve the quality of life, income, whether annual salaries or hourly wages, is tied to the value and worth of the work. And work is so intrinsically tied to our identity as humans that our pay scale communicates much more about our identity and worth than a mere paycheck.

Those in education know that most teachers take on second, third, or even fourth jobs. They are no strangers to side-hustling for survival. Their summers “off” are really summers “on,” spent working extended school years for a stipend or finding part-time work. On top of this pressing need to supplement income, along with the current inflation rate at an all-time high of 9.1%, it is no surprise that already underpaid teachers are searching for better pay and a better quality of life. In fact, one does not have to look for or seek another degree for this. A teacher went viral for leaving education to work for Walmart where he earns $20,000 more than his teacher’s salary.

Keeping talent in the educational system is impossible when this is the reality.

Unhappy and Unappreciated

Most educators agree that they entered the profession because they wanted to make a difference in the lives of young people. We all share the joy in our students’ successes and ‘aha’ moments! These moments, however, are not enough to sustain educators facing burnout. In fact, according to a 2022 National Education Association (NEA) Survey, “90% of educators say they are experiencing burnout.”

Because of emotional exhaustion and the lack of support for burnout, teacher mental health is at an all-time low. According to EdSurge, “teaching may now be the most stressful profession, according to a RAND survey from June 2021, which found, among other things, that teachers were almost three times more likely to report symptoms of depression than other adults. Clearly, teachers haven’t just reached their breaking point, but surpassed it, further imperiling a profession that has long struggled with low pay and declining morale.”

What used to be a career that favored reward over stress is no longer so. The tides are turning. Stress is winning out, and the school environment is quickly becoming a health risk to teachers instead of a place of meaningful purpose. The rewards of the profession are either missing or, at least, lacking the power they once wielded to surmount the historically demanding work of teaching children and young adults. And students are noticing it, too. Angela Mao, a student editorial New York Times contest winner, recognized in her winning essay that “Teaching in America has become a thankless profession; teachers are unappreciated, underpaid and overworked.”

Impossible Expectations

In the same 2022 NEA Survey, “three-fourths of [NEA] members said they’ve had to fill in for colleagues or take other duties due to [staff] shortages. Furthermore, 80 percent report that unfilled job openings have led to more work obligations for the educators who remain.”

It’s no wonder teachers are seeking opportunities outside of education. Increasing teacher workloads with no additional pay or support only accelerate burnout and dissatisfaction.

Treated Poorly

In a 2019 Phi Delta Kappa Poll of the “Public’s Attitudes Towards the Public Schools, [they found that] 48% of teachers feel less valued by the community.” According to Forbes, this lack of respect often sounds like, “‘you can’t do a good job unless you are threatened, micromanaged, and stripped of your autonomy.’ There is a special kind of stress that comes from working for someone who says, in effect, ‘You have a big important job to do, and we do not trust you to do it.’” In addition, the aforementioned low salaries, “feels like one more act of disrespect, a very literal declaration that ‘you’re just not worth it.’”

So What’s the Answer?

What do teachers say they need to feel the support and respect necessary to keep up with the increasing demands and stress? There are no easy answers, and although it may feel as if this could be too little, too late, at FuelEd, we believe that resilience begins with connection. During stressful times, humans often feel hopeless and cynical; in fact, cynicism is a key component of burnout. Therefore, if we want to fight burnout among educators, we have to flip the problem on its head and ask: how can we build hope among educators?

One of the primary ways to increase hope is through the power of secure relationships. Research shows that secure attachment within relationships is an antecedent of hope. Hope, according to the aforementioned research, is defined simply as the “belief that one has both the will (‘agency’) and the way (‘pathways’) to accomplish valued goals.” When individuals are more securely attached, they are more autonomous and socially capable. Both of these attributes give them the resources and resilience to achieve the goals and dreams before them.

So if we want to become more hopeful people, one step is to become more securely attached people. How do we do this? At FuelEd, we have found that working through our own stories and being more genuinely connected to others empowers secure attachment. And thankfully, research has shown that secure attachment can be built across the lifespan through reflective practices and safe relationships. In other words, if we want our schools to be burnout-proof, we have to invest in more safe spaces for sharing our stories and building bonds. And even if you don't have access to a safe culture, you can begin this work now through your own prioritization of relationships and reflection discussed here. Finally, our practices of Empathy Circles and Stewardship are ways we help educators do just that, and a wonderful byproduct of those programs is hope. Before you reach the brink and start looking for greener grass, find a way to connect and begin your journey towards hope. The FuelEd team wants you to know: we see you!

About the author

Sheila Whittle

Partner - Houston TX

Houston TX

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