COLUMBIA, SC. — A nationwide teacher shortage is deepening, and many teachers said the pandemic is a major reason why they left the profession they once loved.
Almost half of the teachers who quit in 2020, 44%, reported the pandemic was the main reason they left. They say it magnified existing stressors and added new ones.
Sixty-four percent didn’t feel they were being paid enough to offset the newfound duties, stress, and risk. One fifth said stress alone was what drove them to quit.
Jodi Chumley taught elementary school in South Carolina for more than three decades. She decided to retire last year after COVID-19 made her already time-consuming job overwhelming.
“Last year was something else, and it was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Chumley. “I would take it home every single solitary night. The only night I refused to work was Saturday, and this is not just me, this is everyone on my team.”
Chumley said the pandemic made the job more stressful worrying about health and safety, but there was also more stress in trying to make sure students learned critical reading and math skills remotely.
She agonized over her decision to leave. “I would teach for less, I think, because I love the profession if I weren’t so stressed all the time to get things done,” she said. “I hate it, and it’s really sad because I loved teaching, but I didn’t have a life.”
Chumley’s case hints at a bigger trend around the country – including in South Carolina. Sherry East is a teacher and the President of the South Carolina Education Association, and said the shortage is becoming more and more dire every day. “We don’t have a shortage of students, we have a shortage of everyone else. There’s really more than one issue here to tackle this problem, but we really need to get on it now, because there’s students in the classroom now that don’t have a certified teacher in front of them,” said East.
The state started last school year with 700 open teaching positions. It left an estimated 14,000 students without a certified teacher on the first day of school.
Then, between October 2020 and February 2021, about 170 teachers quit each month, statewide.
The stress driving teachers out isn’t expected to get any better this year.
Patrick Kelly, the Director of Governmental Affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association said he’s worried this is only going to get worse in the next few months.
“Unfortunately, morale is really low among teachers right now. There's no other way to slice it. The teachers that are remaining, they've got additional burdens on them, the burdens that come with understaffed schools,” said Kelly.
He said he is shocked to hear what teachers are having to do outside the classroom just to keep their schools running. “There are teachers in South Carolina right now that are being asked to drive bus routes in the morning because districts can't find a enough bus drivers, they're being asked to pitch in in the cafeteria because we can't find enough cafeteria workers, to help clean the school after the day because we don't have enough staff in our custodial services. They're taking on larger class sizes because we can't find enough certified staff.”
Kelly said stress, low pay and lack of respect will continue to wear on teachers this school year.
“What we found was four consistent factors teachers leave the profession because of: a lack of respect, a lack of time, a lack of adequate support and inadequate compensation. It's always those four,” said Kelly.
The pandemic only added an extra layer to that conversation. “Now, for some reason, in the eyes of too many members of the public, they're the villain and very few people want to do this job and be the villain,” said Kelly.
Without urgent action, Kelly said he worries these waves of resignations will have long term consequences beyond the classroom.
“I think the most important thing for people to realize about this teacher shortage is that if we don't take urgent action now, it will continue to get worse and it will diminish our economic capacity. It will diminish our national security. It will diminish the opportunities available to our children,” he said.
Kelly said there are three solutions that could help keep teachers in classrooms: smaller class sizes, more trust and support from districts, and protection against harassment and disrespect.
He said helping keep the teachers we have now can start with something as simple as support from families and students, even if it’s with words of encouragement.