Why Burned Out Teachers Are Quitting Their Jobs

  • Teachers are overworked and fed up with stress and disrespect.
  • An “alarming number” of educators say they plan to leave the profession, one union warned.
  • “I think I was on the brink of breaking,” Connecticut’s 2019 Teacher of the Year said after quitting.

Staffing shortages have already forced schools to scramble to keep their doors open during the Omicron surge, and soon the problem could worsen. Many teachers say they are so burned out by the pandemic, overworked because of staff shortages, and fed up with low pay and a lack of respect, they’re ready to quit. 

Kayla Bryant, a former fourth-grade teacher from Sacramento, said the expectations for teachers were so high and the support so low, she couldn’t talk about work without crying.

In a Chicago suburb, Alexandra Lobb had enough when she saw parents in her community “bashing teachers” on Facebook and complaining that teachers just wanted to stay home during the pandemic and do nothing.

“I was so embarrassed to realize this is what people thought of my career — a career that I was once so proud to announce out loud,” Lobb, who quit in June 2021 after teaching eighth grade for eight years, told Insider. “It turned into me not wanting to admit I was a teacher during the pandemic.” 

Across the country, teachers have been on the front lines of pandemic battles that for some have made an already-stressful profession intolerable. Heading into year No. 3 of COVID-19, Insider asked teachers around the US why they quit or retired early in the last two years as polling shows more teachers may soon leave the profession earlier than planned. 

Answers from half a dozen teachers reveal a profession tattered by burnout and feelings of being disrespected, micromanaged and overwhelmed by expectations and unsupported by administrators. Angry parents or political pressures bearing down on the profession were cited by a few, as well.

“I think I was on the brink of breaking,” said Sheena Graham, Connecticut’s 2019 Teacher of the Year, who retired in January at least five years earlier than she had planned. “There, in my opinion, was a total lack of respect for us as educators. As COVID hit, it just brought it to the forefront.”

Already, some school systems have been struggling with staffing shortages and finding substitutes during the Omicron surge. In New Mexico, the National Guard is filling in for teachers. Other school systems have tried tapping central office employees, young alumni, and parents as substitutes, CNN reported.

Educator shortages that predate the pandemic have grown in the past two years and now include other positions such as bus drivers, school nurses, and food service workers, according to the 3-million member National Education Association — the nation’s largest union, representing K-12 teachers, higher-education faculty, support staff, and administrators. The union cites recently adjusted federal data showing 389,000 fewer school staff members in K-12 schools and higher education now than before the pandemic.

A little more than half of the 3,600 members who responded to the NEA’s latest survey said they planned to leave education sooner than planned because of the pandemic. Burnout, general stress from the pandemic, student absences because of Covid, extra work because of unfilled job openings, and low pay were among the serious problems school employees said they experienced.

“I wouldn’t say I know any teachers who are having a great experience this year,” said Bryant, the teacher from Sacramento who resigned in February after going on leave in November.

Garfield Elementary kindergarten teacher Katya Meltaus decorates her car before a teacher protest outside Oakland school district in January 2022.

Garfield Elementary kindergarten teacher Katya Meltaus decorates her car before a teacher protest outside Oakland school district in January 2022.

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

More than three quarters of the NEA survey respondents said that unfilled job openings have led to more work obligations for the educators who remain.

“I was given 194 students during virtual teaching when the other 10th grade ELA teacher quit,” one Memphis teacher who quit her job told Insider.

Another problem is that fewer people are choosing the profession, with teaching programs seeing a decline in enrollment.

“It’s sort of squeezing the labor market,” said Chad Aldman, policy director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. “It doesn’t mean that there aren’t people out there, it just means it’s tighter than it was 10 years ago.”

Despite the signs of burnout and dissatisfaction among teachers, so far, a major spike in turnover hasn’t happened, he said. Federal data shows a “pretty typical year” in 2021 for turnover in the public education industry, which includes K-12 teachers. 

The voluntary “quit” rate was slightly above the 20-year average, Aldman said, while “total separations” including quits, layoffs, and retirements, were slightly below average. State-level data for educators shows turnover has been on par with long-term historical trends. 

“The story for next year is yet to be told,” Aldman said.

As politicians gear up for midterm elections, national headlines portray education as a battleground, with fights over face masks, controversial books and the teaching of race and gender. Congressional Republicans are making parental involvement in education central to their pitch to voters while several GOP-led states have imposed restrictions on the teaching of race.

The political pressure could also impact teachers’ views about their profession. Thirty-seven percent of 2,000 K-12 teachers polled by SurveyUSA for the advocacy group Stand for Children said a push for laws that “prevent honest teaching and conversations” in their classrooms would make them more likely to leave when the school year ends. Overall, nearly three in 10 teachers surveyed said it’s likely or very likely that they’ll leave the profession in the next year.

Politics takes over the classroom

Kathryn Prater, a former Utah history teacher, said it was time to quit in July 2021 because of politicians’ efforts she viewed as tactics to prevent teachers from talking about race in the classroom. 

The further politicization of teaching has been overwhelming and sad, she said. Children “might not get what is best for them because a few people are worried about a child’s comfort instead of their growth,” she wrote in an email. Feeling demoralized, she quit without another job lined up, rather than “continuing in a profession where I felt so devalued.” 

Politics has taken over classrooms to a point at which communities are dictating everything teachers must do, said Lobb, of the Chicago suburbs. She began looking for a job after seeing the Facebook comments from parents, saying “go back to work, you just want to sit on your butts.”

Late last school year, a student reinforced that decision when she answered her phone in the middle of class. When Lobb called on her, the student turned her back and continued talking. “It was the first time I cried after a class,” said Lobb.

Paige DeAngelis said she cried every day before leaving her job teaching kindergarten at a Tampa charter school. She could no longer handle children’s behavioral issues, which teachers and other experts say have been exacerbated by the pandemic. During a faculty meeting in October, she said, administrators appeared to blame teachers for the students’ behaviors. The next day, she packed up her classroom and resigned. “I wanted to have support and respect in my job,” she said.

Bryant, of Sacramento, said students have more social and emotional needs after the Covid shutdown and many are severely behind in reading and math. She spent three months, to little avail, trying to get extra support for a student who was screaming, disrupting lessons, throwing things, hitting other children and running out of the classroom.

 “By 11 a.m., which is three hours of work, I was just completely exhausted,” she said. “I used to really love teaching, but I just couldn’t handle the daily stress of it anymore.”

In the last two years, former teacher Daphne Gomez said she has noticed more teachers leaving in the middle of the year rather than waiting to fulfill their contract. “That was something that rarely happened,” said Gomez, who founded the company Teacher Career Coach to support teachers considering a career change. “People would bend over backwards to not break a teaching contract.”

Teachers are starting to see their former colleagues pivot to different careers in project management, professional development, curriculum writing or sales and get higher pay or a better work-life balance, she said. 

“I think it’s having a snowball effect,” said Gomez, who also hosts the Teacher Career Coach podcast.

Lobb, who has a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, now works as a sales instructor for a Fortune 500 technology company, training new hires, leading group activities and administering assessments. And she wants some of her former teaching colleagues to join her.

She comes from a family of teachers and leaving the profession she loved so much was a huge decision.

“But I’ve never been happier,” she said.