Neal Patel survived teaching in the pandemic. It was the culture wars that did him in.
In the fall of 2020, Patel added two flags to the wall of his science classroom in Johnston, Iowa. Now, alongside images of energy waves and the electromagnetic spectrum were the Gay Pride rainbow flag and a proclamation that Black Lives Matter. The flags, says Patel, represented the kind of inclusive space he was committed to creating, sending a signal to all students that even in this conservative suburb of Des Moines, there was a place for them.
School administrators supported him—on one condition. “They’re just there as decoration,” Patel says. “The only time I discuss the flags is when a student asks me about them.”
Patel assumes it was a student who snapped a picture of the display. Somehow it ended up on the Facebook page of a conservative state legislator. Representative Steve Holt, who lives 100 miles from Johnston, pointed to the flags as evidence of creeping left-wing indoctrination in Iowa’s schools and encouraged his constituents to take a stand. Patel says he was shocked by the attention, then upset: “Holt thinks it’s a political issue to try to create an inclusive environment, and he’s using that to try to further divide our community.”
Johnston has grown only more divided since Patel became Facebook fodder. At a school board meeting last fall, members debated whether to ban two books on race, including one by the Native American writer Sherman Alexie, after parents complained. The president of the Iowa State Senate, who represents a neighboring county, took the mic during the public comment period, calling for teachers who assigned “obscene” material to be prosecuted. Patel was in the crowd that night, to lend support to minority and LGBTQ students who’d come to speak out against banning the books. And he had an announcement of his own to make: This year would be his last as a teacher in Johnston.
Iowa’s increasingly toxic political climate was to blame, Patel says, but it wasn’t the only reason he was walking away from a profession he’d hoped to make his career. Students’ trauma, the intense pressure to make up for what they’d lost during the months of remote learning, the demands of parents—Patel felt that he could do little more than try to stay afloat. Teaching had not just become harder; it was a worse job than when he’d started six years ago. In 2017, Republicans took control of the state and immediately moved to strip public employees, including teachers, of most of their collective bargaining rights.
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“Teaching is a job that takes from you, takes from you, and takes from you,” Patel says. “Post-pandemic, it’s been a lot of take.”
A Profession in Crisis
Even before Omicron swamped schools this winter, the nation’s teachers were in crisis. TikTok and other social media sites were deluged with videos by teachers who’d broken up with teaching, declaring that a job that was tough in the best of times had become untenable. “To put it simply, I was exhausted,” wrote Cristina Jung in her public sign-off from eight years of teaching English in Irvine, Calif. She attributed her decision to a now-familiar litany: work responsibilities that seemed unending, the ongoing trauma of the pandemic, and student needs that no structure was in place to meet. “I was tired of being undervalued and overworked,” she says. “I was tired of being anxious and unhappy and not sleeping.”
A steady stream of polls warns that an alarming number of teachers share this view, with a quarter to half of educators reporting that they’re considering changing careers. One recent survey by the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, found that the number of teachers contemplating quitting has spiked since the start of the school year. Nine out of 10 reported that burnout is a serious problem, as teachers stretch to accommodate vacancies or Covid-related absences. Black teachers were the most likely to say that they’re considering leaving.
“Teachers are feeling collectively overwhelmed and helpless,” says Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers in Oregon.
After two teachers resigned from Portland schools in a single week last fall, the union decided to survey its 4,000 members. The results were staggering, Thiel says. Of the 2,800 members who responded, a quarter said their physical and mental health was adversely affected by the stress of teaching in a pandemic. Fully half indicated they were considering leaving earlier than planned. “They’re trying to decide whether they can continue teaching,” Thiel says.
Such statistics paint a dire picture. But so far, teachers have yet to join the “great resignation.” The surveys may show teachers are thinking about leaving, but that does not mean they’ve actually left. Staff shortages in some states and in specialty areas don’t necessarily indicate a national shortage. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data has fluctuated, showing, at one point, that teacher turnover actually dipped during the pandemic. Indeed, the far more urgent shortfall is in school support staff: substitute teachers, school bus drivers, and paraprofessionals.
Still, there are lots of reasons to fear that the worst may be yet to come. Alyssa Hadley Dunn, an associate professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, argues that the data fails to capture the depths of a crisis in motion: The teacher who just announced his departure on TikTok or who decided to quit over winter break won’t show up in large-scale data sets until next year.
“We will see more teachers leaving because they’re being pushed over the edge by the pandemic,” says Dunn, whose new book Teaching on Days After chronicles the experiences of teachers in the wake of tragedies and traumas. Just as the recent dramatic departure of low-wage workers reflects the decades-long degradation of those jobs, teachers are responding to policies and systems that predate Covid’s onslaught, Dunn says. In her conversations with teachers who have left or are contemplating quitting, one theme emerges again and again: It isn’t just the pandemic that’s driving them to leave. “The pandemic is exacerbating teachers’ feelings of being silenced,” Dunn says. “They feel like they have no voice in what happens in their classrooms and no say over policy implementation, even in a public health crisis.”
It’s hard to recall now, but in the earliest days of the pandemic, when schools shut down virtually overnight, fusing classrooms and living rooms, there was a brief moment when public regard for teachers soared. A tweet from the television producer Shonda Rhimes, retweeted more than 90,000 times, summed up the exuberant embrace. “Been homeschooling a 6-year-old and 8-year-old for one hour and 11 minutes. Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.”
Ryan Heisinger entered teaching as a Teach for America corps member eight years ago, at a time when public school teachers and their unions had emerged as a go-to bipartisan political punching bag. Now teachers were heroes. But it didn’t last.
“It’s been stunning to watch how quickly the pendulum swung first towards teachers, then in the complete opposite direction,” says Heisinger, who left his job at a charter school in Newark, N.J., in the spring of 2021 and is now attending graduate school to become a social worker. “It illustrates the exploitative mindset we have around teachers.”
Viewed through the blur of pandemic time, the sharp vicissitudes of public opinion about teachers can appear as spiky as a Covid case chart. But long before commentators were calling on President Biden to fire teachers en masse if they refused to show up to work, the “bad teacher” had emerged as one of the Obama administration’s key targets. Getting rid of her was seen not just as good education policy but as good economic policy.
The thinking went something like this: Make teacher evaluations tougher, and teaching would get better, which would mean higher student achievement, more students graduating from college, and ultimately a country better able to outsmart China et al. “Tougher” meant holding teachers accountable for how their students fared on standardized tests.
In 2010, Colorado became one of the first states to enact a high-stakes teacher evaluation law; by 2017, nearly every state had one on the books. While the pandemic may have disrupted everything about schooling, policies like Colorado’s Senate Bill 10, with its 18-page evaluation rubric and 345-page user guide aimed at weeding out bad teachers, remain in place.
For Shannon Peterson, an English language acquisition teacher in Aurora, that meant leading her students through a writing exercise last fall as her principal observed. Peterson’s students, many of them immigrants who live in poverty, bore the pandemic heavily, she says: “The kids are stressed, all of their writing is about anxiety, and attendance is way down.”
To her delight, the students responded enthusiastically to the writing prompt she’d come up with: comparing and contrasting the Harlem Renaissance and Black Lives Matter, and how the entertainment industries in their respective eras related to both. In a year of stress and struggle for teachers and students alike, here was something to celebrate. “Excellent writing came out of this,” Peterson says.
Her principal wasn’t convinced. Peterson, he felt, hadn’t done enough actual teaching during the observation. “I just don’t feel comfortable checking off these boxes,” he told her.
The previous year, when the cash-strapped school district had offered teachers buyouts to leave, Peterson turned it down: “I felt an enormous obligation to go back for the kids and my colleagues.” After her evaluation, though, Peterson had reached a breaking point. She quit a week later, walking away from a career that spanned 23 years, 18½ of them in Aurora. “I’m not a box,” Peterson says.
Two weeks after Peterson resigned, a major study came out: The decade-long push to weed out bad teachers had come to naught. The billions of dollars spent, the wars with teachers’ unions, and the collapse in teacher morale had produced “null effects” on student test scores and educational attainment.
A Collective Howl
In 2018, hundreds of thousands of teachers throughout the country took part in strikes and walkouts that shut down schools across entire states. The #RedforEd protests, which began in West Virginia and spread to Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona, were a collective howl by teachers against bread-and-butter indignities—low pay and the erosion of working conditions—but they also reflected frustration with the hostility to public education and teachers that was emanating from both parties.
Gilbert, Ariz., teacher Elise Villescaz marched with her colleagues to the state capitol, demanding that the legislature direct more resources to public school students and their teachers. She comes from a family of teachers—her mother still teaches in the district where Villescaz attended school. Teaching middle and high school English at schools in the Salt River Valley, Villescaz saw firsthand the consequences of the state’s disinvestment in public education. #RedforEd represented an opportunity to finally do something about it.
“Arizona doesn’t value public education,” Villescaz says. “It takes very little research to find out that we’re at the very bottom in student funding, teacher pay, student-to-counselor ratios—you name it.”
The protest movement garnered deep public support. Two years later, Arizonans would vote to hike taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents and direct the proceeds to public education. Then came the pandemic. When the schools in many districts reopened for in-person learning even as Covid raged in the state, Villescaz saw it as yet another sign that the state’s political leaders didn’t value its schools or the people who work in them. “The pandemic really made it obvious to me just how devalued we all are,” Villescaz says.
The 2021 Arizona legislative session, with its hyper-partisan focus on schools, only confirmed that view. Lawmakers passed a teacher gag law, curtailing the discussion of race, ethnicity, and sex in classrooms and threatening schools that violate it with fines. And they enacted a flat tax plan that essentially undermined the tax hike voters had just approved.
When it was time to renew her contract last May, her ninth year of teaching, Villescaz opted to walk away. “It was heartbreaking, but I had no choice,” she says. “We’ve been dehumanized.”
Psychic Pay Cut
For many teachers, the experience of working through a politicized pandemic has been equivalent to a pay cut. That’s because, as researchers have found, some teacher compensation comes in the form of what scholars refer to as “psychic rewards”—the feeling that they’re making a difference in the lives of kids and doing work that’s important to society. When teachers are painted as enemies of the public good—as leftist indoctrinators or tax-funded loafers—it undermines those psychic rewards, according to Jack Schneider, an education historian at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “Their checks may look the same every month, but their total compensation has been affected,” Schneider says.
For special education teacher Reyna Guerra-Vega, it was her actual paycheck that proved to be the last straw. Guerra-Vega, who describes her calling as figuring out how to keep young Black and brown special education students out of jail, moved from Oakland, Calif., to Arizona in 2020 to care for her mother. Seven days into her new teaching job in Mesa, her mother died.
Guerra-Vega says that while she was aware that moving from a state where teachers’ unions are powerful to one where they’re comparatively weak would cost her, the reality of working in a state that ranks 50th in teacher pay was chastening.
She was taking home just over $1,000 every two weeks and paying $400 a month for health insurance. When she did the math, Guerra-Vega realized that her teacher’s salary was not much more than what she had earned at her second job, washing dishes at an Italian restaurant. “This is what it’s like to teach in a state that hates teachers,” she says.
As Guerra-Vega took stock of her long hours and ever-expanding workload—one that included monitoring the progress of 107 students with an array of special needs—she settled on a word for what she was experiencing: exploitation. “This is why you’re losing teachers, because you won’t pay them and the work is unsustainable,” says Guerra-Vega, who resigned right before Thanksgiving. A state in which teacher shortages have been a problem for years—district and charter schools report more than 6,500 vacancies—had just lost one more. “This system is going to crash,” she adds, “because more teachers are going to leave.”
The departure of teachers has a cascading effect, rippling through schools. As Omicron surged, schools that were already short on staff were the first to close. And in a year when students require more support than ever, the absence of teachers and other school personnel is compounding what’s widely regarded as a student mental health crisis.
Villescaz has spent the past year subbing in schools around Phoenix, including in classrooms where students have suddenly lost their teacher or a full-time replacement has yet to be found. “Some of these students have known nothing but subs,” she says.
In schools where there are no substitute teachers to be found, the remaining staff must make up for their missing colleagues. Alexandra Lopez Reitzes teaches art to middle schoolers at East Harlem Scholars Middle School, part of a small charter school network in New York City. Last year a spate of departures meant that teachers had to cover additional classes during what would have been prep time. While the school has taken steps to remedy the problem, Lopez Reitzes says that she saw firsthand the toll that staff vacancies can have on a school and its culture. Lopez Reitzes stresses that the problems at her school have largely abated. But the cycle she describes, in which deteriorating working conditions caused by teachers fleeing induces more teachers to flee, is an all too familiar one. “Not only are we doing twice the work in half of the time,” she says, “but we’re doing the work of being the teacher, the therapist, and the mom because the children are struggling more. That’s why a lot of people are leaving or thinking about it. We’re holding all of it.”
Like many other teachers I interviewed for this story, Lopez Reitzes acknowledged that, for her, leaving isn’t an option. At 44, she describes herself as being essentially trapped by her salary. Instead, she and her colleagues are attempting to address their deteriorating working conditions by organizing a union. “We’re not the only charter in New York City that is considering it,” she says. “I think at this point we’re all feeling like, ‘This is not OK. You can’t treat people this way.’”
There is no easy fix to staunch the exodus of teachers. School districts, unlike, say, Starbucks, can’t simply boost wages to attract new employees. Nor is there an army of wannabe teachers waiting in the wings. Teacher training programs have seen enrollment decline by more than a third since 2010—a trend that has only accelerated since the start of the pandemic. A survey by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education found that nearly 20 percent of undergraduate-level teacher preparation programs saw enrollment drop significantly this year. In Oklahoma, a state grappling with a deepening shortage of teachers, training programs are shutting down because of the lack of interest.
The response by lawmakers has been to loosen the rules governing who can work in classrooms. Oregon, Missouri, and Arizona now allow anyone with a high school diploma and a background check to take over classrooms as a substitute teacher. While the measures are mostly supposed to be temporary, the staffing shortages used to justify them are not.
It’s not hard to see the slippery slope here—or why loosening licensing requirements has been a perennial policy goal on the right. These fill-in teachers, nonunion by design, will be vastly cheaper than their certified equivalents. And while the 18-year-old overseeing a classroom, as Kansas just allowed, won’t actually be teaching, that too may be the point. Dramatically driving down the cost of schooling will entail redefining teaching as something more akin to proctoring, where some adult—indeed, any adult—supervises while students receive instruction online.
“The beauty of public education is that it takes every student. But that’s also its greatest challenge. The trauma, the brokenness—our schools take them, too,” says Will Wong. A former high school math teacher, Wong worked for 14 years for the San Gabriel Unified School District in the middle of Los Angeles County, serving as a union president, principal, and ultimately as the fiscal director of the district. “I’ve seen it all,” he says.
Wong fears that the pandemic has only exacerbated the gap between what our schools can do and what they are tasked with doing. “Teaching, feeding kids, violence prevention, mental health needs—this is what our schools are faced with right now, but personnel, capacity, and funding don’t match what we’re requiring schools to do,” Wong says. The result is an increasingly destructive cycle that drives teachers to flee in frustration, leaving schools even less prepared to confront escalating challenges. As public trust further erodes, the calls to privatize schools grow steadily louder.
That cycle is precisely why Nic Jones is considering ending his career as a high school English teacher in Boston just as he was getting started. Jones began teaching at Jeremiah E. Burke High School last April, committed to working with some of the city’s highest-needs students. Today he is struggling to remain afloat. “It’s not a sustainable job when you don’t have any support,” Jones says.
Burke High School, or “the Burke” in local parlance, has long swung between failure and redemption, demonstrating the extraordinary faith that, given the right tools, schools can ameliorate the effects of entrenched poverty and racial segregation. In 2002, the school was held up by first lady Laura Bush as an early success story from her husband’s No Child Left Behind program. But the gains in test scores proved temporary, and the Burke was once more declared failing. By 2015, the Burke was ascendant again, now as an exemplar of the Obama-era reform recipe: more authority for school leaders, weaker unions, lots of energetic young teachers, and a relentless focus on performance data.
While the focus on metrics lives on, the numbers Jones cites are mostly data points of despair. The school has a single counselor for more than 300 students, roughly three-quarters of whom Jones believes need counseling. This year, Jones’s final class of the day had nine students, all learning English, all at different levels, five of them on special education learning plans. “I probably spend 90 percent of my time just trying to help these kids advocate for themselves so they can say what they need.”
There is another figure Jones returns to again and again: $8. That was the median net worth of African American households in greater Boston in 2015—a statistic that successive waves of education reform have done nothing to budge.
Jones, who is of Cape Verdean descent, grew up in Boston, bouncing from school to school. “I got expelled from a lot of them,” he recalls. Getting more teachers like him into the schools is key to reaching students like those at the Burke. “The only way they’re going to get a real education is if they have teachers who can provide strong, uplifting, culturally relevant lessons that they care about,” Jones says. Yet he’s now contemplating an exit himself, no longer convinced that schools like his can counter Boston’s legacy of racism and the inequities the pandemic has only deepened. Instead, he’s eyeing elected office and a possible future run for the city council.
“I don’t want to stop teaching, but we desperately need an education perspective in City Hall,” Jones says. “Our elected officials have no idea what’s happening in our school buildings.”’
The story of education during the pandemic has quickly hardened into one of abject failure, particularly for poor and minority students. In its early days, though, the dramatic suspension of “normal” school was seen as an opportunity to transform education. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo used one of his Covid news conferences to announce the creation of a Reimagine Education commission, a partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation aimed at harnessing new technologies to reform schooling in the “new normal.” President Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, celebrated too: Here was her lifelong crusade—moving kids out of “government” schools—delivered in a flash. But it wasn’t just “disruptors” and hucksters who saw possibility in the moment. Teachers did as well.
Selena Carrion, a fourth-grade English teacher in the Bronx, was one of them. She’d spent much of her 10 years in the classroom fighting for curricula that better reflected the lives of her students, and for breathing room within the culture of standardized testing that dominated the schools where she taught. “I’d tried so many avenues to really push change and progress, but it never went far enough,” she says.
The pandemic arrived at a time when Carrion could already sense the fixation on testing beginning to wane. Suddenly the old rules no longer applied. With a grant from the city, she planned an ambitious project to redesign her school’s library as a multimedia space dedicated to helping students become digitally literate citizens. Carrion envisioned a place where teachers could use lessons gleaned from the pandemic to better reach students at a time when they were desperate for connection.
But the window of possibility that so invigorated her quickly slammed shut. Despite being awash in pandemic relief funding, school administrators nixed the library project along with art classes and other “extras” to focus on testing and remediation. Carrion handed in her resignation in August.
These days, she’s designing curricula for teachers who are still in the classroom. While she loves her new role, walking away from teaching has also meant giving up a key part of her identity. Not only is she no longer a classroom teacher, but she’s no longer pushing for change from within the system. Carrion says she’s come to doubt that the kind of change she hoped for will ever happen. “Not only are we not going to try to transform education and really learn from the pandemic,” she says, “but things are going to get worse. We’re almost going to go backwards.”