I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t check my work email during the summer sometimes. Before you get on me, it’s not every day. This summer, in the midst of driving across the country on a road trip, one of my accidental slips happened at a gas pump. Instantly, I regretted it. Another colleague, another friend had resigned from their teaching position at my school. This resignation added to the pile of colleagues—including faculty and administrators—who I thought would stay forever, but have chosen to move on. It was a gut punch.
Don’t get me wrong, I support teachers putting themselves first in what feels increasingly like a thankless system. But with the start of the school year around the corner, my typical new-school-year excitement was accompanied by sorrow. I was grieving for those who left, as I prepared to be one of the ones who stayed. I’m still grieving.
Much attention is given to teachers who leave, and rightfully so. A recent Gallup Poll revealed that K-12 workers have the highest rate of burnout in the American workforce, with more than 44 percent of K-12 workers in the U.S. reporting that they “always” or “very often” feel burned out at work.
While the teacher shortage varies state-to-state and across districts, it is concerning nonetheless. While the data is incomplete because states release data at different times, it is evident that there are open teaching positions in public schools and districts are struggling to fill them. And public schools are not alone. According to the National Association of Independent Schools, teachers at independent schools are twice as likely to leave the profession than public school teachers. Attrition data for charter schools is outdated, but the most recent data reveals that the odds of a charter school teacher leaving the profession is substantially higher than a traditional public school teacher.
I know the gravity of what it means to leave all too well. The weight of the decision and the guilt of knowing the impact it will make. My teaching career has been turbulent. I’ve worked in six schools in seven years. In my first school, the workload was unbearable. In another school, I had conflicting values with leadership. In another, I couldn’t justify the hours required for the pay and there was no path for career development. I wanted to stay at all of them, but I couldn’t make it work. I struggled to find a school to call home.
The decision to leave each school weighed on me. I measured my impact and success in the profession by how long I could stay at a single school, and how many students I could reach.
My own experience sits among countless narratives from other teachers, including teachers of the year, revealing the difficulty and the emotion behind the decision to leave a school—and for some, the choice to part ways with a system that never had their best interest at heart.
A lesser told story is the plight of the teachers who stay behind. The emotional narratives about their experiences, their feelings and the pressures they carry.
Leaving a Hole in the Community
Schools are high-stress environments year-round. What goes down in a school can only truly be understood by those who teach and learn in it. The experience of teaching in a school and being a member of a school community often creates unbreakable bonds for colleagues. There is no bond like a teacher bond. The power of finding your people, at your school, is part of what makes teaching so unique. Having colleagues who understand your context and your kids, who know how to strategize with you, and who can hold you accountable for the mission-driven work that draws you together is invaluable.
Here’s the hard truth: When a faculty member leaves a school, it creates a hole in the community.
Returning to school without so many of my colleagues and friends has been tough. It has shifted the morale in the building. I think a lot about how I can solidify the legacy of each colleague that is moving on. When I left each school, I remember feeling erased and forgotten, so it’s important to me to try to carry on their work. I ask myself what passion projects they left behind that we owe it to our students to continue? And more importantly, what role did they play in making our school special—or during immensely difficult times, just keeping it afloat?
Then, there is the invisible burden I carry as a teacher who is staying, which is more easily overlooked. It involves social fears that bubble up and an unending internal monologue. Can I do this without them? Will our school recover? Who will see me now that they’re gone? There are endless questions and worries.
And of course it creates pressure around logistics. I’m nervous about filling in the gaps and keeping our school flowing. What classes need to be covered? What committees need new members?
The biggest concern of all, however, is how to support our students through it. When a teacher leaves, our students feel it deeply. And too often, we ask students to just move on from the teachers they built a relationship with. This is my first year as the dean of students and on the first day of school, during our first assembly of the year, I affirmed the complex feelings students may have when they recognize that a teacher they loved is no longer in their classroom. As a new administrator, I encouraged students to continue sharing the stories and legacies of the teachers who moved on with incoming students and teachers. That can help them process their emotions.
Building a School That Teachers Want to Stay In Is Critical for Student Well-being
I know first-hand the impact of attending a school where the teachers stayed. In first grade, I used bathroom breaks to go on secret adventures. It was just me in the hallway. A small body in a maze. After keeping my word to use the bathroom, I would follow the sounds on my way back to my classroom. I heard clicks. It was Ms. Wiggins, a second grade teacher in the hallway helping her students log on to the bulging desktop computers. I heard screeches and cheers. Those were from Mrs. Johnson, who was cheering on her third graders while they played floor hockey in Mr. Taylor’s gym class.
As a first grader, I knew I would grow to have each of these teachers as I got older. Most teachers at my elementary school had been there nearly a decade by the time I started school. I know this because my cousins went to my school before me. These teachers were staying put.
I trusted that these teachers would be there each year and I looked forward to having each one as I moved through the school, like a rite of passage. This provided a sense of stability and security. It shaped my school experience and was one of the key factors that inveigled me to pursue education.
Working in a school with high turnover during a teacher shortage concerns me. No doubt it will impact our students’ social and emotional well-being and their connection to our school. That’s especially problematic given the mental health crisis young people in our country are facing. With so many challenges affecting American children, we can’t neglect how they internalize teacher turnover. We must think of ways to support them.
As I start off the school year, I’m keeping the needs of my students present. I’m brainstorming what they may need as the school year kicks into gear. I’m thinking of the space I may need to provide during the first weeks of school for students to grapple with grief, to ask questions, and to figure out how to strengthen relationships with peers and teachers who remain in our school community. It’s my greatest hope to help my students understand that the turnover in our school wasn’t their fault, and to help them reconnect with old teachers and build new relationships with incoming faculty members. The journey to healing may vary. But, we do students a disservice by thinking we can easily replace teachers and move on. We must acknowledge that each individual is a significant part of this community.
I’m also considering my own needs. Here are three steps I’m taking to start the year off strong
- I’m forgiving myself. I often find myself thinking back to all the things I wish I could’ve said or done to get my colleagues to stay just one more year. I’m releasing this. My forever colleagues made their own decision, and that is separate from our relationship.
- I’m reflecting and reconnecting. Every time a close colleague leaves, I question whether I’m making the right decision to stay. This deserves reflection. I’ve determined for myself, this school is still my home, so I’m focused on reconnecting with the mission and vision of my school. It’s the relationships I have with families and colleagues united with my school’s vision and philosophy that makes me stay. It’s something I believe in and want to help actualize. I’m reading a lot, writing a lot and reflecting a lot, to revitalize my purpose. I still matter and this work is bigger than me.
- I’m refreshing relationships. When a teacher you had a strong relationship with leaves, feelings of loneliness begin to set in. Schools function on relationships, even those among staff members. When turnover is high, it reveals our interconnectedness. I know I’m not alone in my grief. I know I need to reach out to the other colleagues and staff members who are staying to let them know they’re not alone and to feel less isolated myself. We’re still in this together. And perhaps, as some colleagues move on, there will be room for new relationships to form.
We are in a national crisis. Teachers are leaving and the pipelines ushering in fresh talent are eroding. As we sit with the weight of this reality and validate the experiences of the teachers who left, we must also remember, and humanize the experiences of the teachers and students who stayed.