My response to this question:
Why do you think so many teachers are leaving the profession during this time?
This is an excellent question. I will try to answer it honestly and thoughtfully. I believe that the answer is more complex than my simple analysis, but I will offer these thoughts as a starting point.
Teaching is a very difficult profession. It is also an extremely rewarding profession. Historically, teachers have been people who worked for something other than financial reward or even status. They worked principally because they felt like their work made a difference of some kind. The response of their students to their efforts has always been absolutely key in this.
I cannot express myself without sharing an anecdote, but I will limit myself to two in this case. The first regards my first year of teaching. I had already had something akin to a religious experience in my student teaching, when I discovered that teaching was something that I had been waiting to do my whole life. I truly loved it. However, during my very first professional year in 1978, that dream fell apart. Teaching is just really, really a hard thing to do. That is a reality. I had not yet grasped that reality. When I entered the classroom as a fulltime teacher in a private school in Little Rock, Arkansas, I experienced the intense challenges that teaching brings. Being a rule follower and knowing that I had a contract, I wanted to do the right thing. I told myself that I would teach until Thanksgiving, and quit then, never to return to the classroom. I made it to Thanksgiving and decided that I would quit at Christmas. By Christmastime, I decided that I could make it to the end of my contract that year, but that would be it for me. Sometime between Christmas and May, I decided that I could do this hard thing. I have now been teaching for 44 years. Here’s the thing, though – teaching itself has not gotten one bit easier than it was that year, no matter how much experience I have. There was something else that happened – I learned that it was worth it. As I began to have relationships with students and to feel that I truly was making a difference in some lives, I made up my mind that every bit of effort and lack of sleep was something I was willing to give.
Years later, my daughter entered the classroom for the first time. I had given her fair warning. Her first year was something like mine. Also a rule follower, she planned to stick it out for her one year contract, never to return to the classroom after that. She described it as her prison sentence and talked about how much time she had left. As I listened to her saga in those first few months, I remarked, oh, you’ll be okay. You just haven’t gotten any love notes yet. She is an elementary teacher. They get love notes. Upper School teachers do, too. They just look a little different. Well, she did get those love notes, both from students and their parents. She has now been teaching for 16 years.
So, why do I share these two anecdotes? Because I have decided that this concept has more to do with teachers leaving the profession than do the issues of fear, anger, and frustration. All of those are certainly present. I think, though, that teachers are very special people who are tough enough to put up with many challenges. I don’t think they would leave the profession solely for those reasons. I think they are leaving because the isolation they have been subjected to due to COVID has cost them their
love notes. They are not able to connect with kids the way they used to do. That robs them of the sense of joy they get from feeling like they make a difference. That is the one thing that put them in the profession in the first place. The disenfranchisement of the academic community is not just something professionals are writing about. It is real. COVID robbed us of that connectedness to our students that we value so much. Thankfully, we are slowly getting that back. It took a long time, though. We paid a price.
I said that I would only share two anecdotes, but I must share one more. During the 2020-2021 school year, teachers and administrators were practically standing on their heads to try to keep the educational process moving. That year was extremely challenging for me personally. Many of you saw me with my class in camp chairs outside, huddled in the Cartee gym, or meeting in the dining hall. I will never smell garlic again without remembering those mornings when we all knew that the menu for the day was Italian. When the wifi went down, we lined up our phones and called everyone in on speaker phone. We did anything and everything we could to bring people together. Despite those efforts, I felt the loss of connectedness to my students. For the first few weeks I got in my car every day and sobbed, telling myself, I just can’t do this. It was just too hard. Then, about three weeks in, something changed. I knew that I would finish the school year. I came home one day and remarked to my husband, well, I’m hooked, I guess. They’ve gotten me. I had fallen in love with my students. I knew that I could not leave.
So, I guess those thoughts are the reason that I would say that teachers are not leaving the profession because we don’t pay them enough or make them feel safe enough. I think that during the COVID years they lost that sense of making a difference. They lost the conversations with a student that you keep thinking about all day long. They lost the smile of gratitude on a little one’s face. They lost the love notes. I hope that we can recover from that loss. I think we will.