Amid significant teacher shortages in school districts throughout California, a new survey (PDF) of thousands of educators depicts a profession marked heavily by burnout and job dissatisfaction.
“Close to half of teachers are thinking about leaving the profession in the next three years,” said Tyrone Howard, co-faculty director of UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools, which produced the report in collaboration with the California Teachers Association and Hart Research Associates.
Researchers polled more than 4,600 TK-12th grade teachers across the state between May 24 and June 6. The findings show that while many teachers find their work rewarding, a majority said they felt exhausted and stressed — with burnout cited as the top reason for leaving the profession.
The findings come as many large and small districts across the state scramble to fill significant teacher vacancies in their schools, part of a longstanding problem made worse during the pandemic.
Other factors impacting teacher retention include heavy workload, low pay and escalating living costs, with some 80% of survey respondents saying it was difficult to find affordable housing close to where they teach. Many also cited a lack of support from district administrators. And a significant portion of teachers of color and LGBTQ+ educators surveyed said they had experienced discrimination.
Howard recently discussed the survey with KQED morning host Brian Watt. Here’s an excerpt of their conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.
BRIAN WATT: Tell us more about the findings and how they relate to keeping teachers in the classroom.
TYRONE HOWARD: So these data were deeply troubling on a lot of levels because we know the pandemic has really been difficult for a lot of folks — educators included. But these data really lifted up how teachers are exhausted, stressed, frustrated (and) overwhelmed. In many ways, I think these educators are telling us that they’re beyond burnout.
I remember feeling like teachers were stressed, exhausted and overwhelmed before the pandemic. Do you think that the pandemic just made these trends worse or more evident?
It’s not an “either/or.” I think it’s a “both.” Our data show about 77% of our respondents saying that things have changed for the worse, compared to where they were prior to the pandemic. And I think during the pandemic, the general public got a bit of a sense of what it meant to educate young people, because lots of parents and caregivers were doing that at home. So I think there’s been a larger awareness that the general public cares about the difficulties of teaching.
One of the other things that struck me in this survey is the experience of teachers of color, in particular. Just over 60% of Black teachers and half of Asian American and Pacific Islander teachers reported having experienced racial discrimination in their current position. What does this tell you about school support?
What it tells me is that we have a lot of work to do. Because, on the one hand, we talk about creating inclusive and supportive spaces for our students, but yet we’ve not done that as adults when it comes to our staff. My concern becomes, if the adults don’t feel safe, what does that say for the students who are from those same ethnic and racial backgrounds? So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done with regard to how we create truly inclusive, safe and affirming spaces for all educators, regardless of their ethnic or racial backgrounds.
What might an episode of racial discrimination for a teacher of color look like?
It can manifest in so many different ways — implicit and explicit.
From an explicit standpoint, what happens in schools is that frequently teachers of color are the primary advocates for students of color. And so when there’s an issue of what some might perceive as unfair treatment, when there’s an issue of what some might consider to be overlooking or under-serving certain students of color, it’s typically the teacher of color who says, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not fair. That’s not what we should be doing as educators.’
When they raise those issues, oftentimes they are quick to be shut down and told that those things aren’t real, or they’re quick to be told that you only are concerned about the Black students or the Asian students, or they’re told that you need to mind your business. So they’re told to stay in their place and keep quiet.
‘We talk about creating inclusive and supportive spaces for our students, but yet we’ve not done that as adults when it comes to our staff.’Dr. Tyrone Howard, co-faculty director, UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools
From an implicit standpoint, it happens where teachers of color are sitting in meetings and they raise questions or they ask about issues. But yet there’s no recognition of those points. There’s no affirmation of their concerns or this subtle sort of passing-over of those teachers of color for leadership opportunities. What we learn from this data is that those Black teachers and those Asian American teachers said that they feel like they can’t be their authentic selves. And that’s deeply troubling because we say we want to have a more diverse teaching field here in the state of California. But if these are the experiences of many teachers of color, we’re not doing well to attract more folks of color into the profession.
Given the results of this survey in the findings, how can retention be improved, especially among teachers of color?
The data are very clear about what educators think are important. No. 1 is better pay, (which) would go a long way to increase teacher satisfaction. We know that smaller class sizes would be another step in the right direction. A number of the educators that we spoke to said that strengthening discipline policies around disruptive behavior would be a step in the right direction.
And as it pertains to teachers of color, we know that there is an ask for a greater focus on diverse and inclusive workspaces. That means we have to have leaders in schools who are willing to talk about the racial ethnic makeup of our schools, and talk about how we can best support teachers across the ethnic and racial spectrum.
You’ve mentioned that many people take pay cuts in order to enter the teaching profession. Are you worried that the sentiments this poll uncovered are going to deter even the most inspired people from giving teaching a try?
Absolutely. That’s one of the underlying concerns that I have. While this gives us a snapshot of the current state of affairs for educators, there are also some key points that may scare folks off. One of the data points that was really disturbing for me is that a significant number of teachers said they oftentimes don’t make a living wage; they are not having their basic needs met. So if you’re someone who really wants to make a difference in our society by way of teaching, and you hear things like, “I’m burned out, I can’t make a living wage. I’m constantly under attack from my political beliefs. I don’t feel supported,” … that’s not going to really sort of excite people to enter into our profession.
This is not only about a “here and now” moment in terms of education. It’s about what our field looks like in the next five to 10 years.