As a former member of my county school board and as an instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University, the current crisis in education — namely the hemorrhaging of Virginia teachers as they choose to leave the profession — is an issue near and dear to my heart.
On a larger scale, it’s called the “Great Resignation” and refers to the mass exodus of American workers deciding their long-standing jobs and careers just weren’t for them anymore. It’s happened throughout the economy in every sector — manufacturing, construction, aviation, medicine, government and now it seems, in a big way, teaching.
Teachers all over Virginia, ones strongly tied to their calling, are making the decision to leave the profession. This isn’t just the standard attrition rate or some demographic blip — it’s a record-breaking departure of some of our best teachers.
Some teachers are retiring earlier than they had planned, while others are leaving mid-career to pursue brand new careers. They’ve had it with teaching. This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that our school systems can’t find new and experienced teachers to replace them. Indeed, vacancies, for full-time teachers and substitutes, are going begging. The situation is desperate. What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight.
Already the quality of teaching throughout the commonwealth is suffering. Substitutes, and there are not enough of them by any means, are being hired on a full-time status to cover classes that no longer have regular teachers. Alas, not all of these “subs” have the training they need to teach a full-time class in the ones they’ve been assigned.
At the same time, regular teachers are being asked to teach extra classes. Some, with no breaks in their schedule, are being assigned — depending upon the respective school districts’ schedules — up to seven classes. That’s an overwhelming workload.
Also, teachers still are being asked to carry out other assignments, such as lunchroom duty, bus duty and whatever extracurricular activities they may sponsor. This situation already is unsustainable. Indeed, if the workload — and the stress — continue unabated, it’s likely that more teachers may re-evaluate their careers as well.
So, just what do we do about it, and what are some of the underlying causes for the great quit among teachers? For years, the commitment on the part of educators was such that even when receiving high-paying job offers elsewhere, they stayed. This particularly was true of math and technical instructors. That was the level of their commitment. However, this bond is loosening, and the state and local school systems don’t seem to be doing enough about it.
One problem is the now highly politically charged environment of public education. While school board meetings have turned into right-vs.-left debates over critical race theory, or this or that book in the library, teachers often are the ones caught in the middle. They just want to teach, not get involved in the nation’s culture wars.
Then there is pay. Some claim this doesn’t matter, that we pay the teachers enough as it is already, and besides, no one became a teacher to get rich. But the fact remains: They are leaving and we’re not able to hire new ones. The counter to that is: If you pay people enough, they will be more inclined to stay. It’s basic economics. Last month’s annualized inflation rate was 6.9%. If that keeps up, it will erase most of the benefits of pay increases enacted during the past year.
In the meantime, everything possible should be done to improve morale in the workforce. Lack of communication has been a frequent complaint in almost every school system. During COVID, when it came to policy changes, schedule changes, and just an open back-and-forth between school administrators and instructional staff, it seems sometimes, teachers were the last ones to get the word.
There also is the concern that no one is listening to teachers when it comes to their worries over working conditions. Remote instruction was grueling and because many teachers must continue to teach both in person and in class at the same time, it still is. As for school administrators supporting instructional staff members who are dealing with discipline problems (which have gotten far worse) or difficult parents, that’s another frequent complaint.
In the end, it’s all about morale, which comes down to a combination of paying attention to working conditions, pay, support and communication with the workforce. Some of the teacher exodus is a function of a societal trend. However, more focus on retaining teachers can go a long way to mitigating what already is an educational crisis.
David S. Kerr is a former member of the Stafford County School Board and an adjunct political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Contact him at: AVirginiaFarmer@gmail.com
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