The United States is facing a Great Resignation of K-12 teachers, a brain drain that could deal another blow to children already struggling to overcome the disruption caused by COVID-19. In 2021, the education sector led the nation in resignation increases, as frustrated teachers, guidance counselors, and janitors exited schools across the country.
As the nation celebrates Teacher Appreciation Week the first week of May, parents, school administrators, lawmakers, and government officials at all levels should contemplate what’s driving mass resignations and fix the problem.
What I see in one sector of K-12 education—middle and high school social studies—might help shed light on what the nation’s 3.7 million teachers are experiencing. My organization, the Bill of Rights Institute (BRI), supports nearly 60,000 middle and high school teachers of American civics, history, and social studies. Having been in the education field for a quarter century, I’ve never seen teachers more exhausted or exasperated.
The burnout can be seen in the data. The MissionSquare Research Institute found that public school teachers are more likely than other public employees to suffer from anxiety, stress, and burnout. Nearly half of all responding American educators told the website Teachers Pay Teachers that they had considered changing jobs in the last month.
During the pandemic, most of our teachers had to pivot to remote instruction. Many did so while caring for their own children.
A large number of our teachers—and teachers across all grades and subjects—were more entrepreneurial than the district systems in which they taught. Their willingness to curate curriculum content and use innovative technology outpaced the district-mandated tools they were given. Rather than encouraging innovation, many districts stymied it.
Once schools re-opened, many have contended with massive substitute teacher shortages. This has meant that teachers can’t get sick or otherwise miss a day. Without substitutes, teachers are less likely to take days off during the school year for in-person professional development programs, further depriving them of time for rejuvenation.
On top of all of that, social studies teachers have been thrown into the maelstrom of debates over the role of history and civics in our schools.
In the ongoing controversy over “divisive” or “contentious issues,” including Critical Race Theory, it’s clear that a strong majority of social studies teachers seek to present diverse viewpoints. Often they feel hampered in their ability to do so, lacking clear support from parents, principals, and superintendents.
Many teachers hear from parents, in effect: “Don’t teach my kid the wrong thing!” And from principals and superintendents: “Don’t touch that topic or else we’ll have a fight on our hands.” In a number of states, politicians have reinforced these messages, telling teachers with the force of law to back off certain subjects or face the threat of citizen lawsuits.
According to BRI’s own survey of more than 1,000 civics and history teachers, 57 percent said they find it challenging to discuss issues about political leaders, while 64 percent indicated it was challenging to discuss issues of race.
This must change.
Students need to confront hard questions in school, and history and civics are full of difficult topics and challenging current events. Teachers deserve support at all levels for incorporating diverse viewpoints in their lessons, using primary source documents, and encouraging open discussion.
Diverse viewpoints include views about which you and I may not agree. But by providing diverse perspectives, teachers help students learn how to be critical thinkers. By encouraging this approach, parents can have their teachers’ backs at the same time they also help shape the curricula in their local schools.
Staving off a Great Resignation among teachers may be possible, especially if citizens truly recognize and support the difficult work teachers do every day.
To respect and honor their work, we need to focus on teacher appreciation every week, not just this week. If we don’t, those teachers whom we most need might not be in the classroom next year.