For the first time in history, district officials say veteran teachers are considering jobs outside of education in the Great Resignation.

Education’s Great Resignation

For the first time in history, district officials say they’re seeing teachers who have been in the profession for 20 years consider jobs outside of education

Just outside of Des Moines, Iowa, an opening for a sixth-grade teaching job sits vacant… with zero applicants.

An hour northwest of Chicago, a shortage of bus drivers, special education teachers, counselors, and paraprofessionals is forcing teachers to reexamine their workload and look outside of the profession.

Public concerns around books, curricula, and learning platforms, combined with debate over masks and vaccines, have compelled college students who intended to major in education to choose a different career path.

For the first time in history, district officials say they’re seeing teachers who have been in the profession for 20 years consider jobs outside of education. 

Is it another symptom of The Great Resignation facing many sectors in America? Is this an esoteric threat to public education? 

These questions compelled me to speak with education leaders about how the educator shortage is impacting their communities and what they’re doing to combat it. 

Van Meter, Iowa Superintendent Deron Durflinger explains, “When the system gets attacked, it’s an attack on the individuals. There are so many challenges on both ends. You have people who are not ready for retirement. You have people in mid-career thinking about getting out. And then you have fewer students who want to be teachers. All those things have created a difficult environment.”

Durflinger says his district has struggled to recruit cooks and custodians but is treading water with teacher openings because it made strategic changes to the way in which teachers are compensated and began offering more attractive benefits. According to Durflinger, his district pays well, and they reward great teaching. But even in his rural district, they are seeing 25 applicants for an elementary school job that used to garner 100 applicants. “I have four kids. Of the two of them who wanted to be teachers, one now says they want to pursue another career,” he said.

Diana Hartmann, the Regional Superintendent for McHenry County, Illinois, sees the impact of the shortage in all the school districts in the county she serves. As the sixth-largest county in the state, McHenry has students living in both rural and suburban communities, and is combating a shortage of social workers, bus drivers, paraprofessionals, and counselors.

Hartmann says, “When you don’t have people in positions that support the school, it puts too much pressure on the teacher. With a shortage of special education teachers and paraprofessionals, teachers are faced with increased mandatory paperwork and extremely varied needs in a classroom of 32 kids. It’s really hard for that teacher to address all of those needs at once.”

In the district Hartmann came from before McHenry, the lack of special education support roles caused the newest teacher hires to throw in the towel. “You could be a 22-year-old teacher, put in a class of high-needs autism, non-verbal students, aggressive students and you only had one chapter on autism in your whole four years of college,” Hartmann said.  “That’s where they are breaking. Two teachers left in the first eight weeks of school because of the extreme circumstances they are facing.”

In addition, teachers are increasingly being recruited to jobs outside the profession. Durflinger had two mid-career teachers consider leaving the profession for jobs in a related field.

Hartmann explains how companies are marketing opportunities to teachers, illustrating that they can make the same amount of money or more and not have to deal with all the challenges, “It’s less stress. A lot of teachers go into it because it’s going to be good for the family lifestyle. The recent problems facing public education are causing headaches, anxiety, nausea, mental and physical exhaustion, forcing teachers to feel as though they no longer have the patience to deal with their own families.” 

While there’s no straightforward solution to the social and political climate clouding education, the crisis is forcing communities to get creative surrounding what they can control. Durflinger is offering attractive ‘soft’ benefits like:

  • Universal 15 days leave for all teachers;
  • An additional 15 days paid maternity leave;
  • Paternity leave;
  • Teachers who opt out of insurance coverage get a cash bonus;
  • Increased focus on building the culture of the district to make it the destination of choice for great teachers.

In other districts, Durflinger says they are paying teachers not to retire.

Similarly, Hartmann is working with area superintendents to build programs to recruit high school students for jobs like a paraprofessional. Her goal is to educate students about these types of jobs before they leave the county for other opportunities, “You can become a para and that’s going to help you become a teacher and you can do that program here, and you can save a ton of money, still live with mom and dad, and this program is going to cost you a fraction of the price.”

Hartmann says across Illinois, she’s seeing districts keep teachers past retirement age, fast-track teaching certifications for anyone with a four-year degree, and lower the requirements for positions like bus drivers and paraprofessionals. She’s also working with the communities she serves to change how positions like this are marketed, “There must be a why behind it beside the $17 an hour. You’re contributing to your community.”

In the end, the leaders I spoke with explain that education professionals just want to feel valued, even if it’s just a little bit. In a world where every day national news outlets are covering challenges facing education, a little bit goes a long way, and many leaders are looking into new ideas to do just that. Hartmann says, “It goes a long way just to make that staff feel appreciated and loved.”

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Britten Follett
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