The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 190
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
GONZALEZ: Over the past year, the internet has been full of stories of teachers leaving teaching. A recent NEA survey revealed that 55 percent of currently employed teachers are seriously thinking about leaving their jobs, and that number is even higher for teachers of color. These numbers have spiked sharply over the 21-22 school year: In August of 2021, only 37 percent of those surveyed said they were thinking about leaving. Even more alarming, more teachers than ever are breaking their contracts and leaving in the middle of the school year, a decision many thought they would never make.
It’s no exaggeration to say that a big shift has occurred, and it happened very, very recently. If you are in a leadership position—a school administrator, a district superintendent, or even an official at the state level—and you’re concerned about this shift (which you definitely should be), I’m hoping to offer something helpful with this episode.
We’ll start by listening to the stories of four teachers who recently made the decision to leave their jobs and finding the common threads between them. These are the cautionary tales, the ones from which we can learn what not to do. Think of this part as “How to Lose a Teacher in One School Year or Less.”
Part two will be the stories of teachers who stayed, and the administrative decisions that made this possible. For this section, I looked specifically for teachers who stayed because of administrative support. At this point in history, I refuse to gaslight teachers into “doing it for the kids” or being some kind of heroes for mankind. We are so beyond that. The reality is, teaching can be a satisfying, sustainable career if and only if policies are put in place to make it so. The policies are possible and they are being put in place in small pockets all over the country. All it takes to make it happen are brave, insightful leaders who set their egos aside and stand up for what is right. Those are the people who are keeping their teachers, and my goal here is to spell out exactly what they’re doing to make that happen.
Before we get started, I’d like to thank Spinndle for sponsoring this episode. Are you looking for a project management tool for the classroom? Spinndle helps teachers co-plan and co-learn alongside their students for any type of project. It’s designed by teachers to not only capture, but optimize a student’s workflow, not just their final work. Visit spinndle.com to learn more about giving your students a safe space to manage their own learning.
Support also comes from Listenwise, providing short, high-quality, age-appropriate podcasts for grades 2 through 12. Save time with pre-made lessons designed to build students’ background knowledge and academic vocabulary. Keep students on grade-level with scaffolding and differentiation. It’s great practice for meeting listening & speaking standards! With Listenwise Premium, you get comprehension tools like quizzes, interactive transcripts, text-to-speech toolbar with Spanish translations, graphic organizers and more. Perfect for English language learners! Sign up for free at listenwise.com/
GONZALEZ: Our first story comes from Jamie, an English teacher and librarian in a southern state who taught for about 8 years before leaving. Like all of the teachers I spoke to, Jamie understood that teaching was going to be challenging, and she was prepared for that.
JAMIE: Teaching is never a profession that you enter thinking, ‘This will be easy!’ You know that you’re in it for kids, you know that you’re in it to build a better world, you know that you’re in it to pay it forward. It took me a really long time to get a teacher that really understood me and pushed me, and I wanted to be able to do that for kids.
GONZALEZ: For years, this desire sustained her, even though she knew other jobs would be a lot easier.
JAMIE: Teaching was always difficult. And there were always moments where I thought about other professions, where family and friends would look at me stressed and grading all the time and just trying to plan a curriculum and figure out how to get resources for our classroom and crowdfunding every spare second I had. And I always said no. I always said this is my profession and this is what I’m meant to do. I’m good at this—I am starting to see change and growth. There was always trouble but there was never trouble like the brutality of the treatment by our own leadership in the pandemic.
In the spring of 2020 none of us could have seen this coming. I think that we all did the best that we could and I have nothing but respect for leaders around the nation who stepped up to make the impossible possible and changed education overnight.
GONZALEZ: Once the initial emergency changes were put in place and it was time to move to the next phase, Jamie says the leaders in her school failed to listen to teachers. School was fully reopening in August of 2020, and many teachers agreed to stay in the hopes that it could be made as safe as possible. In a state where unions are outlawed, speaking up is always a risk, but many teachers did so anyway, asking for things like better access to hot water and cleaners, improved ventilation, masking, and more hand sanitizer. But many of their requests went unheard.
JAMIE: There’s such a disconnect of like, you see on the news ‘Oh, there’s millions of dollars of Covid funding going into the schools, of course, everything’s fine. On the other side, we see that none of that money was spent, and we’re crowdfunding for supplies. And parents would see the news segments about teachers being given a toxic cleaner, because that was one of the very basic things we had asked for, that the cleaner on it says that it’s toxic and not to use it. And we were just asking, like, can we get another cleaner? And instead of that, we just ended up getting lots of emails from parents saying “Don’t use that in your classroom, my child can’t be exposed to it!”
But what was the alternative? So then we just started asking parents to donate Clorox.
GONZALEZ: When leaders did agree to hear teachers’ concerns, the execution was disappointing. One leader agreed to meet with Jamie, but only in person—at a time when Covid numbers were very high, she felt this put her health at risk, but she went to the scheduled meeting anyway, putting her own safety at risk for the greater good. The administrator didn’t show up, sending representatives in his place instead.
Meanwhile, public support for teachers was quickly eroding. Small groups of vocal parents attended school board meetings demanding full-time in-person learning and elimination of mask mandates, calling teachers lazy for wanting to continue teaching from home. Teachers who pushed back on these demands were called bullies and hecklers, even by the school board members.
Because she has a health condition that puts her in a high-risk category, Jamie was given permission to teach from home for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, an allowance that made her feel guilty. It also increased her sense of duty to advocate for her peers, who had no choice but to teach in person. She attended school board meetings against her best judgment, spoke to the media, and tried to make changes happen, ultimately to no avail.
So what kept her around for another year? The work from home arrangement was done by her principal, who stood by her. She was able to work from home until March of 2021. She probably would have quit earlier if not for that. Once she went back, optimism spurred by the new availability of vaccines kept her hope up. Despite being exhausted every day from covering extra classes for quarantined colleagues and all the other associated tasks, she still had hope. When the Delta variant arrived, her optimism vanished and she knew the same stuff would come back again. Rather than reinstate safety measures like masking, her school district went the other direction, completely ending mask mandates and adding to that the removal of any quarantining.
JAMIE: When you’re not even pretending to try to keep the students in your care safe…I couldn’t do it anymore.
GONZALEZ: Meanwhile, Jamie has also watched that same loud minority of parents and media outlets come after teachers for the content they’re teaching, a topic we covered in depth in episode 181 and a problem that has persisted and mutated since then.
JAMIE: I saw last night on Twitter that some right-wing media outlets are urging for people to go thrash a teacher. This whole conversation about teachers grooming LGBTQ kids—that’s ridiculous! Teachers are allowing kids to figure out who they are. There are so many ridiculous accusations being levied that I feel like have all been rooted from this pandemic bullying and pandemic response and de-professionalizing what teachers do. Teachers have standards, we look at the standards, we figure out how to teach the standards, and then we teach them and then we figure out did your kid get it? I really hope so, and if your kid didn’t, I’m gonna keep working until they get it, and then we’re gonna make some magic happen, and I can’t wait to see your kid be successful.
GONZALEZ: I asked Jamie to talk about what she thinks administrators can do to stop this mass exodus of teachers from the profession, how they can better support their teachers and keep them in school. Her answer could be boiled down to one word: Listen.
JAMIE: There’s just so much that teachers are expected to do on the day-to-day—in just like a normal day, let me just return to like pre-pandemic—the level of exhaustion is insane. The only thing that any administrator should be doing is asking “How can I help?” The only thing.
GONZALEZ: Along with asking this question, and listening carefully to the answers that come, leaders should also be listening in more systematic ways, through channels that currently don’t have space for teachers’ voices.
JAMIE: Teachers need seats at the table where all decisions are being made. Every school board should have a teacher who is elected. Every school board should have a student who is elected. If you really care about advancing education, and you want to be better, and you don’t just want yes people—what are you scared of? Because that’s all it is. It’s fear of a point of view that contradicts your own. It’s fear from the board members who care more about their positions of power. If you’re not there for kids then get out. If you are flagrantly disregarding the safety of children and the people who serve them—the bus drivers, the cafeteria workers—there are so many people in the everyday life of school. If that school board member is not thinking of those people front of mind—the people who have to answer the front desk who’s arguing with people about masks, the bus drivers who have to hand masks to kids every day, there’s so many people that need seats at the table.
GONZALEZ: The other thing she says would make a big difference? If administrators who genuinely understand—and often agree with—the teachers’ perspectives would simply speak up.
JAMIE: Administrators need to stop being so quiet. I would have admin from multiple schools texting me like, “I saw you on the news, great job, I’m so proud of you.” Then add your voice to the conversation! Because if admin are depending on teachers that they know are the lowest in the rung to do this work for them? You know it’s much easier to bully a teacher than to bully an assistant principal, a principal, a district lead. If everyone truly knew and everyone wasn’t just scared of the person at the top, if people knew how powerful they are… I think had the stakes not been literally life and death with the pandemic, given more time, I’m really proud of the coalitions that we started to grow, of the unity among folks that we started to see.
So I think it’s on teacher advocacy groups to continue to do the good work that they’re doing and helping teachers ensure that they understand what their rights are. It’s also on administrators and district leadership: When they see something, they also need to say something.
GONZALEZ: Despite being happy in her new, non-teaching job, Jamie hasn’t healed from the pain of her final years of teaching, or from the loss of a career she thought she’d do for life. She’s left the problem behind for herself, but the problem hasn’t gone away.
JAMIE: I’m still grieving. The difference between a white-collar tech worker resigning and getting a new job and being a part of the Great Resignation is very very different than the tidal wave of a quarter of a school resigning. Teachers are so tired and with every right to be so tired. They’re doing triple the work because of unfortunately people like me who left. Some schools have fared better than others in that regard but it’s coming.
GONZALEZ: The second story is from Denise, who was an art teacher in a private school in a western state. Before the pandemic, Denise loved her job.
DENISE: It was amazing, and it was amazing for a really long time. I loved being a space where kids could come and just take a breather for a minute, you know, and I loved being that space of seeing kids create and using a different part of their brain, so I think for a long time it was good, things were great.
GONZALEZ: Because she teaches in a private school with expensive tuition, Denise found that pressure from parents was even more intense than what she saw in public schools.
DENISE: At the beginning of the pandemic everyone was like “Yay teachers are the best!” You got all these Starbucks gift cards and like people were really nice, and then it just it like flipped really quickly. The biggest things that pushed me out of teaching were—I’m gonna call it what it was, which was abuse from parents. Abusive language, harassment—I had a co-worker who had seven emails from a parent between the hours of midnight and five a.m. demanding things—I mean this is a person who’s like literally asleep in those hours. I had parents throw in my face how much they paid for their students’ education and therefore I worked for them and I should be responding faster.
GONZALEZ: Rather than advocate for the teachers, Denise’s administrators often acquiesced to parents. She described a culture where parents were more or less in charge, and the school leadership bent over backwards to please them for fear of having them go elsewhere. This atmosphere, along with the increased demands from Covid, meant more and more demands placed on teachers. Although self-care was given lip service, very little was done to make it possible.
DENISE: It’s hard as a teacher when you are burnt out to take care of others. And you know, there’s always that phrase they say of like “Oh in the airplane you put your oxygen mask before others,” but there was no opportunity for self-care for teachers. It was like the pandemic didn’t exist and we were expected, like everything was normal. I think the admin could have done more for self-care. I think giving teachers time and money to take care of ourselves—we at one point sat through a six-hour lecture about how to do self-care with no self-care incorporated in it. I’m one of nine teachers I know who’ve left, completely left teaching, like burnt out, done. And these are amazing teachers. These are teachers who should be in the classroom and they’re done. They’re so burnt and I reached that point too. I would cry in my car before going in because I was so exhausted and knew that I had to paint this face over and put this mask on because kids were really struggling too. And how do you balance that? You get home, you’re exhausted, I’m not gonna go to a yoga class, I’m not gonna, you know, I’m so burnt that I can’t take care of myself. But then I have to take care of others, and that’s tough, that is really hard, a hard ask. We all got in this profession and we knew what we’re getting into, but things like not, like having bad health insurance. We had very bad mental health care and you know investing in teacher mental health. Little things like maybe once a week providing lunch; I know it sounds so little but it’s that, it’s just that weight of like, oh, somebody cares, you know? How many times did I not eat lunch because I was helping to take care of students? Those little things I think really do add up.
GONZALEZ: Another point of frustration for Denise began pre-pandemic, when she started attending workshops on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Excited to take these ideas back to her school, she was met with a lackluster reaction.
DENISE: You know it’s really great and you learn all these amazing things and you walk away like totally refreshed, and then you bring it back to your school—folks are kind of like, well, that’s cool, yeah yeah, we’ll talk about it later you know? And I’m like no, we’ve got to talk about this now! And yes, summer of 2020 things spiked again and then kind of it became like trendy and then it sort of went away, and it was like, I’m a social justice person and I’m an activist, and so I wanted to keep having these conversations and talk about why do kids keep getting misgendered? Why do we not have bathrooms for all folks? Why is our school not disability accessible? And no one really wanted to talk about it. But then we have this like statement on the website, you know, so that’s challenging.
GONZALEZ: As the pandemic brought new changes, Denise persisted with her efforts to bring about more social justice-minded reform to her school, but she never managed to build a strong coalition of support.
DENISE: I had some co-workers that were really on board and like yes, let’s do this, let’s be the best we can be! And then others that had a more difficult time coming around to these concepts, pushing back about pronouns, not understanding you know that sort of like mentality of some folks. I did a lot of trainings with my co-workers and a lot of times it felt like everyone’s eyes were kind of like glazed over, and you want people to feel the same passion as you but you can’t make people, like, care, I guess? And that started to get really hard especially when we were switched to online mode because the priorities were very different, but we lost a lot of kids— and I don’t mean like physically lost, but I mean we had kids who didn’t attend classes online. and I was like, why is no one going to their houses knocking on their doors, trying to find out? And it was predominantly kids of color. I’m like why are we not fighting harder to find these kids? You know, again, the glowing diversity statement on the website but not always matching the actions of the school.
GONZALEZ: Ultimately, her decision to leave came down to the quality of her teaching. When she started to feel her energy shift, when her attitude in the classroom began to sour, she knew it was time to go.
DENISE: I think what kept me, to be honest, in the school for so long was like, I’m stubborn. And I wanted to fix—you want to make things better. And I think all teachers want to do that, but at some point you have to say okay but what is the result of this? I’m burnt out. I’m grumpy. I’m tired. I’m not treating my partner super great. I’m angry, I’m feeling a lot. And maybe this is the time, maybe it’s not as effective as I want to be. I had told myself that I never wanted to be that grumpy high school teacher that I had—my freshman year history teacher. I never wanted to be that, because it was such a turn-off for me as a student of like, god, this person really doesn’t want to be there, and I told myself if I ever started to feel that way that I would leave, because it wasn’t fair to my students.
GONZALEZ: The third story is from Sarah, who has been teaching high school—mostly English along with a handful of other subjects—for 8 years in a southern state. She recently made the decision to leave her job at the end of the school year. At Sarah’s school, the number of teachers who have quit in recent years is in the double digits.
Before Covid, Sarah loved teaching, but things changed dramatically when her school shifted to remote learning. Like so many other teachers all around the world, she adapted to the changes and put in the extra work needed to keep things running, but none of her efforts were ever recognized. This lack of appreciation was just one piece of an overall shift in feeling devalued as a teacher.
SARAH: I wear a lot of hats, and this fall when we went virtual, we had a day’s notice to get everything ready. Our IT administrator was new, he had just been hired, and started in that June, so this is early August when this happened. We still haven’t had all the technology rolled out and I became the de facto liaison for teachers. And that’s totally fine with me—I just got a degree in this, I love technology, I’m very comfortable with it. The only person to show any ounce of appreciation was the tech director. He sent emails, like any time he would see me he would be like, “Hey I really appreciate this, you’re really stepping in, I like what you’re doing.”
GONZALEZ: But she never got this same recognition from her administration, and she says that even a simple, sincere thank-you would have made a big difference in whether she decided to stay.
Another post-pandemic shift in Sarah’s school was a re-emphasis on test scores. Like so many school leaders nationwide, rather than recognize the unprecedented trauma students had been through and focusing on healing that with patience, her school’s leadership pushed a message of full steam ahead, especially when it came to testing. When her students weren’t performing on benchmarks the way they were expected to, Sarah’s principal came into her class and reprimanded them. Test scores take precedence over just about everything in Sarah’s school, and she believes this actually interferes with the quality of their education.
SARAH: I teach English right now and so when I get my seniors and they can barely write, well they’ve been having to focus on state test-type writing, which is not any type of formal stylized writing. I just wish the whole student—focus on the whole student instead of just this one aspect. We’re a very unique school and we have a lot of excellent vocational courses available for our students, but because of the huge pressure for us to become better, there’s always a focus on the schools around us and how we’re doing in comparison.
GONZALEZ: Benchmark testing is a regular presence on the school calendar, interrupting instruction and triggering regular schedule changes for students.
SARAH: We have to stop every now and then, stop every couple of weeks for a benchmark for one of the state area classes. There’s punishment, I guess, because those benchmarks are tied to grades, and so if you’ve fallen on a benchmark, then like you might be moved into a different enrichment, you might be pulled out of one class.
GONZALEZ: I asked about the enrichment classes, because “enrichment” sounds like a good thing, an opportunity to explore new topics or go deeper on areas of interest. It turns out “enrichment” is just a euphemism for test prep.
SARAH: They hate it. They think it’s dumb, they think it’s useless, especially my seniors, because we just sit there we don’t really do anything. I know in one subject area they just look at vocabulary.com. And it’s like while that stuff is beneficial, you have to have it within a certain context, and if they’re just sitting there for 30 minutes on vocabulary.com they’re not getting any more context.
GONZALEZ: The final straw for Sarah came down to micromanagement. For years, she had kept the lights in her classroom low, which created a calming atmosphere. When she was told her classroom was too relaxed and she needed to keep the bright overhead lights on, it was just enough to tip her over the edge. Some might hear this and think it wasn’t that big of a deal, but the physical environment of the classroom is one of the last few things a teacher still has some control over, and when that was taken away, Sarah was done.
For her it all comes down to trust in teachers’ professional judgment. In her school, the message she and her colleagues got was that teachers were the last people whose opinions mattered. Had that been different, she might have stuck with it.
SARAH: When administrators have said that we’ve got your back—actually have our backs. We’re the professionals, we’re the ones who have studied this, we’re the ones who have spent literal years creating things and tweaking things and making things—trust us to know we’re not gonna do anything to jeopardize. Unfortunately, and other people from other schools have noticed it too, the parents have more of a say in what’s happening when they have no idea what’s actually going on.
I understand that the administrators have a really difficult job and I could not imagine; however, I feel like some of them forget what it’s like to be in the classroom.
GONZALEZ: The last story is from Erin. For most of the 11 years she taught middle school ELA and social studies, Erin described her job in a west-coast state as “gruelling, but doable.” She taught over 150 students every year and was accustomed to the hard work and fast pace, but when Covid hit, everything changed, and the message she received from her administration was that ultimately, she simply didn’t matter.
ERIN: We were expected to pivot completely, and I did. I taught completely online. I actually taught through a pregnancy and also had a first grader who is doing school online at the same time. And so at one point I had a newborn, a first grader, and was teaching full-time online. My husband is also a teacher; he was also teaching full-time online.
And when we returned, we were expected to still have our curriculum digitized; again, I was told a couple weeks before the school year started that I’d be teaching English as well, no curriculum, you know, as is usually the case, there’s a scope and sequence, I had to create my own curriculum, it had to be digitized, it had to be online. And then as the school year started we realized we actually have to be able to teach the students that are here with us the students that are not here with us.
It was kind of shocking to go back and see that everything that was problematic in classrooms before Covid were the same: Our classes were packed, they were filthy, there was mouse urine and feces all over my equipment that I had to come in and wipe off day one, and it was really frustrating to see that the inequities and the lack of even just the facilities, just lacking basic hygiene, it was the same if not worse post-Covid.
And I had spent so many years just trying to stay safe, not flying to see my own family, not spending time indoors with people who are unvaccinated or eating indoors in restaurants, and then I was being told you’re going to spend your day in this really small, draftless room, you’re going to see 75 unvaccinated people coming in and out. At that point I still had a three-month-old at home.
I expressed my concerns to my administration and she said well if you have a problem with it, take a leave. She didn’t say I know this is difficult, I know you have two children at home that are unvaccinated, you know, what can I do to make you feel better? She said, “Just take a leave.”
GONZALEZ: So many of the incidents that led to Erin’s resignation were exacerbated by the attitude of that administrator, who came on board during the pandemic.
ERIN: She did not lead with empathy or transparency and it didn’t feel like any advocacy for the staff. Even some humble leadership would have been fantastic, like, I know this is a mess, I know that this is harder than it’s ever been, I’m so sorry that it’s hard, is there anything that I can do to change that?
GONZALEZ: On her third day back in person, Erin was exposed to a co-worker who had Covid. She heard about it through word of mouth, while using her breast pump on her lunch period.
ERIN: At this point I was pumping on my lunch, so I had a 30 minute lunch. By the time I went to the restroom, got back, I had 25 minutes to pump and shove some food in my face. They had tried to set us up with a pumping room but they had found rat droppings in there so I would not pump in there. So I was pumping in my classroom, the blinds didn’t work—I had a couple instances where students had almost seen me through the blinds. And that’s a whole other ball of wax—when you have a profession that has so many women in it and you don’t have a plan for pumping, I mean, my father’s in the corporate world and he said, “Oh they don’t have a family room?” I said “No Dad, they don’t have a family room!” We’re in a model where everything is, it’s 100% utilization model, which is code for we have teachers that are even sharing rooms, so we don’t have extra space for people to take care of even their biological needs.
So I had already done my whole pumping routine, I was on my prep period, and I went to my administrator. I said, I’ve been exposed, I was just around this person, they have Covid, what should I do? And she said, I don’t know. And I said, There’s no plan? She said, I don’t know what you expect me to say. I said, Well do we have any rapid tests? She said, No, those are just for the students. And I said, Well okay, what do you want me to do? She—and she sighed—she said, I guess I’ll find someone to cover your class. Well do you have any ideas where I can get tested? She said, You know, that’s something that’s between you and your healthcare professional.
It was very clear that no one cared about my well-being. It almost felt like no one cared about the students’ well-being. The facilities were as dirty as they were before, the class sizes were the same, we couldn’t get rapid tests—it came out later that the rapid tests that we did have for students were expired. It seemed that there was no plan. It just kind of seemed like they told us again—and this happens to teachers all the time—You’ll figure it out. Do the same job, your conditions will worsen, but you need to figure it out, and you also need to sort of keep that brave face on for your students.
Meanwhile I was having students pulled out left and right because they were getting sick. At one point I had seven students pulled out of my room midday—Take your backpacks, let’s go. So you know, seven students were just pulled out of my classroom. Was I just exposed to seven students? I’d like to know. So I asked that same administrator in the hallway and she said, You know, it’s none of your business. You don’t need to know why seven kids were pulled out of your class.
It just, it felt so disrespectful. It felt like I’m giving everything in my life to this profession, to this career, to my classroom. Even just the courtesy of letting us know what is happening with our own health would be great.
It’s always been a hard job, but it’s gotten harder and harder. I mean, the class sizes, inadequate supplies, inadequate facilities, not enough time, there’s no autonomy. There’s always been a level of a lack of respect but to have respect just to our personal state health and safety was like an additional insult.
GONZALEZ: Other decisions made at the district level compounded these problems. One popular tool, NewsELA, that was used by many teachers to provide leveled reading materials to students, was pulled, leaving teachers to scramble for replacement texts. Even worse, at a time when students were already comfortable with Google Classroom in remote learning, the district signed a contract with another learning management system, forcing everyone to switch over right in the middle of an already stressful period of remote learning.
ERIN: I don’t know any other profession where the tools that you need to do your job are taken away from you without your consent. You wouldn’t tell a nurse to go in and do her job and take away her stethoscope and her computer that’s needed to administer medications and be like, Well, you’re just going to have to figure this out.
Nobody asks teachers. Nobody asked us what school should look like when we came back from the shutdown. Not one, not a single person.
Studies are showing that the number one factor in student achievement is the teacher. It’s not the administrator, it’s not the facilities, it’s not the materials, it’s that teacher, it’s that person driving it all, the person creating relationships, the person looking at the data, deciding what moves they need to make in the classroom to help their students grow.
Nothing in our current system reflects that. More and more our class sizes grow, more and more student-facing positions are cut for things like additional administrators or moving to a different learning management system. You can’t continue to take away everything and then expect us to just shoulder it.
I think so many people that make the decisions about our schools and our children are so far removed from actual classrooms that they don’t understand what is happening. They need to spend time in these classrooms and see how the money that’s being allocated is being used. There’s no point in having a brand new Chromebook if you have a teacher who is so fried, so stressed, so strapped for time that they can’t create engaging high quality instruction.
One of my dear friends is an assistant principal and we’ve had a lot of discussions. She still remembers what it’s like in the classroom, and she’s leaving. She’s not completing the year. She said, I’m spending my day asking classroom teachers to do things that I would never do myself, and it feels terrible, and I can’t continue.
So my concern is that those people who remain in these, who are telling teachers what to do and not actually doing the work, the ones that are remaining are those who are fine with either turning a blind eye—maybe they don’t understand, because those that actually understand what are going on, they’re gutted as well, they’re devastated about what’s happening. I fear for my own son who’s in a public school about who’s actually going to be left in the classroom.
GONZALEZ: Erin held on for a while, driven by a sense of obligation to her students.
ERIN: If I wasn’t preparing for class I was thinking about something that happened in class, or thinking about how am I gonna manage tomorrow? They took away the Chromebook cart for charging and they expect the kids to come in and have them charged, but I know that this kid in this class and this kid in that class, they don’t bring them in. What is my strategy? What am I going to do to help them access that lesson that we have tomorrow? It was from the minute I opened my eyes to the minute I closed them. I dreamt about school.
GONZALEZ: In the fall of 2021, Erin did something she thought she’d never do, breaking her contract and leaving her job in the middle of the school year.
ERIN: I read Glennon Doyle’s Untamed and she talks a lot about how selfless women don’t make for a just society, and that we need to know and trust ourselves to say and do what needs to be done and just sort of let the rest burn. And I got to a point where I thought, I’m a mess emotionally, I’m worried about getting Covid, I’m stressed to the max, I can’t do my job in the hours that I’m being paid for. It affected my relationship with my husband, it affected my relationship with my own two children, it affected my mental health, I was stressed out all the time, I felt like I was failing at my job every day, and that’s not something I want to feel.
GONZALEZ: Now, months after she left teaching, Erin’s life has done a complete 180. Although both work and home life are so much better, she hasn’t forgotten the mess that still remains in her school.
ERIN: I have a new job that has nothing to do with education. I make twenty thousand dollars more than I did as an educator; that would have taken me the rest of my career to make. And when I think back on that it makes me feel really sad, because priorities are so screwed up and wonky and upside down. I can go to the bathroom when I want. I can drink as much water as I want. If I need to run out and get my kid, if there’s an emergency at school, I can do that. I have flexibility. No one asks me what I’m doing with every hour of my day. If I can’t make a meeting I don’t make a meeting. I’ve probably practiced more self-care than I ever did in my 11 years of teaching and I feel like a person again. I feel like the people around me care about me and my well-being. And I have what I need to do my job, and if I don’t, I ask for it and I get it.
There’s no way to convey how bad it is without sounding like you’re scattered and sounding like you’re unhinged and sounding frankly emotional. When I tell you I would come in every morning and wipe mouse urine off of my computer before I started for my day—what other job is that acceptable? But we have a shortage of custodians, so you just do it and you move on. And you think wow, that really sucks, this sucks, this is my life. But then there just comes a day where you’re like, I don’t want this to be my life anymore. I want a better life for myself.
And I loved teaching, I loved my students, I loved social studies, language arts, and I think if I wanted to do an okay or crappy job maybe I would have been okay continuing, but I always wanted to do the best job I could do and teaching badly was not an option for me.
GONZALEZ: Those are the stories of schools where things went wrong, and you may have heard pieces of your own story in them. If so, I hope you’re finding some validation in them, an affirmation that you’re not the only one. On the other hand, you may be someone in school leadership who is here to learn how to avoid something like this happening in your school, or to stop it if it’s already started.
That’s where we’ll turn next, to examining what is going right in schools where teachers have stuck around.
The good news is that we have a lot of information that can help. I sent out a request via email for teachers who had decided to stay in their jobs despite the increased challenges. While I’m aware that there are many reasons why a teacher might choose to stay in teaching—including financial need, loyalty to or support from colleagues, or a feeling of duty to students and community that outweighed the difficulty—for the purposes of this piece I specifically asked to hear from those who stayed mostly because of supportive decisions their administrators had made, because those are practices that can actually be replicated in other schools. In two days, I got over 200 responses, most of which are summarized in this spreadsheet. (Some responses have been removed because they are either off-topic or they contain information that might identify respondents; we wanted to keep them anonymous.)
In reviewing the responses, a few themes continued to emerge, leadership moves that made the biggest difference. In order of frequency, here’s what they were:
1. Appreciation, Listening, and Emotional Support
An overwhelming number of teachers who remained in the classroom talked about the supportive attitudes of their leadership as a key reason they stayed. Even in cases where circumstances remained extremely challenging and not much could be changed, having an administrator who offered genuine appreciation, a listening ear, and emotional support made the difference. While simple tokens of appreciation like food and gift cards helped a lot, it was the overall attitude of administrators that had the biggest impact.
This stands in stark contrast to the administrators described in the stories we shared earlier of teachers leaving; the common denominator in all of them was a callous, ego-driven attitude that made teachers feel unappreciated and uncared for.
“For me, it was my principal, vice principal, and office staff that kept my colleagues and I afloat. My vice principal came up to me and said he knew I didn’t care for praise in front of the masses, so he wanted to address me aside and say that I’m neither ignored nor unnoticed; he said that I’m doing good work, and he is here to support me no matter what, and so far, he and the rest have kept to their word. They’re not perfect, and I don’t agree with every decision, but they continually reinforce and share their appreciation for us while also encouraging us to take time for ourselves.”
“The best thing the leadership in my school did was to LISTEN to the teachers. We are on the front lines and we see problems developing on a day to day basis. When admin listens to the problems WE are experiencing and seeks wisdom from US on potential solutions, that is absolutely the most significant factor on why our staff has seen less turnover than other schools.”
“(Our administrator) started and ended every staff meeting by saying, ‘As a reminder, we are in the midst of a global pandemic. This is not school-as-usual, this is pandemic teaching and connecting to get them by. We’ll get caught up later. Take a breath, we’re going to be ok.’ Then they asked us to pass that along to our students.”
“We have a new principal this year who actually listens and values the concerns of his staff. He is a collaborator who allows his counseling team to make their own decisions. He is open to trying new things and welcomes new ideas. He believes in the professional and personal growth of his staff and wants each person to succeed. He has a ‘why not’ approach. He gives credit to others. He is the type of leader who you want to go above and beyond because you feel valued under his leadership. He is a breath of fresh air from the previous administration and his heart’s intention is truly with his students and staff.”
“I wanted to schedule a meeting with (my administrator) during the day to discuss my thoughts about retiring early (after 25 years) but he was in negotiations. I was okay with meeting next week but he took the time to call me at 7 pm and we talked for 2 hours. I was doing most of the talking and never once did it seem like he was trying to get off the phone with me. He listened, empathized, and understood my position. I truly felt valued and as a result, I am returning in August.”
“Leadership made sure socio-emotional check-ins were just not for students but adults. Personal days were almost never denied & lateness at the top of the year wasn’t treated as a disciplinary action. There was just overall understanding that this was just not a normal time. There was vulnerability from top down about how hard everything is and to just frankly do our best.”
2. Flexibility with Policies and Curriculum
Administrators who retained the most teachers were willing to adjust expectations in light of the pandemic, rather than obsessing over learning loss or insisting on “business as usual.” These loosened expectations included curriculum, scheduling, planning, observations, dress codes, and attendance. Rather than tell teachers to just “figure it out,” these administrators were willing to experiment until they found solutions that made the most sense.
“There was a lot of flexibility and less pressure around what curriculum must be covered. There was a lot more focus on love for students and for ourselves. Definitely no focus on ‘learning loss’ or filling any gaps.”
“The past 2 school years our Admin took away the expectation around curriculum—there was no longer pressure to teach the entire scope and sequence.”
“We were encouraged, directly and often, to cut what we felt we could from our curriculum and cover less.”
“Teacher dress code changed to jeans every day if you wanted.”
“Our district added several mental health days in the spring so that we never went more than 3 weeks without a 3 day weekend.”
3. Prioritizing Physical and Mental Health
Administrators who have lost the fewest teachers send a clear message that the health of their teachers and students matters. And this is not just lip service; they back it up with meaningful policies and practices that keep everyone physically safe and mentally well.
“In my school, there were intentional, deliberate steps my admin took—enforcing masks, staggering passing times between classes, halls were turned into one-way streets to mitigate cross-contamination. But the best thing they did was stay consistent. There were no sudden rule changes, no questionable ‘special cases,’ and no additional pressures.”
“If you aren’t feeling well, you get sent home. Admin will cover if needed. You can’t take care of your students if you aren’t taking care of yourself.”
“Had I been at literally ANY other school, I would have quit. My admin team bent over backward to make everything work. We had custom-built plexiglass ‘booths’ around teacher desks, a stringent quarantine policy, mandated testing and masking requirements from day 1, and a second cleaning crew to keep everything sanitized. They created outdoor classrooms, put HEPA filters for every single classroom, and taught classes for teachers who were out due to illness or vaccinations. They remained strong in the face of political and public pressure; we were the last in the area to relax our mask requirement (just weeks ago!). We got paid mental health days, self-care-related perks, and compassion for our every concern. They CARED, and they showed it.”
“Our administration checks in with us regularly to see how we are doing personally as well as how things are going in the classroom.”
“She’s allowed us time to focus on ourselves and the students we see daily, rather than the red tape aspects of education. This allowed me to focus heavily on connecting with students which has finally paid off in late April. I finally feel like I’m peeling away the levels of trauma for students to connect to the classroom.”
4. Lightening the Load
Many teachers were able to keep going because their administrators met their need for more time. This was done in two ways: Taking things off of teachers’ plates that were not absolutely necessary, like meetings, duties, special projects, dress code requirements, lesson plan submissions, and standardized tests, and adjusting the school schedule to build in more planning and collaboration time.
“The head principal at our high school blocked every bureaucratic task he could block. Any opportunity he found to remove a burden from staff, he took it. We expect things to return to pre-pandemic norms in the fall, but for the past 2 years it has been huge to not have to sweat through the endless data collection and evaluation cycles that drain so much energy and time from educators in normal times.”
“The biggest difference our school made for us in 2020-21 was prioritize our time towards planning/prep and office hours. We were given only necessary PD & a lot of prep time when we accomplished most of our work load. At one point we had Wednesdays mostly to ourselves while students worked asynchronously. Then we had a late start schedule to use mornings to our advantage through until the end of the year.”
“The most important and impactful things have been to give us time. We’ve continued to have late start days once a week, but admin gave staff that time to work rather than attend mandatory PD. Suspending formal evaluations and Student Learning Outcomes during the 2021-2022 school year (unless on an improvement plan) was another huge time and anxiety saver.”
“Central office has put a lot of emphasis on promoting student and staff wellness more than ‘catching up at all costs.’ This shows in things like not adding any new assessments or documentation requirements, allowing us to continue faculty meetings on Zoom so that we don’t feel like our time is being used for no reason, and giving a few extra days off throughout the year. I feel like they’re working with, not against us.“
5. Trusting Teachers
Just like with all of the other factors, this last one is the exact opposite of what happened in schools that lost large numbers of teachers. Whether or not a teacher feels trusted and respected as a professional makes a huge difference in their job satisfaction, and that often is the determining factor in whether they stick around.
“One thing an administrator said in a meeting changed my paradigm & helped me carry on through some extremely challenging days: ‘Why does everyone feel like they need permission to do everything? If it’s good for kids, research supports it, and it’s ethical, just do it.’ That mindset has helped me see that, for all of the faults and mistakes our administration have made, they still intend to support us and our students. It also gave me the permission I needed to be a leader when the popular narrative has been that we are powerless and our voices don’t matter.”
“My supervisor and principal trust me and trust that I am doing my job well. They never interfere with my work and they give me wide latitude to design my curriculum and lesson plans.”
“The leadership I worked under spent time empowering me to pursue new ideas. He’s an out of the box sort of guy and we both connected with a shared dream of doing something different—using COVID as a chance to break the mould and build a small cohort of high school that did things differently. He allowed me to create, pursue new ideas for classes/curriculum, structure a schedule according to our needs and desires, and would point me in the direction of people with areas of speciality that I was seeking to tap. He trusted me and we made something amazing happen. It sounds crazy and it was indeed only for a year but it’s taking off again this upcoming school year! Stoked to see the program continue to build and grow!”
“My administrator is the reason I have not left after 28 years. I have never felt more appreciated or trusted by my boss, even when I err as humans do. If he ever leaves, that will be my cue to retire.”
So what does all this tell us? I think the message is pretty clear: There’s really no mystery behind why some schools are hemorrhaging teachers and others have a faculty that looks pretty similar to the one they had a few years ago. Keeping good teachers on staff doesn’t require advanced training or specialized knowledge. It’s a simple matter of staying humble, respecting your teachers, trusting in their professional training, and showing them that you care more about them as human beings than you do about how your school looks on paper. That’s it.
If you’re an administrator who is starting to feel your teaching staff slipping away from you, it may not be too late. You can start today by going to your staff, asking them what they need, listening to their answer, and then implementing as much of their requests as you possibly can. For anything that can’t be done, just be straight with them. And be kind. And vulnerable. And humble. It makes a difference.
And for those who have been doing this all along, thank you. None of us ever expected this level of near-impossibility in education, but throughout it all, you have made your teachers feel like they mattered. And treating other human beings like they matter is ultimately going to be the thing that gets us all through this.
For a transcript of this episode, plus a link to the full spreadsheet of responses from teachers who stayed, visit cultofpedagogy.com, click Podcast, and choose episode 190. To get a bimonthly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, courses and products, sign up for my mailing list at cultofpedagogy.com/subscribe. Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.