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Why teachers burn out and leave districts scrambling to fill jobs


When the bell rings at Casa Grande Union High School, more than seventy sophomores crowd Stacy Brady’s biology class.

The rural school district outside of Phoenix cannot find enough certified teachers, especially for math and science, so 13 classes are doubled, including several with more than 70 students. Some of these classes have a teaching assistant, but others rely on a single teacher.

“It’s been very chaotic,” Brady said. “I wish I could clone myself because I can’t reach all the kids who need help.”

Located between Phoenix and Tucson, Casa Grande has struggled to find teachers for years, hiring about 30 Filipinos each year to fill the void. But this alarming trend reaches a more serious point. District spokeswoman Jennifer Kortsen says she’s never seen a shortage like this in 29 years here.

“I’ve never had a start to a school year where we had so many vacancies, and that’s really sad,” Kortsen said. “We posted it, we went to job fairs, and there are just no teachers to be had right now.”

After two years of pandemic-related health issues, learning loss and tense public scrutiny, teacher burnout is rising nationwide.

Jennifer Zanardi has just left her job as a high school teacher in Palm Beach, Florida to become a corporate recruiter. She says the relatively low pay was a big factor, but political pressure and the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill were the tipping points. She found herself working longer hours and walking on eggshells.

“The public was actually saying that the teachers were trying to indoctrinate the students,” Zanardi said. “It affected my mental health and my stress tremendously.”

Enrollment in teacher education programs is also plummeting, down 33% between 2010 and 2020 — a trend that has only intensified during the pandemic, according to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Schools compete for a shrinking pool of teachers, and wealthier suburban districts win out over those with fewer resources, especially rural schools and those that support more low-income families and students of color.

“(Teachers) don’t go to the most disadvantaged schools,” said Chad Aldeman, director of policy at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab. “The same schools that were struggling in 2019 are struggling even more in 2022.”

In Prince George’s County, Maryland, where there is a high concentration of poverty, at least 8% of public school district teaching positions are vacant, more than double last year, according to the teachers’ union. .

Dr. Donna Christy, president of the Prince George’s County Association of Educators, sees a scramble to fill the void.

“It really feels like there’s been an exodus,” Christy said. “They leave the profession, but they also go to other neighborhoods. Where there is higher pay, where there are better working conditions, where they feel more supported, or they have heard there is more support.

Geva Hickman-Johnson, an English teacher at a high school in Prince George’s County, has just learned that she will have to prepare lessons for new replacements in her department. She also expects her class sizes to increase.

“That means my students may not have the best teacher this year,” Hickman-Johnson said. “I may not be able to be at my best because I’m pulled in so many different directions that I won’t be able to really focus on the students I stand in front of every day. It’s hard.”

In addition to the loss of learning during the pandemic, many teachers across the country have also noticed worsening student behavior. At a time when many students need more attention, Christy fears they are getting less.

“They were falling through the cracks before,” she said. “It will be like opening the floodgates. It’s going to be really difficult to keep pace with our struggling students.

Like many districts, Prince George’s County Public Schools are now scrambling to fill those empty classrooms, moving staff, raising subs’ salaries and combining classes where necessary.

States are getting creative with filling vacancies, though some plans are controversial. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis is asking veterans without a teaching degree to lead classrooms.

“It was a slap in the face,” Jennifer Zanardi said. “Like, it doesn’t matter what you do, your education doesn’t matter, anyone can do what you do. And that’s just not true. We’re professionals.

The Casa Grande Elementary School District is one of many to adopt a 4-day week to retain staff — a strategy it says has helped them retain multiple teachers.

The school district is looking to hire more foreign teachers. In some classrooms, paraeducators with no expertise on the subject teach lessons prepared by certified teachers, such as Stacy Brady.

“I’m thinking of myself,” Brady said. “I struggled with math. And if I was sitting in this class, I needed help, I had questions, I needed someone to break it down in a different way, and there was no one who had knowledge of the content to do so, I (would) close. And I think a lot of our students might close as well.

Brady expects to run classes with more than 70 students most, if not all year. She worries that the teacher shortage at Casa Grande will only get worse.

“My biggest fear, I think, is that a child will be hurt in some way, emotionally or physically,” she said. “And I can’t see it, because there are so many students in the room.”

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