‘It Killed My Spirit': How 3 Teachers Are Navigating the Burnout Crisis in Education

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After two years of weathering pandemic disruptions, safety concerns and tense public scrutiny, burned-out teachers have quit the profession in droves.

At least 300,000 public-school teachers and other staff left the field between February 2020 and May 2022, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Teachers have experienced alarmingly high rates of anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic — even more than health-care workers, according to recent research published in Educational Researcher, a journal of the American Education Research Association. 

K-12 teachers report the highest burnout rate of all U.S. professions, with more than four out of every 10 teachers noting that they feel burned out "always" or "very often" at work, according to a June 2022 Gallup poll

Many of the predominant challenges teachers face, including safety concerns, low salaries, funding deficits and declining mental health, are not new issues — but the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has intensified existing problems within the profession.

The burnout crisis in teaching has been exacerbated by a national educator shortage — enrollment in teacher preparation programs has plummeted, a trend amplified by the pandemic, and schools throughout the U.S. are competing for a shrinking pool of qualified teachers. 

Some teachers quit because of the challenges of teaching during a global pandemic, while others, taking note of the Great Resignation, found higher-paid opportunities in other industries. Those who remain in the classroom report feeling exhausted and disillusioned with the role they had once considered to be their dream job. 

'If I didn't have retirement to look forward to, I'd probably quit'

August Plock's class size has nearly doubled since he started teaching 11th grade U.S. history at Pflugerville High School 23 years ago, thanks to a persistent teacher shortage and a flock of families migrating to trendy Austin, a mere 30-minute drive south.

"I used to teach about 140 students a year, and now, that number is close to 200," Plock, 54, tells CNBC Make It. He's teaching six classes this year, each consisting of 28 to 33 students.

Texas has faced a teacher shortage for years, and the pandemic made it worse — the state lost close to 43,000 teachers last year, setting a new record in Texas for retirements and resignations.

"It's been bad the last couple of years, but this year, it's been really hard," Plock says. "We've had to dissolve the jobs of teachers in special programs and put them into classrooms that had no teachers, even if they didn't want to do that — it's caused a lot of people to quit." 

Plock has had at least 10 additional students added to his class this year, and is teaching a second subject, geography, because of the educator shortage.

"It's fun working with the students," Plock says. "But I'll be honest, I have two years to go until I retire, and if I didn't have retirement to look forward to, and I was a young teacher, I'd probably quit too."

'It was chaos'

Jeanne Paulino entertaining her students during a recent lesson.
Photo: Jeanne Paulino
Jeanne Paulino entertaining her students during a recent lesson.

Jeanne Paulino never imagined she would become a teacher. 

The 24-year-old had her heart set on working as a lawyer all throughout high school and college — but at the start of her senior year, one conversation changed her mind. 

"I was approached by a recruiter from Teach for America, and I was just blown away," she says. "He began the conversation about how education is full of inequity, and how teachers can help resolve some of the inequity that exists."

She was accepted into the program in November 2019 and was placed at Intrinsic Charter High School in Chicago as an 11th grade English learning specialist for the 2020-2021 school year — then the pandemic hit. 

"It was chaos," Paulino recalls. "I spent my first year of teaching entirely online, and I really felt like I had no idea what I was doing." 

When her school re-opened for the 2021-2022 school year, Paulino felt even more lost. 

"I probably went home crying at least twice a week that first semester, because I was so frazzled and confused about how to effectively manage all of these students in the classroom," she says. "It was their first time being in-person together after a long time apart, plus a lot of them were still coping with the stress of the pandemic and lack of social interaction … it led to new behavioral challenges I did not anticipate."

Now, however, with two years of teaching under her belt, Paulino is confident leading her classroom, and is excited about the positive impact she's able to make on her students' lives. 

Teach for America only requires corps members to teach for at least two years, so Paulino has finished her commitment to the program, but Intrinsic Charter School hired her to stay on staff as a full-time teacher for the 2022-2023 school year.

"Teaching has been both better and more challenging than I thought it would be," she says. "Sometimes I'm an instructor, other times I'm a confidante or a therapist, but it all feels like incredibly important, meaningful work."

When she first started teaching, Paulino planned to leave after two years, noting that the teaching has never been an "end goal" for her, but her career goals have changed — instead of going to law school, she now dreams of becoming a therapist or a writer.

But there's one thing that's keeping her in the classroom for at least one more year: her students. Paulino explains: "The great relationships I have with the students has motivated me to stay in spite of all the stress and sometimes feeling overworked and underpaid."

'Teaching became intolerable'

Amy Owen still cries when she recalls her last day in the classroom where she spent more than 20 years teaching. 

Owen, a former third grade teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, sent her letter of resignation on June 30 — and was surprised when someone from the human resources department responded to her email congratulating her on the decision. 

"It really gave me pause, because I was not happy to be leaving teaching and didn't see it as something to be celebrated," Owen, 48, says. "I felt like I was being forced out of teaching."

She fought back tears while breaking the news to her students. 

"All day, there were kids telling me how excited they were to visit my classroom when we returned in the fall, or how they had hoped their younger sibling would have me next year," Owen says. "I felt a huge amount of guilt telling them I wasn't coming back, like I was abandoning these little kids who needed me." 

Owen says she reached her breaking point "many, many times" over the years, and had debated quitting teaching before — but the 2021-2022 school year pushed her over the edge. 

"Everything immediately shifted in terms of what leadership expected from us," she says. "We went from valuing the whole child and caring about our students as human beings during virtual learning to testing them to death." 

On top of that, many of her students were still struggling with stressors that had cropped up during the pandemic: losing family members to coronavirus, worrying about getting sick with the virus themselves, feeling insecure or timid around their classmates after so much time spent apart. 

"That killed my spirit," Owen says. "At that point, teaching became intolerable, and I couldn't do it anymore." 

She moved to Charlotte weeks after quitting teaching and has been focused on volunteering for causes she's passionate about, like gun reform, and finding a new job — she's interested in pursuing a career in marketing or communications. 

"My heart is still broken," Owen says of her decision to quit. "Part of me still wants to be a teacher, I was proud of it, and really loved it … but I don't think I will step foot in a classroom ever again."

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