When Gorgette Green-Hodnett wrapped up her 21-year career in high school education a couple years ago, her family members celebrated. Not only with well wishes for her new job as a college professor in Maryland, but also with relief that she would no longer be working around the clock.
Her family had been glad each time she’d had a non-teaching role throughout her career, but this time her husband was excited at the prospect of finally taking a vacation outside the summer months.
“What I was told by my family is, ‘Thank God, because you come home and you grade papers. We have to go to your school and help you,’” she says. “I didn’t even realize the impact the work was having on my immediate family. Consciously or unconsciously, I allowed my work to manage and almost overtake areas of my life.”
That’s the kind of realization that teachers were coming to during the pandemic, Green-Hodnett says, when they were stretched to their limits juggling remote learning, their families, health concerns, and every other stressor brought on by the spread of COVID-19. While the country didn’t see the sudden mass exodus of teachers that some feared, the toll appeared clear — teachers reported experiencing depression at three times the rate of other adults.
And there was significant turnover in the workforce. A recent analysis by Chalkbeat found that, between the 2021 and 2022 school years, eight states — Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Washington — faced their highest teacher turnover rates in the past five years. Hawaii experienced a spike in retirements during the 2020-21 school year. And a recent Louisiana Educator Workforce Snapshot revealed that 26 percent of teachers who left their jobs in the 2020-2021 academic year had 21 or more years of experience.
Teacher quitting was at a 10-year high in 2021, consulting firm McKinsey & Company reports, and increased again in 2022. Quitting accounted for 61 percent of job “separations” among teachers in 2021, according to the data, and jumped to 64 percent in 2022.
Losing any teacher has ripple effects throughout a school, from eroding the sense of community to a potential knock on students’ academic progress.
But what happens, more specifically, when veteran teachers burn out and decide it’s time to say goodbye, walking out the door with all of their hard-earned experience? And what can schools change to get them to stay?
When it comes to years of teaching experience, federal data divides U.S. teachers into four buckets. In the 2020-21 school year:
- 12.4 percent of teachers had three or less years
- 24.5 percent of teachers had four to nine years
- 16.6 percent had 10 to 14 years
- 46.5 percent had 15 or more years
That breakdown is similar to what it was three years earlier in the 2017-18 school year.
But for some teachers who have been in the profession for a long time, it feels like there has been a shift.
Around the time she moved on to higher education, Green-Hodnett was running the Real Talk, Real Time Educators Forum with fellow educator Chandra Joseph-Lacet, who is a new teacher instructional coach for Boston Public Schools. The Facebook group and podcast were sounding boards for teachers looking for a community amidst the hair-pulling stress of remote learning.
Struggling with mental health is nothing new for teachers, Green-Hodnett says, but the pandemic made it — and many crumbling edges and simmering inequities of the education system — visible to the outside public in a new way.
In Joseph-Lacet’s view, the praise heaped upon teachers in the early days of the pandemic hasn’t translated into meaningful plans to help them manage the stress and pressure of the job. That’s partly why the duo created their podcast and forum — they were both in roles that supported teachers but they didn’t see a larger conversation about their mental health emerge.
“Everybody’s talking about teachers, but nobody’s talking to teachers,” Joseph-Lacet recalls thinking. “What are we going to do to protect and to heal ourselves? In a profession, and quite frankly, in a world that never really has valued teachers in the way that they really should have.”
For some experienced teachers, the answer was simple: Leave.
Teachers who have seen it all can bring a steady assurance to a staff team. Without them, schools can feel less stable.
“What happens when you don’t have folks with those years of expertise, someone who can help with, ‘I don’t understand this lesson, can you help me?’” Joseph-Lacet explains, “you see this withering of the environment in ways that you didn’t see before. This constant feeling of turnover because there’s no holding of the guard by the people who used to be there.”
Other experienced teachers don’t walk away, but hang on despite suffering from burnout. That, too, can have a negative ripple effect on their colleagues’ morale.
“A 10-year teacher is like the kingpin, because people are not staying in the profession like when we were younger,” Green-Hodnett says. “The veteran teachers are juggling all kinds of things because they also want good work. It’s this triangulation of trying to maintain themselves, manage classrooms that are not properly balanced in terms of what students need, and manage children who are not prepared emotionally” to follow directions.
While the pandemic exacerbated the external pain points, there’s also another culprit to the stress veteran teachers experience. There’s a certain self-sacrificing attitude that teachers have had for a long time now, Joseph-Lacet says, that comes from the expectations of their peers, administrators, all the way back to their training days in college. It’s the idea that, from the time that school starts in the fall to the final bell in summer, their lives revolve totally around work.
“I was guilty of saying, ‘Tell your friends you’ll see them in June,’” Joseph-Lacet says of conversations she used to have with new teachers.
She thinks of that attitude now as modeling bad behavior — total lack of self-care or work-life balance, in this case — something that veteran teachers are still at risk of doing as they deal with mental strain.
It all adds up to a sense that a lasting career in education is a tenuous prospect — or one that requires teachers who stick it out to give, and give, and give until there’s nothing left.
After all, Joseph-Lacet says that what earns teachers the reputation of being a “veteran” has changed during her career, from someone with 20 years of experience to someone who’s been in the profession for just three years.
Who Takes Care of Experienced Teachers?
A study of the impact of COVID-19 and its stressors on New Orleans teachers found that, when asked what the most helpful support during pandemic teaching had been, 42 percent of responders said “support from coworkers.”
One teacher, for example, told researchers that “working with a group of coworkers that really cares” was key to feeling supported.
It’s an example of a trend that Danna Thomas observed while she was still a teacher in Baltimore. Thomas founded the teacher self-care organization Happy Teacher Revolution, which hosts gatherings in 21 states where educators talk and support each other through difficult times in the profession. She found that experienced teachers tend to shoulder an additional emotional toll as their peers lean on them for support, particularly new teachers who are finding their footing.
She believes schools are missing opportunities to invest in veteran teachers as leaders who can help to improve well-being for other staff members.
“There are people in leadership who support teachers with academics, but their phone calls or Zoom are [reserved for] just new teachers crying their eyes out with how overwhelmed they are,” Thomas says. “Teaching, it shouldn’t be getting harder as the years go on. If you have 10, 20 years under your belt, it should be less overwhelming. We have to take care of the human being who is holding it together — or it’s all gonna crash.”
In the absence of more school-based support for long-time teachers, groups like Happy Teacher Revolution try to fill the gap. One common topic of conversation among members is the power of resetting professional boundaries that crumbled during the remote leaning days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a place where they can celebrate big wins like taking a sick day, actually eating lunch during their lunch breaks, and making it home from school before dark.
“I really want folks to feel it’s sustainable that they can do this for years and years,” Thomas says of her goal. “There’s nothing better than a happy veteran teacher who’s able to teach siblings, or those kids’ kids — it’s so cool. There’s been so much conversation about individual care, and we need community care. Who is making sure that the village collective is well?”
Green-Hodnett has also seen experienced teachers start to think more about what they want their lives to look like outside of work. She recalls one woman who was part of the Real Talk forum saying that one of the biggest regrets of her 40-year teaching career was all of the missed recitals and events that involved her daughter, sacrificed so she could keep up with school work.
Green-Hodnett also recalls a former colleague, who left the school district for a new job, had more than 200 hours of unused leave.
“Teachers have to be mindful of what their capacity is, use their voice, use their leave,” Green-Hodnett says. “Chandra’s talked about how we would wait and do all our doctor’s appointments in the summer, or do all our doctor’s appointments on spring break. No, you need to take [leave]. If you don’t take care of those things, then you retire, and then you’re not able to do what you wanna do in your retirement.”
Yet these support circles and changing attitudes may not be enough to make sure that today’s teachers hang in there to serve as tomorrow’s veterans.
Joseph-Lacet has seen a new trend among teachers that she fears will have negative consequences on the profession. Unlike the norm from earlier in her career, she says experienced teachers now are openly mulling, “How quickly can I retire?” Not necessarily to stop working completely, but to transition to another field.
“They’re like, ‘I need to bounce from this profession because it has just gotten to be too much,’” she says, “‘because it has just gotten to the point where it is breaking me mentally and or physically.’ There’s so much more of that, as opposed to people riding into retirement, having these wonderful retirement parties like they did back in the day.”
Among teachers who are retiring after long careers, she adds, some are sharing advice to younger teachers that sums up to, “Y’all don’t do like I did. Don’t stay here for 20 years. You can make a change. Make that change right now.”
“If younger teachers do that, again, we’re adding to this newness and this revolving door that’s happening, and your veteran teachers are going to be three- and five-year folk,” Joseph-Lacet says. “That is never going to be beneficial for anyone in the school environment, and most notably the children.”
Even so, and despite her own long career as a teacher and now a teacher coach, Joseph-Lacet says that she can’t find it in herself to be excited that her own daughter is in college studying elementary education.
“On social media there’s jokes of teachers being stressed because it’s August,” she says, “but under that, there’s depression, there’s anxiety, overwhelming dread of walking into the new school year.”