AFT says mass exodus of teachers can be stopped
FILE — New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, left, announced efforts to temporarily employ National Guard troops and state bureaucrats as substitute teachers and preschool caregivers, during a news conference, at Sante Fe High School, in Santa Fe, N.M., Jan. 19, 2022. Schools that may have first turned to librarians, custodians and support staff to step into empty classes have had to look beyond their buildings. | Morgan Lee/AP

BOSTON —Even before the coronavirus pandemic made everything worse, some 300,000 teachers and school support staffers were leaving the profession every year. Now the Teachers (AFT) have stepped forward with a comprehensive report analyzing why—and what to do about it.

The 56-page report, Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?  from a 25-member AFT task force, says a number of problems led to the rising shortage of teachers, counselors, school nurses, and support staffers—all to the detriment of the kids.

After all, how can kids learn if there are no teachers to teach them, no cafeteria workers to feed them, and no mental health professionals there to deal with tragedies ranging from family grief due to coronavirus deaths to the mass shooting of two teachers and 19 youngsters at Ross Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas?

Conditions are so bad for teachers and staffers that a recent AFT survey of its members showed 79% were dissatisfied. A detailed outside study “reported one-third of teachers and principals…were likely to leave their current job by the end of the 2021-22 school year.”

There’s a big diversity problem, too. Three-fourths of teachers are white, but more than half of students are children of color. And the least-experienced teachers are assigned to—and often leave after short tenures—schools whose students most need veteran instructors.

The report, released during the AFT’s convention in Boston, July 14-18, says a combination of factors have led to the teacher and staff shortage.

They include low pay, inadequate support, “teach to the test,” classes with too many students, lack of respect on the job from both their bosses—who want them to keep to rigid requirements—and political pressure. They drown in paperwork, too.

“Those who become educators and stay…do so because of a burning desire to make a difference in the lives of children,” said union President Randi Weingarten in her introduction. That’s what teaching is all about, she added.

“Unfortunately, in the past two years, our members’ already hard jobs have become unsustainable. Stressful, frustrating, challenging, overwhelming, yet rewarding. Those are the five most frequent words I heard from educators this year. The pandemic, combined with the political culture wars, has made the last two years the toughest in modern times for educators. And then, on top of all of that, the unthinkable happened again” in Uvalde.

“It’s hard not to be stressed when the pandemic has created so much disruption and uncertainty—when you’re trying to give students individualized attention, but your classes are too large, or you are pulled away to cover extra classes or have students added to yours because of the shortages of staff.

“It’s hard to help children recover from this pandemic when there is a crying lack of school counselors, social workers, psychologists, and nurses to support kids’ well-being. And the pacing calendar, and paperwork requirements tend to be more important to the powers that be than they are to children’s needs.

“And then there are the politics. It’s hard not to be stressed when you’re worried you’ll be fired for teaching the basics about why the Civil War happened, or when you wonder if you can even teach what happened in May when a murderer, whose racist intentions were obvious, killed 10 people in a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y.

“It’s hard to help children feel safe and be their true selves in the face of vicious attempts to marginalize LGBTQIA+ kids, students of color, and immigrant students, and the hate-filled drumbeat from extremists who demonize certain groups as ‘the other.’ It’s hard not to be exhausted when you are asked to be the mask police and a tech wizard, reinventing new platforms, at the same time you are teaching a math lesson.”

The result has been the mass exodus.

But solutions to that “brain drain” and experience drain are there and the report makes those recommendations. They include:

Respect on the job from administrators and school boards—usually gained through unionization. That respect must include letting teachers decide, not bosses mandate, what is taught and what isn’t.

One irony the report points out: The same politicians and anti-teacher zealots who want to order teachers to carry guns to ward off “active shooters” also don’t trust teachers to give honest facts about such topics as U.S. history, civics, great literature, and other subjects.

  • Cut out the national obsession with “test and punish” both students and teachers. There are much better, more well-rounded ways to accomplish such evaluations, AFT says.
  • Better pay. Salaries and benefits “should be geared to the areas” where teachers and staff live. “Too many teachers and school staff must work multiple jobs just to make ends meet, and too many are burdened with heavy student debt. People shouldn’t have to go into decades of debt to become teachers or school staff and to stay in these jobs.” Better pay leads to higher retention rates, the report points out.
  • Pay parity with similarly qualified professionals in other fields. “The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development pointed out, ‘U.S. teachers earn less than 70% of the salaries of full-time, full-year workers, 25- to 64-year-olds, with tertiary (post-graduate) education in the United States, some of the lowest relative earnings across all OECD countries….The often given reason, summers off, fails to explain why American teachers’ salaries are not as competitive as those of their international counterparts.”
  • Cut class sizes. “As our schools continue to expand their effort to address social and emotional needs, small classes are essential—ideally, no larger than 20 students in prekindergarten through third grade, 23 students in grades 4-8, and 25 students in grades 9-12.”
  • “Turn schools into community hubs that serve the needs of the whole child and the whole family.” Though the report didn’t say so, AFT in general and Weingarten, in particular, have been beating this drum for more than a decade—including pilot projects in both big cities and rural areas to test whether the concept works. It does.

“This model strives to make all schools safe and welcoming places with a culture of parent and family engagement and strong partnerships between home and school,” AFT says.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.