A Tennessee teacher announced her resignation at a school board meeting in a speech that highlights a crisis for teaching and for public education. Just nine of the 24 teachers in her grade at her school are definitely returning to teach at the school next year, she said, and while she identified low pay as an issue, she made clear it’s far from the only one:
Everyone seems to blame it on pay; while that is a big issue that is not the only issue. Student behavior is out of control. Teachers see admin … backing parents over them. Teachers hear the message being sent at every one of these board meetings where we are called indoctrinators and seen as the villains, when all we want to do is teach. We have more and more added to our plate with nothing taken off. We are constantly being questioned by people who do not have degrees in education, by questioning books and curriculum—all while being paid less than surrounding counties.
The end of this teacher’s testimony was particularly appropriate given her message to the school board. As she was trying to say that she was resigning, she was interrupted and told her time was up.
While that teacher identified specific local issues, like lower pay than surrounding counties, it’s not just that one school in Wilson County, Tennessee, having big problems with teacher attrition.
A recent study of Pennsylvania teachers found that 2022-23 had the largest increase in the teacher attrition rate on record. “If the attrition rate had remained at the 2021-22 level, nearly 1,900 fewer teachers would have left the profession,” the study’s author, Ed Fuller of the Penn State Center for Education Evaluation & Policy Analysis, wrote. “If the attrition rate was the same as the average attrition rate over the prior five years, nearly 2,400 fewer teachers would have left the profession.” While 9,587 teachers across Pennsylvania had left teaching, there were just 5,101 newly certified teachers.
The study also found significant inequities in who was leaving the schools. Teachers of color and male teachers had higher attrition rates, with 18% of all Black male teachers leaving. Teacher attrition was also higher in the poorest districts, with Philadelphia County the highest in the state. Charter schools were also responsible for a disproportionate amount of teacher attrition.
Teacher attrition matters. “Research has consistently shown that teacher turnover has a negative effect on student outcomes, school climate, and teacher quality,” Fuller writes. “Further, teacher attrition is financially costly to districts. More specifically, high teacher turnover typically increases the number of inexperienced teachers, decreases teacher quality, impedes the development of a positive school climate, and makes teacher collaboration difficult.”
The Pennsylvania study follows a March analysis by Chalkbeat finding increased teacher turnover in eight states: Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Washington. In April, the Texas Education Agency found teacher attrition at an all-time high.
This is a real and damaging phenomenon, and teachers like the Tennessee woman in the video are telling us why they’re leaving.
“It was all these little straws,” an award-winning Pennsylvania teacher told The Philadelphia Inquirer of his decision to quit. “I spent hundreds of my own dollars. I brought in snacks, I paid for my own pencils and paper. It’s all of those little things that just started to build up.”
Another former Pennsylvania teacher echoed the Tennessee teacher’s complaint about being labeled an indoctrinator. ”I was teaching about the Civil War, which was fought over slavery, and Reconstruction, where newly freed African Americans are trying to find their place in the sun as citizens of the United States, and in doing so, I was accused of teaching critical race theory,” he told WHTM news. “This really foaming-at-the-mouth group of people who go to school board meetings was just a straw too much.”
A RAND Corporation survey of more than 8,000 teachers found many reporting an atmosphere of fear created not just by restrictive state laws or directives from administrators but by the loud complaints and vicious social media posts of parents. “I feel like I have a sword over my head and any parent is able to cut the string if they disagree with the curriculum, for legitimate reasons or not,” one teacher said. A high school science teacher said, “We work in an atmosphere of fear and paranoia to even teach the content contained in our standards.”
Part of this is by design. There’s a long-running Republican effort to dismantle public education as a public good. For many years it was carried out primarily through attempts to defund public schools, siphoning money into voucher programs or charter schools. Now the big trend is this kind of direct attack on what schools and teachers can teach, from restrictive laws to accusations of “grooming” and “indoctrination” and screaming and threats at school board meetings. “In 2011, 77% of teachers reported feeling respected by community members,” Fuller reports in the Pennsylvania teacher attrition study. “By 2022, the percentage had fallen to just 46%.” Making teachers feel unappreciated and undermined is part of the point.
And, especially combined with low teacher salaries—the pay penalty teachers face in comparison with other college-educated workers hit a new high in 2021—it’s working. Why would most people stay in a job where they are paid less than they could make elsewhere, their professionalism is constantly undermined, and they are accused of harming the children they have dedicated themselves to educating?
There’s a war on public education and on teachers. Their supporters can’t unilaterally disarm.
We talk about the field of Republicans willing to go up against the MAGA monster that is Trump. It’s a veritable who cares of the Republican Party, but it is also indicative of the rot inside of the conservative world.