Since the pandemic threw U.S. schools into disarray, many educators and experts warned that more teachers would flee the profession. But in 2020, turnover dipped in many places as the economy stalled, then in 2021 it ticked back up to normal or slightly above-average levels.
As this school year began, widespread reports of teacher shortages suggested that turnover had jumped more significantly.
Data was hard to come by, though. The federal government doesn’t regularly track teacher quit rates. Many states don’t either, with education officials in California, New Mexico, Ohio, and Pennsylvania saying that they don’t know how many teachers leave each year.
But Chalkbeat was able to obtain the latest teacher turnover numbers from eight states: Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington. These figures encompassed turnover between the 2021-22 year and this school year.
In all cases, turnover was at its highest point in at least five years — typically around 2 percentage points greater than before the pandemic. That implies that in a school with 50 teachers, one more than usual left after last school year.
“I am struck by just how consistent these patterns are looking at all of these different states,” said Melissa Diliberti, a researcher at RAND, which has monitored teacher attrition during the pandemic.
In Louisiana, for instance, nearly 7,000 teachers exited the classroom last school year, or about 1,000 more than usual. That’s a turnover rate of 14%, up from between 11% and 12% in a typical pre-pandemic year.
There was variation among the eight states. Mississippi’s teacher workforce was the most stable: Turnover was 13% this year, only slightly higher than the two years before the pandemic. North Carolina saw the largest spike: 16% of teachers left after last year, compared to less than 12% in the three years before the pandemic.
For Kimberly Biondi, who taught high school English for 21 years in a district outside Charlotte, her reasons for leaving were wrapped up in the politics of education. She advocated for remote instruction as well as in-school safety rules, such as masking, but faced personal criticism from a local group opposed to these measures, she said. Biondi was also worried that politics could eventually limit what she taught.
“I taught AP language where we were supposed to teach very controversial work. I taught Malcolm X. I taught all sorts of philosophers and speakers,” she said. “I could only imagine how I would be targeted for continuing to teach this.”
Other former teachers cited growing workloads and more difficulty managing student behavior.
Rojano said that student engagement plummeted as students returned to class in fall 2021, some for the first time in over a year. “A lot of these students are really hurting and suffering with intense emotional problems and high needs,” she said. “The needs just grew after the pandemic — I noticed a lot more emotional outbursts.”
It didn’t help, she said, that her class sizes were large, ranging from 25 to 30 students, making it hard to form close relationships with students. Plus, the school was short staffed and had many absences, forcing Rojano to constantly cover other teachers’ classes, losing her planning time.
She left in the middle of the last school year, something she never imagined doing because it was so disruptive for the school and her students. “It got so bad,” she said. “I was very overwhelmed and stressed. I was anxious and tired all the time.” Rojano ended up taking a job at an insurance company, where she is able to work remotely when she wants.
State reports hint that rising frustration has pushed more teachers out of the classroom. In Louisiana, the number of teachers who resigned due to dissatisfaction increased. In Hawaii, more teachers than usual identified their work environment as the reason for leaving. (In both states, personal reasons or retirement were still far more common explanations.)
While the eight states where Chalkbeat obtained data may not be representative of the country as a whole, there are signs that higher attrition was widespread. In a recent nationally representative survey from RAND, school district leaders reported a 4 percentage point increase in teacher turnover. Data from a handful of districts show a similar trend. For instance, turnover among licensed staff, including teachers, spiked from 9% to 12% in Clark County, Nevada, the country’s fifth-largest district. In Austin, Texas, turnover jumped from 17% to 24%.
Other school staff appear to be leaving at higher rates, too.
Hawaii experienced a jump in aides and service staff who exited public schools. North Carolina saw over 17% of principals depart last school year, compared to an average of 13% in the three years before the pandemic. The RAND survey also found a sharp increase in principals leaving.
A degree of staff turnover in schools is considered healthy. Some new teachers realize the profession just isn’t for them. Others take different jobs in public education, becoming, say, an assistant principal. But in general, research has found that teacher churn harms student learning — students lose relationships with trusted educators, inexperienced teachers are brought on as replacements, and in some cases classrooms are left with only long-term substitutes.
“Teacher attrition can be destabilizing for schools,” said Kevin Bastian, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, where he calculated the state’s turnover rate.
He found that effective teachers were particularly likely to leave the state’s public schools last year. Mid-year turnover, which is especially disruptive, increased from under 4% in prior years to over 6% in the 2021-22 school year in North Carolina. The state also ended up hiring fewer teachers for this school year than it lost, suggesting that some positions were eliminated or left vacant.
Biondi is now seeing the effects on her own children, who attend school in the district where she taught. “My daughter lost her math teacher in December,” she said. “They don’t have a replacement teacher — she’s struggling very much in math.”
This year, schools may have been in a particularly fraught position. Teachers appear to be leaving at higher rates, and there’s been a longer-standing decline in people training to become teachers. At the same time, schools may have wanted to hire more teachers than usual because they remain flush with COVID relief money and want to address learning loss. That’s a recipe for a shortage.
Typically, shortages hit high-poverty schools the hardest. They also tend to be more severe in certain areas including special education, math, and science.
Benjamin Mosley, principal of Glenmount Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore, has been buffeted by these pressures. He’s had multiple teachers leave in the middle of this year, and has not been able to replace them or some others who left at the end of last year.
On a recent visit to the school, students in a math class listened to a teacher based in Florida teach a lesson virtually; the class was supervised by an intervention teacher who was originally meant to provide small group tutoring. A social studies class, whose teacher had recently resigned, was being overseen by a staff member who had been hired to serve as a student mentor.
Mosley is still actively trying to find teachers, and is now considering candidates whom he might have passed over in years past.
“We can put a man on the moon, but yet we can’t find teachers,” he said.
Matt Barnum is a Spencer fellow in education journalism at Columbia University and a national reporter at Chalkbeat covering education policy, politics and research.