Economic data from the Federal Reserve Bank in St Louis suggests that shortly after the pandemic began, teachers started leaving the teaching profession in numbers that have never before been reported.
The drop during the pandemic mirrors an overall unemployment trend across all sectors, but overall unemployment numbers have started to recover. The drop in education employment levels—from 10.53 million employees in February to 9.70 million last month—showed only a hint of a recovery but is falling again as remote learning and hybrid plans that require teachers to be in school buildings produce moderate apprehension among the teaching ranks.
For example, in Harford County, Maryland, teachers have been given three alternatives for Monday, when some students are expected to be back in the buildings for in-person instruction:
- Come in
- Take leave
Although I do not expect one-third of teachers in the district to take each of the three options, a certain number of them will choose to quit, driving the number of education employees even lower due to the downstream effects of the pandemic.
We also previously reported that several hundred school employees in Baltimore City are being dismissed due to the reduction in services needed in the schools during the pandemic, also driving employment numbers down.
A brief history of teacher employment trends
Up until President George W Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law and enacted it in 2001-2002, the employment of teachers and other education workers was trending up steadily, unfazed by the brief recession that followed the attacks of 9/11.
A speed bump came once NCLB started taking effect and teachers began realizing they were under assault from a growing charter school movement and a revving up of the drive to privatize the public schools, beginning with the labeling and punishing of schools that were considered low-quality based on student standardized test scores. Still, employment numbers kept rising, even though “school employees” started to be counted among the ranks of private charter school operators.
The only downward trend since the Clinton administration came after the Great Recession of 2008, when mortgage defaults increased and employees in all sectors increasingly found their jobs on the chopping block and their homes in foreclosure.
In schools, this movement toward an increased reliance on standardized tests, even as NCLB itself was long overdue for reauthorization, coincided not only with the Great Recession but also with the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
The Common Core is just a set of learning standards, and many states today, including both Maryland and Illinois, have largely incorporated the exact wording of the standards into their own learning standards. But when it was first developed, largely without direct input from educators in the K-12 landscape, the Common Core was poison and drove a few teachers away from the profession that might not have left otherwise during the economic downturn.
But even the dip in education employment numbers from the Great Recession, Common Core, and privatization drive, which also paralleled a drop in overall employment numbers as President Barack Obama took office, can’t hold a candle to what is happening now in the ongoing recession brought about by Covid-19.
The entire teaching profession has been changed, upended, and cast into the same realm as a business meeting kids’ parents might have as they work from home offices during the pandemic. In their pre-press research paper entitled “What’s Next: Lessons Learned from the Lived Experiences of Teachers during the 2020 Novel Coronavirus Pandemic,” Justin Reich, Chris Buttimer, Dan Coleman, Richard Colwell, Farah Faruqi, and Laura Larke have this theory about why the pandemic has been so unlike any change to the employment levels of teachers in the last half-century:
To more deeply understand the practice and professional experiences of educators during the 2020 extended school closures, we interviewed 40 teachers from across the country in public, charter, and private schools, at different grade levels, and in different subject areas.
From our conversations, three key themes emerged: 1) Student Motivation: Teachers struggled to motivate their students through two layers of computer screens; 2) Professional Loss and Burnout: As they lost familiar means of teaching, teachers also lost a fundamental sense of their own efficacy and professional identity; and, 3) Exacerbated Inequities: This sense of loss grew deeper as teachers witnessed the dramatic intensification of the societal inequalities that had always shaped their students’ lives.
Effective planning for school reopening … will require understanding and addressing these challenges facets of teachers’ experience. We propose five design considerations to plan for resilience: center equity, focus on relationship-building, address student motivation, address staff motivation and burnout, and mitigate uncertainty.