The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives, but there’s one that has taken an incredibly dramatic hit: schooling. 

First, there was the shift to virtual learning, which had its own ups and downs. Then came the debates over how soon students should return to in-person learning, which was followed by masking and vaccination arguments.

So it’s no wonder that teachers are taking part in the “Great Resignation” and leaving the profession at record rates. Between January and November of 2020, more than 800,000 people working in state and local education quit, along with 550,000 working in the private sector. Plus, a 2021 survey by the RAND Corporation found that one in four teachers said they were likely to leave their jobs by the end of the school year, which was up from one in six prior to the pandemic, with Black teachers “particularly likely” planning to leave.

“It’s very hard for schools and school districts and educators to know what has been the best decision around moving forward in the COVID context,” says Dr. Camika Royal, an associate professor of Urban Education at Loyola University of Maryland. “People have been leaving because it becomes either the job or my health, or the job or my life. People are making the decisions that prioritize their health and their lives.”

Teach For America and Other Teacher Prep Programs Are Seeing a Lack of Interest

It’s not just current teachers who want to leave the profession. Overall, people are less interested in joining the field. 

“Now there are many schools, particularly in low-income areas, that are experiencing a severe shortage of teachers and having trouble recruiting substitute teachers, as well,” says Dr. Pedro Noguera, dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. “At the same time, enrollment is down in many of these districts. So that offsets the shortage of teachers to some degree.”

Teach For America, a nonprofit that places mostly recent college graduates in under-resourced schools around the country, is reporting its smallest incoming class in 15 years. The incoming class for the 2022-2023 school year dropped below 2,000.

In a statement to Word In Black, Teach For America wrote that 48% of its teachers “identify as Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color (BIPOC), with 19% self-identifying as Black.”

The organization noted that, because research shows Black students thrive with Black teachers, it works “to not only attract Black educators to the teaching profession, but also to ensure that they have the support and professional development needed to sustain and advance their careers and inspire the next generation of Black youth.”

Though the trend is showing up so dramatically in TFA, the problem isn’t limited to the organization. Around the country, enrollment in teacher prep programs has been declining since before the pandemic, and the number of people enrolling as education majors is decreasing too.

College is usually the time and place where people figure out what they want to do with their lives. But, Royal says, the pandemic has turned that on its head, especially since schools have been at the forefront of many pandemic discussions.

When it comes to the public education system, “young people have been basically asking themselves, ‘Do I really want to be a part of that?’” Royal says.

Both Black Students and Teachers Feel the Effects

Unfortunately, teacher shortages are most common in schools that serve Black students, Noguera says. And, seeing as they’re already a vulnerable population nationwide, Black students are in a very difficult position, Royal says.

There are a lot of stressors on teachers and students in under-resourced schools: poorer ventilation; community and COVID-related stress; COVID-related grief; and income loss in families. 

On top of Black people being the population most impacted by COVID, Royal says, “no matter which way you turn, whether it’s our lives outside of school or in school, we’re most heavily impacted by what’s happening in the country. And so losing teachers is just a part of that.”

Plus, with the critical race theory debates, Black teachers have to worry about becoming “fodder in that battle,” Royal says.

“It makes more visible the uphill battle, and it has made plainer that schools and classrooms are contingent spaces, that they are political spaces,” Royal says. “What may be happening with some of these alternative organizations is we are seeing people who are uncertain if they want to deal with that decide they don’t.”

Black teachers, Noguera says, have been under stress like everyone else. He cited the dual responsibilities of teaching children and raising your own, plus finding time to get the support they need. 

“Black teachers played a critical role in convincing Black parents to bring the kids back because they had the trust with families,” Noguera says. “And so, when you put these extra burdens on teachers, it makes the job that much more unbearable.”

In New Mexico, the teacher shortage was so bad that the National Guard was on standby to step in and fill roles in schools and childcare centers.

“Parents and educators are going through a constant state of whiplash,” New Mexico Governor Lujan Grisham said. “It has been impossible.”

Why does a teacher shortage matter?

It means class sizes will be bigger. It means that, in covering classes, teachers lose the time they would have spent in meetings, planning, or collaborating with other teachers. It means teachers may be covering subjects they aren’t equipped to teach. 

If cafeteria staff are out, it means creating potentially unsafe conditions because there aren’t enough people to get food to children. If teaching assistants are out, it means unsafe conditions in the hallways, before and after school, or on the playground. 

“It’s very disruptive to instruction, to learning, and to trying to make classes in schools into places of joy and places where students want to be,” Royal says.

How Do We Get Teachers to Come Back?

With only three months left in the 2021/2022 school year, neither Noguera nor Royal are aware of specific recruiting methods in place or other national plans to help alleviate the shortage going into the 2022/2023 school year.

Some states are offering financial incentives to try to lure people into the profession or convince them to stay. In Mississippi, for example, where there is a shortage of roughly 3,000 certified teachers, lawmakers passed the largest teacher pay increase in the state’s history. It goes into effect for the upcoming 2022/2023 school year, and the average annual pay raise is just over $5,000.

In its statement, Teach For America wrote that they “have launched several initiatives” focused on attracting Black people to the teaching profession. These include boosting “recruitment efforts at HBCUs and lowering financial barriers by providing financial stipends to our incoming corps members,” as well as “launching the Black Educators Promise (BEP) grant, a five-year initiative focused on retaining Black educators teaching in our network beyond their two-year commitment.”

Getting people interested in the profession again and getting them to stay long-term has to be a priority, Noguera says. 

“Ideally, what you want is teachers who stick around, get better over time, and are committed to working in the schools and the communities — particularly those that are the most disadvantaged, they need stable teachers,” Noguera says.

The best thing to do, he says, is to create durable pipelines with colleges and universities into the profession. It means focusing on working conditions, salaries, and affordable housing. It’s a problem that school districts can’t solve by themselves, and will need input from states and the federal government to help address.

“Where the districts have to be better is in making sure that they’re not assigning brand new teachers to work with the most challenging kids and in the most challenging schools,” Noguera says. “That often happens, and so, consequently, we see teachers who burn out after a year or two. So the districts have to do a better job of supporting teachers in their first year.”

Maya Pottiger is a data journalist for Word in Black. She was previously a data journalist for the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, where she earned both her BA and Master of Journalism. Her work has been featured...