‘Burnout to the tenth degree’: Schools grapple with teacher shortage

BOSTON — Schools seem to be finally getting back to normal, but the burden on teachers has only increased.

“We came back to school this year and the normal stressors that already existed were kind of tenfold,” said Tasha Cordero, an English teacher at Bristol-Plymouth Regional High School.

Cordero says a lot of schools are short-staffed, giving the teachers who are left a bigger workload.

“Burnout to the tenth degree,” said Cordero.

The National Education Association is the largest teacher union in the country with about 3 million educators.

They polled their teachers this year and found 55 percent are ready to leave the job earlier than they had planned, and 90 percent say they feel burned out.

“Across the board, there are many teachers who are planning early retirement, many teachers who are currently looking to go into other fields - still related to education - but they feel they’ve reached the end of working in the classroom, and many others looking to leave the profession altogether,” said Cordero.

Cordero says the constant changes and health concerns from the pandemic took a toll. Now teachers are catching up on the loss of learning, on top of a bigger need for social and emotional support for students.

“What does this look like across the whole teacher workforce in Massachusetts?” said Olivia Chi, assistant professor at Boston University.

Chi studied teacher turnover rates during the pandemic, and she found most teachers stayed during the Fall of 2020, but there was about a 15 to 20% increase in teachers leaving the job this school year.

The sharpest increase was among newly hired teachers.

“We do find that increase, but we haven’t yet seen a mass exodus,” said Chi. “I think the bigger fear is that if teachers are reporting higher intentions to leave, we fear that that signals something else. If they’re not actually going to leave, perhaps it might signal teacher burnout.”

Dr. Stephen Zrike says he’s noticing that teacher burnout as the superintendent of Salem Public Schools.

“As a profession, we need to come to terms and grips with that because I think we’re at a critical inflection point that does have me worried for the next 3-5 years in the teaching, not just Salem, but every district in the state,” said Dr. Zrike.

He says they’re short-staffed in paraprofessionals and those harder to fill subjects like math, science and English as a second language.

“We actually have hired a full-time recruiter in the district, which we’ve never had before,” said Dr. Zrike.

Zrike says they need to create a culture where quality teachers want to work and stick around.

“We got to create a culture where people want to come, and they want to stay,” said Dr. Zrike. “And that’s not something that traditional public schools ever had to worry about – you’d post positions and get lines out the door. Those days are gone, and people are not going to necessarily stay in the same profession for 30 years anymore.”

Boston Public Schools reports a 7 to 8 percent decline in retention rates for both teachers and principals over the last year.

“If this trend continues, I think the fear is what will that do to student achievement?” said Chi.

Chi says higher teacher turnover rates are linked to lower student achievement, and that’s the biggest worry for educators.

“Our kids can’t afford to have another year of interruption, and no one’s more important to that experience than the classroom teacher,” said Dr. Zrike.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education says they’re finding ways to improve the hiring process for teachers.

They’re also looking into holding a statewide job fair in June with MassHire for anyone looking to work in a school district.

A lot of teachers say they’re hoping the state finds new incentives to keep them long term.

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