Three-decade high in WA teachers leaving profession as burnout soars

Mar 8, 2023, 1:17 PM | Updated: 1:23 pm
Seattle students...
Seattle students falling behind are putting more pressure on teachers. (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

There was a 37-year-high in Washington teachers leaving the profession last year, according to a report from the Calder Policymakers Council.

The findings show, 1.6% more teachers chose to switch careers in 2022 compared to 2021. Across the state, that is equivalent to the loss of about 1,000 teachers.

Losses were higher among younger, newer teachers, as well as among teachers at lower-income schools.

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Seattle Public Schools teacher Sarah Taylor, who teaches special education at Jane Addams Middle School in Lake City, was not surprised by the findings. She and her fellow educators are burned out.

“It’s really hard being a teacher right now, and an educator in general,” she said. “We have a lot of students and not a lot of resources. We also have a lot of positions to hire and not a lot of people applying … we also are facing a lot of budget cuts, so we’re facing doing more with less.”

The challenges from COVID are also a big factor in that burnout. Many students fell behind during remote learning, and need to catch up on what they missed.

“Teachers have to make up that work somehow, yet they have to cover the current curriculum as well,” explained Liv Finne, director of the Washington Policy Center’s Center for Education. “And so no wonder that teachers are pulling their hair out. They’re asked to do an impossible job.”

Taylor agreed with this, noting that there are often not enough hours in a day to bring each student up to speed.

“Students are acting below grade level. We’re having to put in a lot of extra time to support them in ways that we’re not used to,” Taylor said.

Then there are the behavioral disruptions, largely another result of COVID. Taylor explained that kids, especially younger ones, missed out on critical development years while learning over Zoom.

“We see students, now, who have lost all of that time, and we’re seeing a lot of behaviors and social-emotional loss … In most classrooms, there isn’t that time built into curriculums to deal with students who are being the class clown, who are having a meltdown,” Taylor said.

Finne said going back to in-person school was a big shock for kids, especially those who had not spent much time in a classroom before the pandemic hit.

“They lost the sort of rigor about going to school, sitting there, working. There’s a huge discipline involved, and then that’s taken away, and then when you say, ‘Now kids, magically it’s back on you,’ you’re going to have trouble,” she said.

In a given day, Taylor said she has to wear many hats — and in a time of staffing challenges, it is usually up to her alone to fulfill all those roles.

“It’s teaching, it’s helping with behaviors, it’s assessing if a student is sick, if they’re sniffly — questioning if they have COVID, taking them to the nurse, who is also extremely overwhelmed with having to test students and see if it’s COVID or not,” Taylor said. “It’s connecting with families … then another student is having a breakdown, so then you’re calming them down, and then their escalation makes another student upset, so then you’re trying to help that student. So you’re trying to be 10 places at once.”

Taylor wants to see more support from the educational system, in the form of staffing and classroom resources.

“We need to find a way to treat educators better and to make it a better system,” she said.

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Finne believes the state has unfairly placed the burden of COVID learning loss on teachers. She wants to see individual districts get more freedom to use more of their own curricula, without having to follow as much of a state standard, so that local and individual student needs can be met.

“The fault lies with the attempt to force-fit a one-size-fits-all curriculum from the state on down … I have observed that really high-performing schools have multiple curricula that they use, depending on the needs of the child,” she said.

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Three-decade high in WA teachers leaving profession as burnout soars