Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education
A math teacher explains how to calculate the angles of a star using trigonometry.

Lynda White, who taught English, creative writing and social studies at El Monte Middle School in the small Central Valley town of Orosi for 21 years, started having panic attacks this school year as she drove to the campus.

“I would sit in my car, taking slow breaths, trying to calm myself down because I knew when I got on campus it would be horrible,” White said.

The veteran educator was among thousands of California teachers who quit their jobs before this school year ended. Some teachers left because of the challenges of teaching during a pandemic, while others were fearful they would contract Covid-19 and some were offered higher-paying jobs. Many just burned out.

White was exhausted and disillusioned from dealing with bad student behavior, which had escalated since schools reopened after the pandemic closures. Students regularly arrived late to classes, fought with one another, interrupted lessons and ignored her direction. White said she sent disciplinary referrals to the principal’s office, but no action was taken.

“I had thought about it, and I was planning on retiring in December,” said White, who is 58. “I thought, it is just a couple of more months. I was counting the days. The way I thought of it in my mind is, I don’t want to be a quitter.”

Teachers, already stressed from distance learning, believed things would get better after schools reopened. They knew it would be difficult for students to adjust to returning to school after almost a year away, but they weren’t prepared to deal with the social-emotional trauma the kids had experienced and their reaction to the shift in their routines, White said.

To make matters worse, school administrators didn’t respond to requests for help, and parents often didn’t return calls, she said. 

“I realized I’m on my own in this,” White said.

White attempted to restore order in her classroom by giving students who misbehaved lunchtime detention. Most didn’t show up. Those who did were often disruptive. It was during one of these sessions, after a student yelled at her and stormed out of class, that White realized she was done with teaching.

White went to the principal’s office and told administrators she was leaving for the day. The next day her doctor put her on stress leave, which continued until her retirement in December. 

California teachers are retiring earlier than they planned

In the last six months of 2020 – after the pandemic began – there were 5,644 teacher retirements, a 26% increase the same period the previous year, according to the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. By the end of the school year, 12,785 teachers had retired – 8% higher than the previous year. Data for this school year is not yet available, but CalSTRS reports that the number of retirements has leveled off since 2020.

Most of the retirees who completed a CalSTRS survey said they retired earlier than they had planned. Almost half of the retirees surveyed in the 2020-21 school year said challenges related to teaching during Covid were among the primary reasons for their early departure. 

“I can’t speak for others, but even in our worst years prior to Covid, we did not see the mass exiting that we do now,” said Lindsay Mendoza, president of the Cutler-Orosi Unified Teachers Association. 

These resignations come as California school districts are already struggling with staff shortages that have meant larger class sizes and more teachers giving up preparation and lunch periods to cover classes when other teachers are sick.

Teachers are feeling overworked and underappreciated

It hasn’t been an easy year for teachers, said Kurtis Obispo, a school psychologist. Many haven’t recovered from the emotional stress brought on by the pandemic, school closures and the many changes they have had to endure since.

“I know a lot of them felt like things were changing too quickly,” he said. “Every time they adjusted, they had to readjust. There were Covid protocols, monitoring of attendance for synchronous and asynchronous instruction. Some of the teachers are fed up and at that point where any little change is triggering.”

Teachers also are not feeling appreciated, he said. Families, stressed and worried about whether their children are behind, often have taken out frustration on teachers.

The social-emotional needs of students this school year were so high and staffing so low that Obispo also quit his job midyear. There were more fights on campuses and more students being designated as a threat to themselves or others, said Obispo, who worked for Escalon Unified School District in San Joaquin County. Students had a hard time communicating with one another and were more anxious than before the pandemic, he said. 

“It was an extremely difficult time,” Obispo said. “I was breaking up fights. I was put on TikTok recently because I broke up a fight.”

Obispo was responsible for the mental health of students at one high school and two elementary schools. The district had three counselors at the high school, one at the middle school and none at its four elementary schools. It had three school psychologists for its 2,906 students.

Obispo said that parents and students called him on weekends and nights. He took the calls because he knew the students needed him.

“I couldn’t maintain the workload with any type of fidelity,” he said. “I felt I was so overworked I was going to miss something.”

Obispo gave his notice to Escalon Unified in December and is now the director of special education at Team Charter Schools in Stockton, where he also serves as the school psychologist.

Burnout is a serious problem nationwide

The exodus of teachers from the profession is not just a California problem. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that about 600,000 teachers in public education in the United States quit between January 2020 and last February. 

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, surveyed its membership in January on key educational issues. More than half of the union’s members indicated they are considering leaving the profession earlier than planned. Nearly all, at least 90% said burnout and pandemic-related stress are serious problems.

Caitlin Santos was in her second year as a special education teacher at Norristown Area School District, in a suburb of Philadelphia, when she quit in October after being put on stress-related leave by her doctor. Now she works from home as a corporate trainer. 

Santos was quickly overwhelmed by the behavior problems of her students and her own health concerns after school began this year. Students in her special education class were required to wear masks because of the pandemic, but they seldom kept them on. She worried about her son, who was born prematurely and had asthma. Sometimes student behavior escalated to shouting at and shoving their teacher, she said. Sometimes they threw furniture. Students she sent to the office were often sent back to the class.

Then the district doubled her caseload.

 “The stress of everything completely did me in, and I realized if I stayed I would not be healthy in any shape or form,” she said.

More teachers want out of their contracts

There can be repercussions for teachers who decide to leave their jobs before the end of the school year. Although each school district’s contract with its teachers is different, many can prevent a teacher from taking other jobs if they quit during the contract. Additionally, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing can take disciplinary action, including suspending a credential for up to one year if the teacher does not have a good reason for quitting before the contract expires.

Officers from local teachers unions across California report a dramatic increase in the number of teachers calling them for information about how they can break their contracts with districts.

Lodi Education Association President Michelle Orgon said teachers who contacted her wanted to take better-paying jobs with less stress or wanted to move to school districts closer to their homes. Others, scheduled to return from maternity leave, didn’t think returning to school was worth leaving their newborns.

United Educators of San Francisco President Cassondra Curiel attributes the recent increase in resignations, in part, to the shift in the national narrative about teachers. 

“No one wants to live with a nation full of vitriol and continue in the profession when pundits are pumping out the message that something is wrong with what you are doing,” she said.

Teachers across the country have been reaching out to Daphne Gomez with questions about whether they should leave teaching and how to do it. The founder of Teacher Career Coach, based in Los Angeles County, uses her podcast to dole out advice on breaking teaching contracts, whether teachers should stay for the pension and how to find a job outside education, among other topics. She also offers digital courses that help teachers identify a new career path. People are listening: She has more than 86,000 Instagram followers.

When Gomez decided to quit her job as a fifth-grade teacher in Burbank Unified in 2017 because of stress, she had no idea how to leave the profession and find a new career. Eventually, she found a job as a professional development trainer for Microsoft. After training sessions with teachers, she was often asked for advice on how to transition from education to a corporate job.

She says teachers are taking part in the Great Resignation because they are feeling, for the first time, like there are other opportunities.

In Oregon, White, now spends her time writing poetry and short stories.

“Despite all of this, I still miss teaching,” she said. “For years it was tolerable. It was challenging. At the end of every year, I could look back and think I made a difference. I could name specific students whose lives I had impacted in a positive way. I made them believe that they could do the work and could be successful. The last year, I couldn’t look at any students and say I had made a difference for them and would make a difference for them.  It was an exercise in futility. I was frustrated. They were frustrated.”

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  1. Jim 2 months ago2 months ago

    When I had kids at LAUSD I was involved with a number of parent groups. The #1 reason people sent their kids to charter schools was the perception that they had better discipline. This was a function of both policy as well as the simple fact that if parents have enough of an interest in their kids education to sign up for a charter the kids will be better behaved. My wife taught at a … Read More

    When I had kids at LAUSD I was involved with a number of parent groups. The #1 reason people sent their kids to charter schools was the perception that they had better discipline. This was a function of both policy as well as the simple fact that if parents have enough of an interest in their kids education to sign up for a charter the kids will be better behaved.

    My wife taught at a title 1 middle school for a couple of years before the pandemic. She could not endure the disruption then. It must be a real zoo now.

  2. Bob 2 months ago2 months ago

    “White said she sent disciplinary referrals to the principal’s office, but no action was taken.” That was your first mistake; Admins don’t care about your referrals. LOL Heck, I haven’t wrote one in five years and they give me the inclusion classes with ADHD, EDs and other Special Needs. I take their phones at the door and text parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents or whoever I can get ahold of for situations … Read More

    “White said she sent disciplinary referrals to the principal’s office, but no action was taken.” That was your first mistake; Admins don’t care about your referrals. LOL Heck, I haven’t wrote one in five years and they give me the inclusion classes with ADHD, EDs and other Special Needs. I take their phones at the door and text parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents or whoever I can get ahold of for situations (because who answers their phones or listens to voicemail anymore?).

  3. Richard M Wittie 2 months ago2 months ago

    I agree. Part of the issue though is that principals force teachers to deal with these troubling students all alone. So teachers have no support.. I was working in one school where all we had to do was call the office and help was on the way. But my last position the principal literally told me that's not her job, it's mine. That the only reason students misbehave is because they disrespect … Read More

    I agree. Part of the issue though is that principals force teachers to deal with these troubling students all alone. So teachers have no support..

    I was working in one school where all we had to do was call the office and help was on the way. But my last position the principal literally told me that’s not her job, it’s mine. That the only reason students misbehave is because they disrespect me and to pull such disobedient students would be undermining my authority making the situation worse. So we were forced to deal with the trouble makers and teach. Once the students realized there was little we could do other than call their parents. Respect went downhill. Especially having 20 students were as 5 were the instigators and only one teacher attempted to teach and address their behaviors, while the rest of the class supported their actions. Addressing it as accidents or trying to deny what they were doing.

    You can’t work as a teacher if you have no support.

    Replies

    • Bob 2 months ago2 months ago

      Next time she says it’s not her job, tell her; “We’ll, don’t bother doing walkthroughs in my classroom either!”

  4. Sarah 2 months ago2 months ago

    As a parent, I often wonder what teachers and admin thought would happen once children returned to school after so much time away. Did they genuinely think kids were “resilient” as we were so often told during distance learning? Of course kids are having a hard time. And of course the focus is on how hard it is to be an adult paid to be in the system, rather than focusing on the children having a hard time.

    Replies

    • Buddy 2 months ago2 months ago

      Teachers are expecting parents to act like…well parents. I’m mean we’re not the primary authority and teachers in your child’s life…you are! Basically you’re saying you let your child run wild until they could be back in school…nice.

  5. Concerned Public Educator 2 months ago2 months ago

    I am a teacher in Southern California. I saw a video that was taken at one of the schools in the district I work for of a student, a girl, hitting an employee in the head with a computer and striking the VP several times. Two security guards were also present and the girl continued hitting these two male employees. Not sure if any disciplinary actions were taken, but this is a prime example of … Read More

    I am a teacher in Southern California. I saw a video that was taken at one of the schools in the district I work for of a student, a girl, hitting an employee in the head with a computer and striking the VP several times. Two security guards were also present and the girl continued hitting these two male employees. Not sure if any disciplinary actions were taken, but this is a prime example of bad student behavior, that in most cases, results in a verbal reprimand and a return back to class.

  6. Brenda Lebsack - Teacher 3 months ago3 months ago

    California laws and policies are incentivizing lawlessness not only in the classrooms but in our neighborhoods. Teachers send kids to the office for cussing them out and the student gets sent back to class with little to no consequences because admin's are told not to suspend. (Supt's don't want red on their DASH BOARD due to the LCFF) Thus bad behaviors increase, and kids who are in school to learn, can't. … Read More

    California laws and policies are incentivizing lawlessness not only in the classrooms but in our neighborhoods. Teachers send kids to the office for cussing them out and the student gets sent back to class with little to no consequences because admin’s are told not to suspend. (Supt’s don’t want red on their DASH BOARD due to the LCFF) Thus bad behaviors increase, and kids who are in school to learn, can’t.

    My friend who manages a store in Anaheim aka: “Anacrime” deals with teens stealing merchandise up to $900 and the security guard got fired by the company for locking the doors on them so they could not get out. Why? Because Calif laws reward criminals and punish law enforcers.

    I see billboards of adults handing vapes to kids with a warning of a $200 fine. What! $200 is no deterrent, it’s a slap on the hand. These billboards are having the opposite effect. Another billboard has the body of a 15-16 year old girl in a bikini and it says,” EAZE Speedy Weedy Delivery so stay home in your undies.” This billboard is right across from our high school.

    We need better leadership in California on state and local levels, because we cannot continue this downward spiral of stupidity. And it’s time to stop blaming Covid for everything.

  7. Martin Blythe 3 months ago3 months ago

    Pamela, instead of attributing teacher burnout to "progressive discipline policies" perhaps you could clarify what you mean. We may as well do additional research on why "traditional" discipline policies don't work either. This is a complex issue and in my view the best results would come from looking at schools where things are working. Would you be down with that? They do exist. Schools reflect their communities, for better or worse, and we can all … Read More

    Pamela, instead of attributing teacher burnout to “progressive discipline policies” perhaps you could clarify what you mean. We may as well do additional research on why “traditional” discipline policies don’t work either.

    This is a complex issue and in my view the best results would come from looking at schools where things are working. Would you be down with that? They do exist. Schools reflect their communities, for better or worse, and we can all learn from each other.

  8. Jay 3 months ago3 months ago

    Agree. Simply asking a student to put away their cell phone in the classroom does not work anymore. We need a way to bring respect into the classroom as a detention should not be given, but the phone must disappear during any instructional time.

    Finally, class sizes matter. Averages are misleading, but caps are a must at all grade levels. Perhaps, 22 K-3, 25 4-6, 30 7-12. This will provide more attention for learning, SEL, and hopefully less discipline.

  9. Pamela Castleman 3 months ago3 months ago

    Additional research should be done on the impact of progressive discipline policies on teacher burnout .