America’s Burnt-out Teachers Fear For the Future of Education

The pandemic pushed many educators to their breaking point. The kids will be alright—but only if teachers find their way first

In April, a surprising figure appeared in a report from the Public Policy Institute of California, stating that over 40% of parents believe their children are falling behind during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the result of so many factors that were abruptly thrown at educators, students and parents in March 2020 that it’s hard to say which ones did the most damage; soon, it became a worry that these students may never get back on track.

Bethany Collins, who taught middle schoolers for years, takes exception to this assessment and attests that today’s teenagers deserve far more credit than they receive. 

“I absolutely think that they can catch up if they’re given the resources to help them,” she says while speaking with LAMag. “I think it’s a matter of, ‘are we as a society going to invest in teachers and enable them to invest in the kids?’”

Collins, 31,  is a former seventh-grade social studies teacher who lives in Anaheim. Growing up in a family of educators, she always knew she wanted to teach; so she followed that path and taught for nine years. Now, she works as a project manager at the gaming company Exploding Kittens, Inc. At the start of the pandemic, she was on maternity leave and excited to return to the classroom in the summer of 2020. But shortly after coming back, she became swallowed by the extreme demands of her profession–the ones she was warned about. 

Her workload had multiplied. On top of the usual responsibilities, Collins, like so many other educators dealing with remote learning, had to digitize academic content, reach out to absent students, and work with parents to help their children attend Zoom classes. 

“It really was as bad as everyone had said. I knew by the end of the 2021 school year that I for sure was going to leave the profession,” she says. “It was just a matter of ‘how soon could I get out?’” 

And for Collins, leaving soon meant leaving mid-year. She stopped teaching in January 2022 and began her new job within that same month. 

Bethany Collins

She is not alone. America’s teachers are burnt out. 

According to research conducted by the American Federation of Teachers in June, the top three words teachers use to describe their job are “stressful,” “frustrating,” and “challenging.”

The National Education Association polled 3,600 teachers across the nation for a survey published in January that reported 90% of teachers viewing burnout as a “very serious” to “somewhat serious” problem.

And California is no exception. 62% of teachers now plan to retire earlier than expected, according to a February poll by the California Teachers’ Retirement System. The main reason: The challenges surrounding pandemic teaching. Other reasons include risking Covid-19 exposure and the lack of desire for remote teaching. 

Meghann Seril, 35, has been teaching for 15 years, spending the majority of her time with third graders at a dual language school. She has always loved learning and is a 2022 Los Angeles Unified School District Teacher of the Year. 

Alba Donis, 39, lives in Los Angeles and came to the United States as part of an exchange program with the Education Department of Spain. She was eager to teach in a country that seemed to offer so many advanced resources. But after 15 years in the profession, Donis admits this may be her last. 

“[I] was so excited to teach here, thinking I would have access to the latest technology and educational trends,” Donis said. “Reality is: I was teaching in [one of] the hardest, roughest areas of town, with none of that technology. I have recently realized that the only reason why I was asked to come is because I am just doing a job no one in this country wants to do, and I don’t blame them. I have gotten rid of the discourse that teachers change the world, and I see this job now for what it is: an underpaid, undervalued but overworked job.” 

Viewed as a Failure

Since they had to abruptly switch to online classes a mid-school year, teachers were not able to cover as much academic content during the pandemic. The result was learning loss–the gap between where students are and where they should be. 

In the spring of 2022, the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) found that the average student fell 3-6 percentile points in reading and 8-12 points in math. Despite being unprepared for such drastic change, committed educators did their best at the time and now are helping students catch up academically, socially and behaviorally. 

New data from NWEA shows that most students are already showing signs of improvement. Younger students are doing especially well, having already made up for about 25% of their loss. Seril explains that her primary goal during the pandemic was to cultivate student interaction and ensure that all classmates felt supported, connected, and part of a community. 

“In that sense, I think we were successful because students still felt like a classroom family,” she says. 

Collins says that even though teachers were not ready for the pandemic, education was certainly not an outlier. Nobody was adequately prepared to make such serious and quick changes. 

“Nobody ever said this was the optimal way to educate kids,” Collins says. “Was education a system designed to withstand these kinds of pressures? No, of course not. Could it do its job fully and functionally under those circumstances? No, of course not. Was any system performing optimally under those circumstances? No.” 

Tired From the Pandemic

While teachers taught online, they were isolated, overworked, and not living balanced lives. Yet many indicate to LAMag that the worst part was not being able to physically see their students every day. 

“It was really lonely to be teaching behind screens,” Seril says. 

In a normal year, teachers chat and laugh with their students throughout the day, forming relationships that can influence, inspire, and even last a lifetime. Meanwhile, they collaborate with colleagues, sharing ideas and solutions during recess, at lunch, and after the final bell rings. 

“During the pandemic, that was really hard to do. It was hard to connect,” Seril recalls. “Those kinds of experiences led me to feel like maybe I need to try something else, especially because we didn't know at the time how long we were going to be teaching like this.” 

But for some, personal connection is not enough to sustain in the profession. 

“The best thing about teaching is the kids—but not even they can make up for everything else,” Donis admitted. 

Alba Donis

She explains that outside of the typical school day hours, teachers are expected to read their emails, finish their paperwork, plan lessons, grade assignments, organize materials, attend meetings and communicate with parents. 

These extra responsibilities can consume afternoons, evenings and weekends. And teachers are not compensated to reflect these working hours. 

Collins recalled spending an additional 20 hours per week outside of regular school day hours working on teaching-related tasks during the pandemic. After having her daughter, she realized this time commitment was unrealistic. 

“My time outside of work became a lot more precious to me,” she says. “I had a one-year-old who I saw from 4:30-7:00 p.m. when she went to bed. It was awful, and that was part of why I felt so desperate, to be honest, to get out. I was willing to do anything to leave because that was not the kind of mom I wanted to be. How could I justify that? And I didn’t want to. The job cost me too much.” 

Disrespected by Administrators and Parents

Having a great boss or management is crucial to success anywhere, and education is no exception. To be a successful teacher, it is vital to have strong and supportive administrators. 

Seril explains that her colleagues and administration work harmoniously, having two-way conversations and communicating clearly about needs. This type of environment cultivates growth, discovery and the development of personal relationships within a building. Teachers who do not have that luxury often feel detached and isolated at work. 

Collins recalled one of her biggest frustrations from teaching: district leaders and administrators signing the school up for new programs or making commitments without first consulting teachers for their insights and opinions. She explains that the “top-down” decision-making process is not to anyone’s benefit because those at the top are too far removed from the classroom and too unfamiliar with its norms. 

According to Education Week, in the past decade, technology and social media have advanced. Meanwhile, the state of teen mental health has become a larger conversation and new attitudes surrounding politics, diversity, equity and inclusion in the classroom are continuing to emerge. All of this has an impact on how teachers teach in the day-to-day.

“Especially in these COVID times, frankly, their outdated classroom experience is more meaningless than ever,” she says. “If you were a teacher 10 years ago, you have no clue what it’s like to be inside a classroom today.” 

But just as much as teachers want to support administrators, they want their administrators to in turn support them.

With the increase in advanced technology, today’s educators are spending more time than ever responding to relentless and harsh communication from parents. And they are doing so entirely on their own. 

“We are very accustomed to a very short turnaround time for information, and parents feel very entitled to 24/7 access to teachers,” Collins says. “It’s completely unsustainable. I also think it’s bizarre and not super appropriate.” 

Collins explains that the school district she taught in had a civility policy, but in her experience, it seemed as though teachers were entirely on their own and did not have access to any people or resources to mitigate disrespectful communication.

“You could have an administrator there, but you probably shouldn’t bother because it didn’t deter the parent at all,” Collins said. “They were going to be just as mean to you if you were alone or if you had an administrator there. It’s really amazing, the things people will say to teachers. And I was a teacher who graded things on time and was very by the book and was very on it.” 

Collins recalls a parent attempting to shame her for her perceptions about how she planned her pregnancy. Since she was on maternity leave at the start of the pandemic, her students were with a long-term substitute for the end of the 2019-2020 school year. The parent claimed that this negatively impacted student.

“What a joke!” Collins says. “It was like the perfect timing, honestly.” 

She explained that even though lots of people don’t plan their pregnancies, she was someone who did. And she accomplished exactly what she intended to do: Match up her maternity leave with a summer vacation to get maximum time with her baby.  

Shoes That Don’t Fit 

Seril hopes that as we emerge from the pandemic, society notices how much teachers do to meet the needs of their students and how it is unsustainable for one person to do everything for so many people. 

“What I would like to see happen is for us to really build out a school community that includes counselors and social workers and brings in families and community members, so we can work together as a team to truly support our students. Teachers are amazing, but they cannot do it all, and it’s unrealistic to expect it,” she says. 

Meghann Seril

Collins agrees. When she worked as a teacher, she saw the mental health crisis as a prevalent issue in her school. The pandemic, she says, has both heightened and highlighted that amongst teenagers. And though she believes the need is certainly there, teachers are not the people who should be providing that primary support to students. 

“We don’t have the actual training to be qualified to do some of the things that the district seems to think we should be doing,” she said. “We are not equipped to do these kinds of jobs and provide these kinds of support.” 

Teachers are Tired—Students Pay the Price

As more teachers flee the profession, the ones who stay are skeptical about what new staff shortages mean for their own future in the job and their students’ future learning. 

“I am worried that the institution of public education is just going to be destroyed by this,” Seril says. “The fact that there are folks across the country who are stepping into the classroom, who don’t have a college degree, who don’t have the training, who haven’t had a chance to student teach or observe–that’s a disservice to those people and to our students. I don’t think anyone wins in that situation.” 

She predicts that as schools become more desperate to fill vacancies, the requirements and characteristics of being a teacher will deplete. 

“With teachers continuing to feel burnt out, continuing to feel unsupported, continuing to be attacked in the media, and with folks who are choosing to retire early or choosing to find something that is education-adjacent, where they feel like they have the impact,” she says. “I think it will potentially get worse for the next few years.”

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