Amid a pandemic that’s dramatically altered the American education system and exacerbated workforce stressors in K-12 schools and at colleges and universities, educators are now the most burned out group among all other industries.
A new Gallup poll shows that 44% of K-12 employees say they “always” or “very often” feel burned out at work, including 52% of teachers who report the same. Moreover, 35% of college and university workers say they “always” or “very often” feel burned out at work – making K-12 and higher education the two industries with the highest rate of burnout, according to the new poll.
The polling is the latest in a series of data points that underscores the fragility of the education workforce and comes at an inflection point for the country’s public school system – one pushed to the brink by the coronavirus pandemic, overwhelmed with learning loss and mental health challenges and overrun with contentious political debates, including, once again, whether to arm teachers in the wake of the most recent mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated many of the stressors for educators, especially at the K-12 level – forcing school districts to redirect central office staff to classrooms, ask recently retired teachers to return and put parents on a rotating schedule to provide support in their childrens’ classes. At least two states – New Mexico and Massachusetts – mobilized their National Guards to step in to teach, drive buses and serve meals.
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National teachers unions have been sounding the alarm on what they’ve termed “an unprecedented staffing crisis across every job category.” The 3 million-member National Education Association released polling in February that showed 55% of educators indicate they are ready to leave the profession.
To be sure, the supply-and-demand issue in the educator workforce is not new. For decades, declining enrollment in teacher preparation programs has created persistent and mounting vacancies in schools. And compared to other professions requiring similar levels of education, teaching has experienced relatively flat wage growth, largely at the expense of rising retirement and health care benefits.
The average starting salary for public school teachers in the U.S. is $41,163, according to the Learning Policy Institute – though in 32 states the average starting salary is much lower, including in Missouri and Montana, where it’s less than $33,000. And in some states, teachers earn only 67% of what other college educated professionals make.
Last week, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona outlined his vision for revamping the teaching profession top to bottom, starting with increasing salaries for all educators, providing incentives for positions that have been historically difficult to staff, including for special education and bilingual teachers, and revamping teacher education programs to include more mentorships, hands-on experience and concerted efforts to attract more students of color into the profession.
“As we support the whole child, we must also support the whole educator,” Cardona said, taking time in his speech to acknowledge the stressors educators have been working through.
The poll results, which come from Gallup’s Panel Workforce Study, conducted Feb. 3-14, 2022, with more than 12,000 U.S. full-time employees, including 1,263 K-12 workers, also documents how the burnout has risen among educators over the course of the pandemic.
At the outset of the pandemic in March 2020, 36% of K-12 workers reported feeling burned out very often or always – 8 percentage points higher than the 28% found among all other workers as a whole. Two years later, that gap has nearly doubled, with 44% of K-12 workers now reporting they feel burned out, compared with 30% of all other workers – a 14-point difference.
“Amid the recovery and all that is being asked of you today, teachers, you must take care of yourselves,” Cardona said. “Even as we carry the weight of caring for others, we must be good to ourselves so we can be good for the work. And so that in this most human of professions we are recognizing and protecting our own humanity. I often say put your oxygen mask on before you put on others. And educators, you're such a giving and caring group, you gotta make sure you are taking yourselves and your families and your well being.”