Like many college students, Jennifer Brown was thrilled to finally graduate after years of hard work. She earned a degree in elementary education — along with several of her friends — and immediately began applying for teaching jobs. Some of her friends were hired, while Jennifer struggled to find the right fit. While her friends were setting up their classrooms and meeting their students, Jennifer kept applying and interviewing for jobs.
As the school year progressed, Jennifer had several conversations with her teacher friends and found a common denominator. They were all miserable. Their dream to make a positive impact on their students was buried under the weight of what is expected of teachers today. No college class could have prepared them for the realities they were encountering.
Meanwhile, Jennifer took a position outside of the classroom, becoming a therapy coordinator for infants and toddlers in her state. It’s been five years since she graduated, and she swears she will never step foot into a classroom. Some of her teacher friends have left their teaching jobs indefinitely—finding that not only did teacher-life not improve, but it grew progressively and rapidly worse.
In 2018, over one million public educators left the profession. Yes, one million. What is it about being a teacher today that’s so challenging? Many of my friends are educators—though about half are now former educators. The more teachers I asked, the more I learned that not only are our kids’ teachers overworked and underpaid, but they are stressed beyond belief. Here’s why they told me they’re ditching education to pursue other careers.
1. Teachers are using their own paychecks to fund their classrooms.
Teachers are essentially superheroes—but their paychecks do not reflect the magnitude of their job. Many districts are underfunded, which leaves teachers to make the choice. Do they spend some of their own paycheck to buy classroom essentials—even simple learning-essential tools like pencils—or have their students go without?
Anderson Donovan told Scary Mommy that in his low-income school district, many students came to class in winter without a coat or gloves. He began purchasing appropriate outerwear for some of his students, as well as snacks for kids who arrived at school hungry. Of course, this leaves less money for the teacher’s own personal needs—like housing, insurance, transportation, and food.
2. Teachers are working multiple jobs.
Jason White told Scary Mommy that his high school teaching job wasn’t earning him enough to pay his bills, including his own college education debt. He’s spent every sweltering Midwest summer mowing lawns, desperately trying to financially stay afloat. He was trapped in his teaching job, dependent on the meager income, to avoid the bill collectors.
Other teachers I know are working for MLM companies, hosting parties and making sales on the weekends. I’ve seen both teachers and classroom aides from my kids’ own schools working retail jobs in the evenings or on weekends. Almost every teacher I know has a side hustle—out of necessity.
3. Teachers’ mental health is declining.
Tasha Smith recently left her 15-year teaching career due to several factors, including the toll teaching took on her mental health. She spent most of her years in low-income schools in which she not only would teach, but would provide clothing, school supplies, and food for some students. Not only would she help meet their physical needs, but she provided a listening ear and emotional support for students suffering from extreme trauma. When she’d leave work, she’d go home and spend her evenings worrying about her students well-being.
During her teaching years, she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, then multiple sclerosis—all of which was exacerbated by the relentless stressors of being a teacher. While pregnant and before her pregnancy, she was physically assaulted by elementary students. She was spit on, bitten, kicked, and slapped. Without appropriate interventions and supports in place, she left the classroom. She told Scary Mommy, “I attached so much of my identity to being a teacher. It is a struggle not to have that part of my identity right now.” She’s now a stay-at-home-mom to two young daughters.
4. Teachers never get a break.
Many people assume that teachers have the ideal work schedule. After all, they get weekends, evenings, holidays, and summers off, right? Katie Joiner shared with Scary Mommy that after she was hired to be a middle school teacher, soon her principal was pressuring her to run the school drama club. She reports that it was expected that she participate in at least one student organization, if not more.
She eventually agreed, giving up the few hours each evening she had — as a newlywed, with her husband — in lieu of play practice. She spent Monday through Friday at her school from seven in the morning until well past eight at night, only to arrive home and begin preparing materials for the next day. Her Saturdays and Sundays were often consumed with grading and additional play practices. Katie left her teaching job shortly after, now working as a photographer and marketing coordinator.
5. Teachers are expected to do more than ever.
Former teacher Karleigh Adams told Scary Mommy that when she first started teaching high school English, she was granted two planning periods during her seven-period day. The time was meant to allow her the freedom to organize lessons, gather materials, grade, and make copies. After a few years of teaching, Karleigh lost one period and was given an additional class to teach. The next year she lost her only planning period, expected to monitor students in the hallways. This meant she was using every evening and weekend to do all of her prep, grading, and communicating. She left her teaching job a few years later.
She was expected to do all this, and much more. Teachers attend multiple IEP and 504 meetings for students with special needs, keeping careful record of those students’ progress. Those plans must be followed at all times in the classroom, and many teachers have multiple students on plans. Don’t get any teacher started on the burden of state testing and “teaching to the test,” lack of recess, active-shooter drills, and budget-cuts, including the lack of raises and fighting to keep their insurance.
Our teachers are saints who have one of the hardest jobs in the world. Not a single teacher I know has their nights, weekends, holidays, and summers off like so many assume. Instead, many are marching toward burnout, if they aren’t there already. My friends who are still teaching run on fumes at all times, desperately trying to be professional, make sure their students learn, and maintain a personal life.
The education crisis in America has been an ongoing topic with no easy solution. What I do know is that we need to appreciate our kids’ teachers and try to make their lives a little bit easier. We can volunteer to help in the classroom or from home, donate supplies, and be active in the PTA when possible. Our kids’ teachers need us—but even more so, we need them.
*All names have been changed to protect privacy.