Editor’s Note: This blog post is a part of a new ongoing series of posts dedicated to K-12 education policy in Mississippi.
By Grace Breazeale I K-12 Policy Associate
Teacher compensation has rightfully taken center stage in the effort to address the teacher shortage crisis in Mississippi. Still, there remains a host of additional challenges which teachers say are contributing to their decisions to leave the classroom. Policymakers, advocates, and other stakeholders who ignore these issues risk exacerbating a critical shortage of teachers when Mississippi’s educator pipeline is already strained by chronically low pay and the increasing cost of earning the credentials to become a licensed educator.
Our newest report, Eyeing the Exit, primarily uses data from the 2022 Mississippi Teacher Survey to explore the connection between financial well-being and attrition risk. This connection is highlighted by findings such as the fact that 66% of teachers who were struggling financially reported a likelihood of leaving the classroom within the next year, while 46% of teachers who were not struggling financially reported a likelihood of leaving. But while teachers clearly indicated that compensation was their greatest overall concern, a majority of respondents also cited factors such as “school and district leadership” and “respect from politicians” as contributing factors to their career decisions. Even among teachers who were not struggling financially, an attrition risk of 46% signifies a level of discontent that warrants close attention—attention which may be instructive for understanding the grievances of all teachers, regardless of their economic circumstances.
In this context, we believe that examining the onslaught of challenges that have come to a head since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic could shed light on some of the nonfinancial frustrations of these teachers that could be contributing to their attrition risk.
Politicization of Education
At the start of COVID-19, teachers were lauded as heroes; in the following months, this quickly gave way to the vilification of teachers who did not feel comfortable returning to school in the thick of the pandemic. When schools did open their doors, political debates around mask mandates appeared to center more on ideology than health. At the same time, the academic framework known as “critical race theory” (CRT) became a flashpoint in the mainstream political arena, and this discourse gave way to curriculum restrictions and book bans—with little regard for teachers’ opinions or recognition of what they actually teach (for example, the debate over Senate Bill 2113 in 2022, which ostensibly banned CRT, featured zero examples of this concept being taught at the K-12 level in Mississippi). As a result, teachers have been forced to adhere to policy decisions made for political reasons rather than out of concern for the well-being of their students. It is no surprise that the politicization of teaching has contributed to an appetite to leave the profession: over 80% of teachers in the 2022 Teacher Survey who reported a likelihood of leaving cited that respect from politicians has “somewhat” or “a great deal” of impact on their career decisions.
Increasing Workload Due to Teacher Shortages
Teacher shortages have become more acute in recent years, exemplified by the growing number of critical shortage areas in Mississippi. When schools cannot fill all their teaching positions, the teachers who remain in the school are often required to fill in the gaps. For instance, teachers may be given larger classes or expected to teach courses outside of their fields—typically with no additional pay. These additional burdens can contribute to burnout and, in turn, even more attrition.
A short supply of substitute teachers can also contribute to burnout. Even before the pandemic, one in five requests for substitute teachers went unfilled. This problem became even worse during the pandemic. According to survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 68% of schools reported that they rely on teachers to cover classes during their planning period when no substitutes are available. Teachers’ planning time is already extremely limited given the amount of tasks they have to do outside of teaching their classes: among other things, they are responsible for lesson planning, creating lesson materials, making copies, grading, and reaching out to parents. Typically, they are only given around an hour during each school day to do so—time that is taken away when they have to cover another teacher’s class.
Impact of Pandemic on Student Achievement
School districts–particularly lower-performing ones–have placed a disproportionate focus on standardized testing for years, and this has remained true despite the profound upheaval brought on by COVID-19. Some of the impacts of the pandemic on student achievement have been well-documented, while others are still coming into focus, but it’s clear that students experienced at least some level of learning loss as a result of pandemic disruptions. Complicating the matter, students were not all equally impacted. Disadvantaged students appeared to fare worse than their more advantaged counterparts, widening the gap between the two groups. This phenomenon can create unique challenges for teachers, who are expected to differentiate their instruction to meet the needs of all learners, no matter how different these needs may be. In addition, student absenteeism has increased significantly compared to the year before the pandemic. Despite these additional challenges, teachers are held accountable for student scores to the same degree that they were before the pandemic.
Impact of Pandemic on Student Behavior and Mental Health
In addition to impacting academic achievement, disruptions from the pandemic also appear to have contributed to a mental health crisis among students and—perhaps as a result of this—worsened behavior. A May 2022 survey from the Institute of Education Sciences found a 56% increase in classroom disruptions caused by student behavior, and a 49% increase in rowdiness outside of the classroom. The use of unpermitted cell phones and other devices rose by 42%. In the 2022 Teacher Retention survey administered by the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE), only 48% of teachers reported that students follow behavior expectations. As teachers spend their whole work days leading classrooms of students, negative student behavior can have a major impact on their job satisfaction and ability to teach.
Increase in School Safety Concerns
The first school shooting of 2023 was reported less than a week into the new year, continuing a tragic pattern of increasing gun violence in schools over the past decade. Without meaningful policies to combat this, teachers and students have been subjected to active shooter drills and classroom escape plans. Sadly, there appears to be a collective understanding that the situation will not improve anytime soon, so schools should be prepared for the worst. Teachers are expected to accept this status quo and the inherent risk of having a career in the classroom in the 2020s. In MDE’s Teacher Retention Survey, only 75% of teachers agreed that they work in a safe environment, leaving 25% of teachers feeling unsafe at their jobs.
The aspects of the education landscape we have outlined are big, complex issues. They often do not have cut-and-dry solutions, but this should not discourage policymakers and practitioners from acting. As a place to start, we have drawn out several clear implications from our analyses:
- Give teachers a seat at the table in discussions about issues that impact them, such as school safety and class curriculum; consider their perspectives and expertise when making policy decisions.
- Invest in programs that have been proven to help students catch up academically, such as high-dosage tutoring.
- Implement evidence-based mental health programs in schools.
- Reduce the drill-and-kill approach to preparing for standardized testing and focus on teaching content and providing students background knowledge and experiences they may have missed during the pandemic.
Teachers are the most important school-level factor impacting student achievement, but the conditions they are subject to send a message they are expendable. It’s time that we work to send the opposite message: that teachers are valuable professionals who deserve a positive, safe, and supportive working environment. If we wish to improve our education system, we have no other option but to work towards this vision.