Why teachers in America are leaving the profession in droves

As students return to the classroom, many will come back to school districts that are understaffed. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 44 percent of public schools will report teaching vacancies at the start of this year, with more than half due to resignations. Teachers of the year Lee Allen and Qorsho Hassan join Geoff Bennett to discuss.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    As many students head back to the classroom, many are returning to schools that are understaffed. The National Center for Education Statistics says 44% of public schools will report teaching vacancies at the start of this year and more than half of those were from resignations with 1000s of teaching vacancies across the country, the nation appears to be reckoning with an exodus of educators.

    Joining us now to talk about this are two standout teachers, Lee Allen taught math, coached wrestling, and was Teacher of the Year in Georgia's largest school district. And Qorsho Hassan taught elementary school and was the first Somali American to be named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. It's great to have you both with us.

    Qorsho, I want to start with you, because you've said that you did not leave the profession entirely, willingly. What for you was the breaking point?

    Qorsho Hassan, 2020 Minnesota Teacher of the Year: The breaking point for me was continuously being devalued. And not feeling like I could teach the truth and meet my scholars where they were. And it was also just the idea that we, as a profession didn't land here by any choice. We didn't mysteriously come about this teacher shortage. There has been a continuous evaluation of teachers and defunding of education for decades.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Lee, does any of what she said resonate with you? I mean, what specific ways did COVID, the remote learning, the isolation, how did all of that change the students? And how did that change your ability to teach?

    Lee Allen, 2022 Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year: Yeah, I think you definitely saw the isolation in those formative teenage years, cause a lot of negative mental health issues on students. And coming back into the classroom after COVID, schools still wanted to keep up and make appearances look like things were just as good as 2019. However, they're not. And we don't reflect reality. And I think you're seeing a lot of teachers finally just kind of throw their hands up and say, I'm done. I'm not dealing with it anymore.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Qorsho, what about that? I mean, we talk about a teacher shortage, there are people who say, what it really is, it's a pay and respect shortage. What do you make of that?

  • Qorsho Hassan:

    I agree with that, I think about how there's a salary shortage, there are incompetent wages for the work that we do. And I also feel like there's this expectation that we do free labor, without any foresight or any thought about the families that we have, and the other roles that we carry besides teaching. I'll also say that, you know, there's a lot of blaming students, and for them, not showing up the way that they should. And I think the idea that, you know, COVID has really illuminated a lot of this systemic failure that we've been facing has just brought me more and more to come to the conclusion that we need to do better by our students, in particular students of color.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Would you have left the profession, Qorsho, if you'd had the institutional support, if you'd had the resources, you say you need?

  • Qorsho Hassan:

    Absolutely, if I had the resources to meet the needs of my students, and not feel like the burden of all of their needs fell on my shoulders, including food or housing, and other resources, I would still be teaching, teaching is a huge part of who I am. It's something that I've done for a third of my life. And I don't take it lightly.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And Qorsho, you have — and you spoke about this in our conversation, that there was an emotional toll to the work that was required of you, as a Somali woman, as a Muslim woman, that there was emotional labor there that wasn't required of your colleagues, how did all of that sort of manifest for you?

  • Qorsho Hassan:

    We call that the invisible tax. It's the tax that I pay for showing up as myself, unapologetically teaching black history, teaching the truth about our American history, and also uplifting all of my scholars, in particular, my black and brown and indigenous scholars to see their full potential. And so a lot of that work is revolutionary. It's rare. It's not common in the school house. And to do that work requires you to give a large part of yourself.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    It sounds Qorsho, like being a teacher was the work that you were called to do. Did you experience any guilt in deciding to step away?

  • Qorsho Hassan:

    Significant guilt, I was the only Somali teacher at my school. We have a large Somali population. In fact, in many of the schools that I've served for, I've either been the only Somali teacher or one a few black teachers. And so I knew that taking away that ability for me to be a role model, or a connector or liaison to not just my students, but my community would be a huge loss. But I have really found joy in protecting myself and valuing who I am. And choosing myself at the end of the day.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Lee, as we wrap up this conversation, a lot of people focus on the pay part of this, and that's certainly important, but it sounds like in talking to the both of you that it's more than just the salary.

  • Lee Allen:

    Definitely, I think people should know that the repercussions of what's happening, we have a shrinking pipeline of students going to college and studying to become teachers and even students in college that finished teacher preparation programs aren't going into the field. And a lot of the people that are staying, if they're in a bad situation or just trying to hang on until they can get to retirement and they're not going to be as effective teachers. So you're losing the highest part of your talent pool like we've seen here. Unfortunately, children are the ones that pay the price. But it's hard because as teachers, we have to take care of ourselves. And we still have individual lives and feelings, and we have mental health to worry about as well. So if things don't get better, I really do worry about the future.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Well, it's really valuable to have the perspectives of two former teachers of the year Lee Allen, and Qorsho Hassan, thanks so much to you both.

  • Lee Allen:

    Thanks, Geoff.

  • Qorsho Hassan:

    Thank you.

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