Will 'The Great Resignation' Come to Education?

By Mark Cannizzaro

CSA President and AFSA VIce President

The magical possibility of a career in education strikes many of us with unforgettable force at the moments great teachers enter our lives. That’s when most of us first think of becoming teachers ourselves. We remember those truly great educators, and we will for the rest of our lives. The way Mr. Liozzi influenced me in 4th grade and Mr. Larsen in high school English was the way I wanted to influence children one day. For a while, afterward, I thought of being a firefighter, but in the end, I couldn’t resist the rewards of working with young people and making a difference in their lives.  As a teacher, an AP and a principal, I know I have had that influence, in a way that would not have been possible in any other profession.

The Way It Is

And yet I see disillusion overwhelming so many educators today.  Many say they’re wasting their time with petty tasks instead of helping kids, and they’re sure not having fun. What they’re feeling now is different from the momentary deep disappointment people sometimes feel in any challenging profession. With the COVID crisis, and its politicization, they’re experiencing something more entrenched. Call it despair.

Statewide, the number of people going into education is said to be down about 50%. Some of this is because school climate and discipline have skidded off the rails.  But even more of it is because educators have been on the front lines managing ever-shifting regulations and directives, dealing with declining student mental health and staff shortages, swerving from in-person to online learning and back again, then getting bashed in the press while getting no real support from higher-ups in the district office.  

School principals and administrators like yourselves are dealing with a dizzying array of challenges. The NASSP’s recent survey of K–12 principals, conducted between last Oct. 25 and Nov. 12, revealed that a quarter of principals said they plan to leave in two or three years, and 33% said they plan to leave in four to six.  It’s especially alarming that 62% of these are new principals. Top reasons included “the stress and workload from dealing with COVID-19, staffing shortages (according to a recent Rand Corporation survey, one in four American teachers was considering leaving the job by the end of the last academic year), bureaucratic demands from above and—a newer concern—threats from parents and community members over COVID mitigation measures.”  

What We Have to Do

Our profession needs to become fun and rewarding again. We must start by attracting quality teachers to educate the next generation. Furthermore, without an ample pool of talented teachers, there will be no one to rise to the leadership level.  At the same time, we need a comprehensive plan to attract, train and fully support the next generation of school leaders. If we fail to act now, the entire American education system will be at risk.

The two most important fundamental changes we must make are to stop bombarding educators with constant changes and regulations and call a halt to the culture of blame. Hours spent tending to illogical protocols, occurrence reports, investigations, all things COVID, and a mountain of other compliance and reporting tasks leave little time to for what’s truly important.

Secondly, we have to call a halt to the blame culture that seeks to pin on somebody, usually the principal, complete responsibility for anything that goes wrong. Criticizing a school’s climate and culture after depleting staff and eroding our ability to address negative behavior is not a winning strategy. Suggesting we may not have put all “systems and structures” in place after a tragic incident is “Monday morning quarterbacking” at its worst.  

Make Jobs Better

We have to start making these jobs better. Doing that means attracting people of the highest character by giving them better salaries, more autonomy and, most importantly, real support. Currently, too many leaders are afraid to make decisions for fear of losing their livelihood if something goes wrong. Top-quality leaders who feel supported and comfortable about using their discretion will feel free to innovate and will attract capable, dedicated staff members, one by one.  

At the top of every school system, there is an elected official who can vow to make this happen. In my town, it is New York City Mayor Eric Adams. We must encourage top elected officials like him to protect our district leaders, school leaders and teachers from political attacks. They should tell the professional critics and naysayers to tamp down the anti-public school rhetoric. Don’t allow educators to be victims of political opportunism. Set a tone that doesn’t default to blame. Thus far, I have been very encouraged by the actions of New York City’s new mayor and new chancellor, David Banks. I sense that we may finally be on our way to turning things around here, but this has to happen in school districts across the nation.

Fire Up the PR Machine

No one can fire up the PR machine better than the mayor and the head of the school system. As we reel from the pandemic, they must continue to visit our schools and invite the press to join them. Let reporters and editors get used to the call from the mayor and superintendent saying, “Have I got a school, a principal, a teacher, a student for you! Come in and see for yourself.” This will do so much more for our schools’ public image than stonewalling the press by turning every media request into an elaborate bureaucratic procedure that requires endless approvals.  

What’s more, the government and school districts should invest in advertising and marketing campaigns that let smart people, including those interested in a career change, know exactly how to go about becoming a public school teacher without plunging into a bureaucratic scavenger hunt which, sadly, is the way it often is now. States across the country should attempt to expand the pipeline by actively recruiting both teachers and administrators.

The Best Minds

With the support of cutting-edge thinkers from politics, civic life, the arts, marketing, academia and organized labor, we should pull every possible lever of innovation. Lobby the feds and the states to institute tuition reimbursement for everyone who enters a school of education. Create teacher internships and apprenticeships as alternatives to traditional student teaching. Provide alternative paths to certification for stellar individuals instead of forcing them back to school for another 2+ years. 

Above all, imagine and introduce ways to make sure teachers and school leaders have fun again. That cannot happen without putting in place school safety and mental health strategies that the staff has bought into. Initiate teacher and leadership mentorship programs, introduce mental health professional development days for educators at every level, and enlist educator input into all initiatives. Think deeply and hard about the finer nuances of educator wellbeing.  The time has come to let the imagination roam free, and restore joy to the most honorable profession.   

Photo Credit: CIPHR Connect, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons