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D.C.-area schools see spike in teacher resignations

School systems in the metro area saw an increase in teacher resignations this year. Educators cited several reasons for leaving the profession, including burnout. (Donna St. George/The Washington Post)
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Teachers in parts of the D.C. area resigned in unusually high numbers at the end of the most recent school year, according to data obtained from school districts and analyzed by The Washington Post.

Resignations spiked enormously at the end of the 2021-2022 academic year in D.C. Public Schools and in several Northern Virginia districts, including Fairfax County, the state’s largest school system. But the numbers of teachers resigning held fairly steady in Virginia’s Loudoun County Public Schools and in Maryland’s Montgomery County and Prince George’s County school systems.

The D.C.-area resignations come amid a wider national trend of teachers leaving the profession in the years since the pandemic began, which forced schools nationwide to suddenly veer online. Managing hybrid teaching left many educators exhausted. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data as reported by the Wall Street Journal, about 300,000 public-school teachers and staffers quit their jobs between February 2020 and May 2022, representing a 3 percent decrease in the workforce.

Educators say the reasons for resigning vary. But some cite the difficulty teachers faced readjusting students, many of whom had grown accustomed to pandemic-era remote education, to in-classroom learning this past year. Federal data released in early July showed that students in more than 80 percent of public schools are struggling with their behavior, social-emotional well-being and mental health — and that 50 percent of schools are reporting increased acts of disrespect by students toward educators.

Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association teachers group in Northern Virginia, said some teachers are also leaving because they are tired of the ongoing debates over how American schools should teach about race, racism, U.S. history, gender identity and sexual orientation. Parents across the country are pushing for greater involvement in their children’s education, including oversight of lesson plans and curriculums, and many regularly attend once-sleepy school board meetings to share their displeasure.

“I think it’s a perfect storm,” Adams said, referencing the combined effects of pandemic-induced exhaustion, a jump in student misbehavior and parental anger over the management of public education. “A lot of people are just saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ and telling us they would rather have a job where they feel valued.”

She added: “Teachers are just feeling attacked by the public on every front. I don’t think we’ve heard enough from the people who support us.”

In the metro area, educator resignations rose most dramatically in the nation’s capital this year.

The public school system in D.C., which serves more than 50,000 students, employs about 4,000 teachers on average each year. In 2019, the last full school year before the pandemic, 239 teachers resigned. But from January to June in 2022, the most recent year, 372 teachers quit their jobs — representing a 52 percent increase from the average number of resignations during the same time period over the previous three years, and accounting for about 9.3 percent of the total teacher workforce.

While resignations are up, D.C. Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said the school system has been hiring teachers faster than it did last year. He said, as of early July, there were fewer vacant slots than at this time last year, though the school system did not provide specific numbers.

“We have more people in the pool than we had last time,” Ferebee said. “I am excited about the progress we made, but I’m keenly aware that we still have more progress to make.”

The D.C. State Board of Education has released multiple studies on teacher attrition rates and found that, while the school system’s turnover rate had shown some improvements in the years before the pandemic, it is still higher than in other cities. The latest 2021 study found that the percentage of teachers leaving the school system — a figure that includes all forms of attrition, retirements and firings as well as resignations — averages 17 percent over the last 12 years.

School system leaders have countered that the city’s retention rate is higher when considering teachers who rated “highly effective” on the District’s controversial teacher evaluation system, which ties teachers’ bonuses to student performance.

Jacqueline Pogue Lyons, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said she is concerned about the number of resignations and cited the ongoing and prolonged teacher contract negotiations as an example of the need for the system to build better relations with its employees.

“DCPS does the best at getting the best and brightest teacher in the classroom,” Lyons said. “But they are failing in keep them here.”

Two Washington Teachers’ Union members — an elementary school teacher and a psychologist — said in interviews that this past year was the hardest of their careers and they decided to resign.

The employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are still searching for new jobs, said they had more responsibilities this year with little support. With students returning to school after more than a year in virtual learning, the psychologist said she had to conduct more student evaluations, accompanied by written reports, than ever before.

And the teacher said that as she and her students were trying to get reacclimated to being back in classrooms, administrators micromanaged and put extra pressure on teachers to ensure that students were improving academically to make up for learning losses.

“I almost feel like I was forced out,” said the 49-year-old teacher, who resigned in March. “I feel like they forgot that we were just coming off of a pandemic.”

In Maryland, by contrast, teacher resignations remained largely unchanged in the Montgomery County system, while shrinking in Prince George’s County.

The school system in Montgomery County serves about 160,000 students, making it the largest district in the state, and employs roughly 13,600 teachers, according to school data.

The number of teachers resigning in Montgomery hovered in the high 500s between the 2018-2019 and 2020-2021 school years — on average 534 teachers resigned each year. In 2021-2022, the most recent academic year, 576 teachers resigned their positions: a small decrease from the 2020-2021 school year, which saw 610 resignations, although an increase of nearly 8 percent from the average. The number of teachers who left their jobs is equivalent to about 4 percent of the workforce.

In Maryland’s Prince George’s County, which serves 128,271 students, according to system enrollment reports, 539 teachers resigned as of June 15 — marking the lowest count of resignations in four years. The number represents about 5.4 percent of Prince George’s roughly 10,000 teacher employees. Prince George’s saw an average of 699 resignations per year between the 2018-2019 and 2020-2021 school years. This year’s total resignations represents a 23 percent decrease from that average.

Prince George’s County Public Schools’ deadline for teachers to resign is Friday. Donna Christy, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association — a union that represents the district’s teachers, has said she expects more teachers will leave. Montgomery County Public Schools has no deadline for resignation notices, but the school system encourages teachers to file resignations with enough time to hire for the upcoming school year.

In Northern Virginia, teacher resignation trends varied by system. Those in Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria saw increases in resignations, while the Loudoun school system saw little change in resignation totals.

Fairfax County Public Schools, which enrolls 178,635 students, per state data — making it the largest district in the state — saw 896 teacher resignations in 2022. That represents a roughly 45 percent increase compared with the average number of resignations between 2018 and 2021: 620. This year’s total is also equivalent to roughly 5.6 percent of the teacher workforce, which typically comprises 16,000 employees, according to spokeswoman Julie Moult.

Moult said the district is worried for next year.

“We do have some concerns about teacher shortages for this upcoming year,” she said. “We will be doing all we can in the next seven weeks to ensure we fill any gaps.”

Adams, the Fairfax Education Association leader, predicted that a couple hundred jobs will remain unfilled by the time school starts this fall. But she is hopeful that some openings will be filled soon, due in part to training programs the school system is hosting — for example, a webinar that encourages assistant teachers to become full-time teachers. She said her association is also leading similar “grow-your-own” work.

“I think Fairfax is trying to put in place some pieces,” said Adams, whose association has roughly 4,000 members. “There was a shortage of teachers last year because some colleges didn’t have enough enrollment in their teacher prep programs — and I think now we’re seeing those teacher prep programs getting more and more students, so that will hopefully help too.”

Officials in Arlington Public Schools will also spend the summer working to fill an atypically large number of empty positions. Arlington, which enrolls 27,045 students, according to state data, saw 284 teachers resign between August 2021 and mid-May 2022. The district usually employs about 3,000 teachers, per spokesman Frank Bellavia.

That is 96 percent higher than the average number of resignations between 2018-2019 and 2020-2021: 145. The number of people quitting their jobs this year accounts for 9.5 percent of Arlington’s teacher workforce.

Asked whether the school district is worried about staff shortages this fall, district spokesman Bellavia said, “APS, like other school districts, continues to work throughout the summer to fill teaching positions as well as other vital positions to maintain operations of a school district.”

Bellavia added that the district was holding a job fair meant to entice candidates for vacant positions on July 12. And the school district will hire substitutes as needed “to ensure all schools are staffed on the first day,” he said.

Alexandria City Public Schools, which enrolls 15,299 students, per its website, saw 212 teacher resignations this past school year. That is about 28 percent higher than the average number of resignations across the preceding three school years: 166 each year. The tally of educators who quit in 2021-2022 represents about 14.4 percent of the teacher workforce, which numbers 1,474, according to Melanie Kay-Wyatt, Alexandria’s chief of human resources.

“We recognize that many school divisions throughout the nation will be managing some degree of teacher shortages this coming fall,” Kay-Wyatt said when asked about possible concerns for staffing this fall.

She added that Alexandria will “aggressively and creatively recruit staff” this summer by hosting recruitment events and “targeted interview events for specialized positions” as well as advertising in print and online news publications, on websites and on social media. Kay-Wyatt said the district will also work with universities and professional associations “to drive top talent to our application portal.”

In Loudoun County Public Schools, which serves 81,642 students, per its website, 339 teachers submitted resignations this academic year. This marks a very slight — about 6 percent — increase over the rate of resignation between the 2018-2019 and 2020-2021 school years, during which time 321 teachers resigned each year on average. The resignations in 2021-2022 account for 5 percent of the total teacher workforce, which comprises 6,808 teachers, according to spokesman Wayde Byard.

Byard wrote in a statement that “historically, LCPS has been over 95% fully-staffed for licensed positions to start the school year, a target we anticipate hitting again for 2022-23.” He added that Loudoun will fill any teacher vacancies at the start of next year by hiring a short- or long-term substitute. As of July, he said, Loudoun has managed to fill some positions and is down to 284 licensed teacher vacancies.

Doug Burns, an Arlington Public Schools high school teacher, said many of his colleagues found the most recent school year unusually difficult.

“Recalibrating students was certainly one issue, but recalibrating a lot of teachers was another,” he said. “I think there were a lot of new teachers ... that hadn’t had a lot of experience in the classroom teaching; they’d been hired during the pandemic.”

He said it felt as though there was too little time for older, more experienced teachers like himself — at 54, Burns has been teaching for almost three decades — to give their younger colleagues the help and mentoring they needed.

Burns, who teaches English at Wakefield High School, said he recalls close to 20 teacher resignations or retirements at his school this year, a much higher rate than in previous years. He said several of those who resigned were teachers who had only worked at the school for one or two years.

Burns said he too found the past year tough, and occasionally had what he called “the grass-is-greener musings,” wondering if it was time to leave and try some other career — he’s not entirely sure what. But ultimately, the triumphs and joys of teaching outweigh its sorrows, he said, and he is sticking with the profession for now.

“I just got my AP scores yesterday from my seniors, who are not always the most reliable group to take their exams,” he said. “And it was the best they’ve ever done: a 90 percent pass rate. And we crushed the national average and the Arlington average and the Virginia average.”

Looking to next year, he added, “I am hopeful.”

More on local education

The latest: In Loudoun County, a conservative candidate and a left-leaning candidate were leading in the race for two seats on the school board. Meanwhile, a majority of incumbent school board members in Maryland’s metro area were leading in their reelection bids.

K-12 classrooms: The Montgomery County school system is revisiting safety training after a report of a student with a gun led to a campus lockdown. New safety protocols also are in the works in D.C. after a bus driver crashed a bus and was charged with a DUI. A settlement in a public records lawsuit reveals some of the emails submitted to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s education tip line.

On campus: The University of Maryland has pledged to expand aid for in-state students who have significant financial need. What the twists, turns and drops of roller coasters are teaching Johns Hopkins University students about engineering.