Three minutes. That’s all the time Lanee Higgins, a Baltimore County Public Schools teacher, had to herself during a typical day of coronavirus-era remote learning. On her computer screen were middle-schoolers, scattered across the county, running through their lessons — while at home, Higgins, age 29, was trying to maintain her authority over her classroom and her life. Sometimes her potty-training toddler, refusing to nap, would wander into the frame when her entrepreneur husband wasn’t there to corral him. When she just couldn’t hold on anymore, Higgins would announce a three-minute break. She’d leave her students staring at the screen while she scurried off to use the bathroom or steal some time to just think.
The never-ending cycle of stress had started long before the pandemic. In her short teaching career, Higgins had already sat in a locked classroom as police officers forcibly restrained a middle-schooler in the hallway. She’d had to call Child Protective Services out of concern for a student, only to be told there wasn’t anything to be done. And she’d joined her union’s negotiation team in an attempt to address her and her fellow teachers’ workplace frustrations.
But remote teaching demolished the boundaries between that tumult and home, threatening Higgins’s sanity and her life. “I was suicidal. It was a lot of pressure,” says Higgins, who went on leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act in February to seek therapy and treatment for the extreme demands of her job, resigning for good in May. “There is a lot of trauma in teaching. It’s rewarding but also takes an emotional toll. … I was already dealing with that, and the pandemic just broke me.”
Higgins is not the only teacher to recently reach their breaking point. One in four American teachers reported considering leaving their job by the end of the last academic year, in a survey taken in January and February by the Rand Corp., a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. That’s “more than in a typical prepandemic year and at a higher rate than employed adults nationally,” the report explained. Teachers, in general, “were more likely to report experiencing frequent job-related stress and symptoms of depression than the general population.” The study also noted that Black teachers were particularly affected. And a National Education Association survey of 2,690 members released in June found that 32 percent of respondents said the pandemic had led them to plan to leave the profession earlier than anticipated.
Whoever said “those who can’t do, teach” obviously never experienced the modern educational system, where teachers do everything. They’re more than the people who give math and science lessons: They might find themselves makeshift social workers to troubled students, surrogate parents checking if children eat, security guards breaking up fights and funders of the most basic of classroom supplies from their own shallow pockets.
Teachers aren’t the only American workers taking part in the so-called “Great Resignation,” which has seen many people in many industries leave their jobs since the start of the pandemic to find better pay and satisfaction. But the sheer number of those contemplating an exit from the classroom raises the question: What’s happening, and why? I recently interviewed seven public-school teachers from around the country who have left their jobs since March 2020 to understand what they faced. The overarching sentiment: Teaching was already too much — and with the increased stresses and demands introduced by the pandemic, they’d simply had enough.
Their specific reasons for resigning vary. Fear for their health and that of their family. Juggling work and parenting from the literal confines of their homes. Existing frustrations with an education system that never quite seemed to meet the needs of its students and staff. Some struggled with remote learning; others didn’t want to go back to the classroom. But whatever their particular motivations, these former teachers were ready to move on. While many of them have been isolated from their peers over the past year and a half, they are now united by the bold act of walking away.
Words like “heartbreak” and “guilt” come up a lot in conversations with these former teachers. “I [told] my therapist how much guilt I felt about leaving my students, and she said, ‘They were gonna leave you at the end of the year anyway,’ ” Lanee Higgins says. And while there’s remorse in leaving the job so many considered a calling, they say they’re comforted in knowing they aren’t alone, and that a tide of teachers leaving is a signal that things need to change.
“I was feeling like I’ve ditched my career,” says Peggy McAloon, a 50-year-old former elementary school teacher in Lexington Park, Md., who chose not to return this school year after a leave of absence. “It helps knowing that there are other people out there feeling overwhelmed and anxious and unsure. There are so many kick-ass teachers out there. We care so much.”
Jacqueline Wolfe thinks that conviction is why many people come to the classroom in the first place. “Teachers by nature are the type of people who are nurturers. We tend to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders,” says the former central Florida teacher. In the summer of 2020, Wolfe struggled to decide whether she’d return to the classroom, waiting every day to see whether her state would, as she says, “do the right thing” and stay virtual during the height of the pandemic. Last fall, schools went back in-person, and this school year Gov. Ron DeSantis has continued to fight mask mandates, going so far as to threaten schools that require masks with financial penalties.
For years, Wolfe had felt vulnerable in her classroom — from a possible school shooting. She had even sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Though the shooting had not happened at her school, it triggered unarticulated fears in Wolfe. Now, she feels teachers are “bargaining chips” in the state’s drive to get parents back to work and the economy going.
“It’s just heartbreaking. The state government was saying they were short thousands of teachers, and ‘What can we do to hire more teachers?’ ” explains Wolfe, 36, who resigned before the start of the 2020-21 school year and is currently home-schooling her kids at their new home in St. Augustine, in northern Florida. “Well, you’re doing everything but what teachers want to feel safe, from covid and gun violence. You’re not doing any of these things, and you’re wondering what’s going on here. I don’t think ‘betrayal’ is too strong a word.”
Wolfe’s right about the shortages in her state: There were nearly 9,000 classroom and staff shortages in August, according to the Florida Education Association, an increase of more than 67 percent from the year before. Districts across the country, including in Texas, California and South Dakota, have also reported teacher shortages at the start of this academic year.
“Public schools were facing staffing shortages prior to covid, and the pandemic has only made those shortages more acute,” wrote Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in an email. These former teachers’ stories sound familiar to Weingarten: “Before the pandemic, teachers were facing a lack of respect on the job, routinely taking money out of their own pockets for children’s supplies while at the same time paying student loans and cobbling together multiple jobs to make ends meet. Now, they’re facing all that plus the exhaustion and burnout of the last few years.”
“I’m a little angry,” says Tracy O’Rourke, also a former Florida educator, who retired earlier than planned from the School District of Palm Beach County. As someone with severe asthma, she felt the risk of covid-19 was too great and lacked confidence in the state’s mask policy. “I’ve taught 30-plus years, and I had intended to teach another 20 years. It’s not a happy retirement. I’m sad I gave it up. I felt like I didn’t have a choice.”
This school year, Palm Beach County schools had initially proposed allowing families to opt out of wearing masks, then instituted a 90-day order requiring their use by staff and students, giving the 59-year-old teacher little reassurance. O’Rourke says that in Facebook groups she’d observed district parents declaring their intent to send their coronavirus-positive kids to school to make a statement. “To me, it’s almost like psychological terror every day. Imagine listening to the parents of your own students posting, ‘I’m gonna send my kid to school sick with covid’? I was having panic attacks going in every day,” says O’Rourke. “I know that if I got it, I would at least wind up in the hospital.” She officially retired in August.
Health was also the leading factor in Katy Ward-Crossan’s decision to leave the District of Columbia Public Schools and the profession she had long dreamed of entering. As a kid she had difficulty learning and credits her academic success to her own dedicated teachers who worked with her one-on-one. She wanted to pay that forward as a teacher who got children “to understand that they can learn, no matter how they are struggling.”
In the fall of 2020, Ward-Crossan, 29, who is asthmatic, found out she was pregnant. Having been through the pain of a previous miscarriage, she received a written recommendation from her doctor to remain teaching virtually. Her request was denied by the school. After mediation failed, she filed a complaint with the city’s Office of Human Rights, alleging that she was refused reasonable accommodation; the complaint is currently under investigation. (“DCPS attempted to ensure that employees who wanted a virtual assignment for various personal health circumstances were prioritized as such,” the school system said in a statement. “Where it was not possible to accommodate all requests for virtual assignments during the initial return to in-person learning during the 2020-2021 school year, staff were selected through a lottery system to return.” The school system said, however, that it could not comment on specific personnel matters.)
In the meantime, Ward-Crossan is at home with her daughter, who was born in June. “I wanted to do anything I could to protect this pregnancy,” she says. While she’d hoped to realize her dream of becoming a mother and her dream of being a teacher, that is not currently possible. “I miss the classroom dearly,” she says.
Life outside the classroom is also important to Calvert County, Md., band teacher Stephen Lane, and remote teaching made him recognize that he didn’t really have one. Keeping the beat going remotely was not only a professional challenge (“I would often get the question ‘How do you teach band online?’ and I would say, ‘When you figure it out, you let me know’ ”) but a personal one too.
“I realized that I was so dedicated to achieving success for my students that I was neglecting myself. I’d customized my life around it,” says Lane, who left at the end of the 2020-21 school year. “When I was home … I realized how much I had not been at home when I was teaching [in person]. I didn’t realize how much I was missing.”
Lexington Park’s Peggy McAloon says that she had long realized something was missing, not in her life but in the lives of her students, who were facing obstacles not of their own making. And she, like other teachers, tried to bridge those gaps. “I always struggled with taking care of the whole child, of kids that were hungry, that didn’t bring in school supplies, [that had] dirty clothes,” she says. “I gravitated towards those kids, to try to make a connection, to lift them up and create some stability for them. It’s nearly impossible to teach a child when they are hungry, tired or scared.”
Though she credits schools and society for recently “paying a lot more attention to the mental and physical health of students,” she says, “it’s difficult for educators to wear all of the hats expected of us.” The pandemic just kept adding new hats, and having taken a leave of absence from teaching in the fall of 2019 to deal with family health issues, she simply never returned.
“At this point I would want to focus on [students'] mental health. … I don’t want to go back to the classroom,” says McAloon, who is interested in exploring positions in emotional support. “I’d rather help kids and families through the pandemic and not focus on academics.”
Like McAloon, Aeriale N. Johnson, 45, thinks right now the best way for her to help students in the classroom is outside of it. Through her 23-year career teaching in schools from Florida to rural Alaska to San Jose, she says she observed a maze of inequities in the public education system, which the pandemic laid bare.
She had a “galvanizing” moment after spring break this past April, when her elementary school students in San Jose were “greeted” with standardized tests three days after their return to in-person classes. “That was a moment of reckoning for me. Yes, we had to give them, but I thought, ‘This is not what we are supposed to be doing.’ ”
So after a life spent caring, spent answering their professional calling, what do former teachers do now? O’Rourke, who taught for more than 30 years, says she considered moving out of state to teach, but “Where am I gonna go? My house is here. I have a Florida teaching certificate. Where am I gonna go that there’s no covid?”
At the end of the last school year, Johnson moved across the country to be a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University in New York, training teachers in reading, writing and racial literacy. In her new role, Johnson believes, she’s helping eradicate problems from the ground up. “There was all this talk throughout the pandemic that ‘Yes, we recognize the disparities that exist. … We notice all of these things, and the system does not work for everyone, does not serve everyone, and has to change.’ But there has been no change,” she says. “Everyone who works for the school I taught at were all incredible, wonderful human beings. I believe in educators, but we work within a system that doesn’t work.” In the end, she says, “I had to live my truth, and my truth was that I can’t sit here any longer and not do everything within my power to impact the system in a larger way.”
For a change of pace and a chance at a social life, former band teacher Lane took a position as an instructional designer writing educational training curricula for a private company. Single and 33, he says he’s looking forward to dating and perhaps meeting someone, and doing simple things like grilling with friends. He admits that he is young enough “that teaching will always be there.”
But there’s likely no going back for Higgins and others. “I was talking to other teachers who were like, ‘Hey, I resigned, too, and I feel so much better.’ Or ‘I can go to the bathroom when I want to,’ ” she says. “Another said she could go for a walk and her brain isn’t busy thinking of all the lesson plans she has to do.”
Higgins is now focusing on writing and a comedy card game she created with her husband called Winsults (it’s been endorsed by no less than rapper 2 Chainz). For the first time in her life, she doesn’t know exactly where her career is going. But she’s pretty sure where it’s not. “Do I miss it? Absolutely,” she says. “Would I go back? Probably not.”
Leslie Gray Streeter is a journalist, speaker and author of “Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books With Words Like ‘Journey’ in the Title.”
Photo editing by Annaliese Nurnberg. Design and art direction by Audrey Valbuena.