Studies have found that the character of the workplace influences whether educators stay or leave and impact student learning.
Key factors determining educator working conditions include, but are not limited to,
- teacher and school leadership,
- educator voice,
- community support and parent engagement,
- time for teaching,
- class size and caseload,
- student conduct,
- physical and cultural environment,
- professional learning and collaboration, and
- assessment cultures.
These factors were all well-known prior to the pandemic.
Yet, the pandemic and subsequent labor shortages in our schools have caused educators to work even more hours than ever before, whether teaching, driving buses, preparing meals, counseling students, or supporting students in so many other ways.
The stresses of the pandemic—including changing models of teaching to virtual or hybrid, personal safety concerns, loss of loved ones, student and educator mental health challenges, and so on—have pushed many to the breaking point, with K–12 workers reporting the highest level of burnout of any sector and teachers more than twice as likely to report frequent job-related stress than other working adults.
Educators are exhausted, demoralized, stressed, and overwhelmed. As a result, any serious solution to the educator shortage must address educator working conditions.
Solutions on how to improve working conditions for educators include the following:
Increase Staffing Levels
Among the top job-related stressors mentioned by teachers were supporting academic learning in the wake of the pandemic, managing student behavior, taking on extra work due to staff shortages, and supporting students’ mental health and well-being.
Increasing the number of educators would help address each of these concerns. By increasing the number of teachers, class sizes would be reduced and students would receive more one-on-one attention, and increasing the number of paraeducators would allow more students with specialized needs to receive the services they require and deserve.
Specialized instructional support personnel—such as school psychologists, counselors, and nurses—must often endure immense caseloads.
By increasing the numbers of staff in these positions, the entire system would be able to help support students and staff coping with their own trauma and wellness. Adding more permanent staff can relieve much of the stress placed on educators by making caseloads more manageable and curtailing long workdays.
Address Mental Health Supports
Pre-K–12 employees have much higher levels of stress and burnout than other workers. Teachers who are burned out are not only more likely to consider leaving the profession, but their classroom environments are also less likely to foster student learning.
On top of this, more than a third of teachers of color have reported experiencing discrimination based on their race or ethnicity, with these teachers more likely to report burnout, depression, and thoughts of leaving the profession.
Districts must provide staff and employee support that will assist educators in their own mental wellness, including mentoring, coaching, and affinity groups for new teachers and staff. It is crucial that all employees have quality, affordable health insurance with deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance that do not impede access to mental health services and are provided employee assistance programs that are robust and easy to use.
Teachers with access to at least one employer-provided mental health support have been shown to be less likely to report burnout and depression and more likely to say that they are coping well with job-related stress.
Ensure Mental Health Parity
In plans that must comply, mental health and substance use disorder benefits and services must be comparable and/or less restrictive than those of medical/surgical benefits in terms of, for example, treatment limits (e.g., visit limits), deductibles, copayments, coinsurance, how treatment is accessed and under what conditions treatment is covered, and need for prior authorization.
Most employer-sponsored health plans, including private-sector plans and those covering state and local government employees, must comply with parity requirements. In addition, the following plans must comply with mental health and substance use disorder parity requirements: both grandfathered and non-grandfathered group health plans and group health insurance plans; non-grandfathered individual and small group market plans that must cover certain essential health benefits, such as mental health/substance use disorder benefits, as required under the Affordable Care Act; Medicaid alternative benefit plans; and certain Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) plans.
In plans that must comply, it is essential to ensure that these mental health and substance use disorder parity requirements are being met.
Create Environments That Support and Retain Educators of Color
Teachers of color have been under-represented in schools since the mid-20th century due to racist reactions to the integration of schools after the Brown decision in 1954.
Today, a common reason why teachers of color leave the profession is due to an inhospitable work environment that is not culturally responsive or inclusive.
Teachers of color have reported difficulty relating to colleagues, feeling silenced or undervalued by administration, facing racial microaggressions and a hostile climate, and experiencing under-representation in leadership roles and the curriculum.
To address these problems, schools and districts should
- actively commit to racial and social justice and equity to eliminate bias,
- implement policies that promote a culturally responsive and inclusive environment,
- make curricular changes that include under-represented populations,
- provide racial and social justice-centered professional learning, and
- create opportunities to diversify leadership roles.
Taking these actions can help increase retention rates among teachers of color.
Ensure an Inclusive Environment for LGBTQ+ Educators
LGBTQ+ teachers have reported issues of bias, harassment, and abuse from parents, students, fellow staff members, and administrators. Many teachers have felt that they must hide their identity from colleagues and students to avoid negative backlash.
Although legal victories in recent years have added much-needed workplace protections for LGBTQ+ persons, public education remains a political and cultural battleground in many states. Most notably, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill signed by Governor Ron DeSantis in March 2022 places restrictions on instruction regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.
As of April 2022, Education Week reported that at least 15 states were considering anti-LGBTQ+ legislation regarding public schools. These bills have led some LGBTQ+ teachers to reconsider their future career plans as public education seemingly becomes more inhospitable.
- carefully crafting and consistently enforcing policies related to homophobia, transphobia, and the language used to refer to LGBTQ+ individuals;
- increasing legal protections;
- providing professional development about and inclusive of LGBTQ+ issues;
- ensuring that school-sponsored events that allow spouses or significant others are inclusive of LGBTQ+ individuals; and
- involving LGBTQ+ persons and issues in the curriculum.
Restructure Educators’ Workdays
One of the higher-priority items that educators have identified is the need for more time to dedicate to needs and responsibilities beyond classroom instruction, which is not surprising given that U.S. teachers at all levels of Pre-K–12 education spend more time in the classroom teaching than teachers in nearly any other industrialized country.
In addition to time spent teaching, educators need time to plan; time to grade; time to learn; time to collaborate; time to eat; time to use the restroom; and so on.
Several things can be done to help reorganize time to lessen the load, including
- reorganizing the school day,
- adjusting bell schedules,
- adjusting academic programming,
- partnering educators together, and
- year-round schooling.
While guaranteeing educators duty-free breaks is a positive first step, it is critical that local school districts work with educators through collective bargaining—or when bargaining does not exist, other labor-management advocacy—to determine which approaches will best meet educators’ and students’ needs.
Ensure Safe and Healthy Workplaces
Health and safety concerns—mold, lead, violence, exposure to chemicals, poor indoor air quality, and so many more—predated the COVID-19 pandemic, due, in large part, to decades of under-spending on school infrastructure.
In 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that more than a third of tested school districts had elevated lead in their drinking water. A 2020 GAO report determined that more than half of public school districts needed to update or entirely replace components of their physical infrastructure and one-third needed to update their heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.
The quality of school facilities affects student learning, educator morale, and teacher retention. We must ensure that school buildings and grounds are safe, healthy, and conducive to learning. Hazards, such as lead in drinking water, need to be identified and removed.
The structural integrity of buildings, air quality of indoor spaces, and other infrastructure concerns must be addressed. These facility upgrades should be undertaken in collaboration with educators. Strong labor-management health and safety committees that draw from the breadth and varied experience of educators can be one of the most useful ways school and district leaders can engage with educators on these critical issues.
Comprehensive school health and safety plans on relevant topics—including indoor air quality, infectious diseases, and violence—are important tools to develop and implement.
Solutions must focus on equity, ensuring an analytical framework that will identify how racial and social inequities affect health and safety problems and ensure inequities are addressed.
Provide Sufficient Resources for Teaching and Learning
Teachers and other school staff must consistently use their own money to purchase supplies that other workers take for granted, such as pens/pencils, books, cleaning supplies, and food for students who would otherwise go hungry.
In the 2022–2023 school year, the average teacher plans to spend $560 out-of-pocket on supplies, up 10 percent from the previous year. Beyond the financial costs, schools that provide educators with sufficient instructional materials, supplies, support, and a clean and safe work environment can improve retention and recruitment rates, while those with insufficient technology, outdated textbooks, and inadequate supplies limit the ways in which educators can effectively teach their students and negatively impact teacher morale.
Increasing the teacher tax credit, as recently occurred, helps alleviate some of the burden, but it does not solve the larger problem. State and district funding must be increased so that educators no longer need to rely on parent organizations, DonorsChoose appeals, fundraisers, and their own paychecks to provide their students with basic supplies.
Provide Administrator and Leadership Development
Evidence has shown that a lack of administrative support and administrative leadership style are reasons why teachers decide to leave the profession.
This is especially true in high-poverty and hard-to-staff schools that are plagued with high turnover rates.
Capable and well-trained school administrators, by way of leadership development programs, can improve working conditions and lower both principal and teacher attrition rates. High-quality principals should encourage educators to pursue leadership roles, collaborate with teachers and staff by including them in decision-making, view administration as a team effort, effectively communicate, and facilitate emotional, environmental, and instructional support.
Additionally, administrators that strive to facilitate a nurturing and inclusive environment, encourage culturally responsive instruction, and actively address racial and social biases are critical to retaining teachers of color.
Ultimately, educator retention rates increase with supportive school administrators who understand the importance of collaboration with the educators with whom they work.
Solutions in Action
- St. Paul Federation of Teachers won on reducing class size and getting class size cap language in the collective bargaining agreement. The current class cap language is now in the contract and the class size will decrease by one student in grades K–3 and by three or four students in high school freshman classes. And the class sizes are lower in the 30 highest-poverty districts. They also won increased health care contributions and reduced caseload limits for occupational and physical therapists.
- Minneapolis won more mental health supports in every secondary school site—a nurse, school counselor, psychologist, and social worker. And they also won reduced caseloads for social workers in certain elementary schools and class size and caseload is in the contract.
- The Columbus Education Association collectively bargained to require the district to allocate ESSER funds to hire 33 additional counselors and 88 literacy specialists.
- Shelby Co. School District in Tennessee used ESSER Funds to hire 250 K–12 specialized education assistants.
- Delaware passed HB 100, which provides funding to hire 250 full-time mental health professionals in their elementary schools.