Getting Back To Normal

Teacher Burnout and Staffing Shortages in 2022

 As we settle into our “new normal,” the lasting impacts of the 2020 pandemic are all around us. 

Inflated product pricing, labor and food shortages, a skyrocketing housing market, and the spike in mental health crisis are just a few of the residual effects of COVID-19. Our education system—and our children—are not exempt from that crushing weight. Many school districts have returned to in-person learning, extra-curricular activities and athletics, and mask mandates are being lifted. There is still one haunting repercussion of the pandemic that our schools and our children are facing on a daily basis; but before we dive head first into that, let’s go back to the beginning.

The Return to In-Person Learning

The decision to return to in-person learning was a harrowing one for all parties involved. While most returned to the classroom with a mixture of both fear and excitement, it presented a variety of new challenges.

An initial need for substitute teachers was in order to address not only teachers who were ill or having to quarantine due to exposure to COVID-19, but also to address those vacancies left by teachers who had not returned to the profession as a result of the strain of the pandemic.

Veteran substitute teachers were choosing not to return because the risk of exposure was so great, and the reward was so low. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median hourly wage for short-term substitutes was about $13 in 2019, where employees in the 10th percentile earned an average of $10 hourly. The BLS also reported that the amount of educators in public schools has decreased by 567,000 since before the pandemic. This means that the immense need for substitutes was supposed to address both part-time and full-time educational vacancies.

In a survey performed by Education Week, 25% of school district leaders and administrators reported that the staffing shortages at their schools for the 2021 school year were “severe.” The survey also asked these individuals to identify which positions they were having the most difficulty hiring for and 77% reported substitute teachers, while 48% reported full -time teachers, and 55% reported they were in need of paraprofessionals.

Impact on Educators and Students

 As schools struggled to find substitute teachers, they would utilize the adults in the building as much as possible to provide coverage. In the same survey done by Education Week, district leaders and administrators were asked what steps they have taken to address this major staff shortage. The largest response by far was 66% of respondents who indicated that they simply asked current teachers to take on more responsibilities to address these gaps.

In schools across the nation this would look like: combining classes of students so that class sizes would double or triple, splitting groups of students and distributing them among several classes/substitutes (also increases class size tremendously), taking away any teacher work time/plan periods/lunch breaks during the day and instead asking those teachers to cover/teach other classes during that time.

These measures were out of desperation, but also put staff and students at an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19, impacting teacher productivity and mental health, as well as making it extremely difficult for teachers to provide instruction and students to receive a quality education.

Filling the Gaps

Finally, districts nationwide recognized this as a crisis. Initially, many school systems began recruiting retired teachers, alumni, and parents. Some even cried out to local firefighters and first responders, with districts in Maryland and New Mexico even enlisted the National Guard for assistance.

Persistent recruiting was only the first step in the plan for filling these gaps. Some states began lowering the requirements for substitute teacher certification.

For example, the state of California offered an “emergency 30-day substitute teaching permit,” that would allow an individual to fill in for one teacher for no more than 30 days with only a bachelor’s degree in any field.

In Colorado, they have substitute authorizations for 5-year, 3-year, and 1-year periods. 5 and 3-year candidates have to hold a degree in any field, but a 1-year candidate only has to possess a high school diploma and a clear background check.

In a more extreme manner, Missouri recently approved a rule that allows interested candidates to earn a substitute teaching certificate simply by completing 20 hours of online training. Districts in states such as Arizona and Hawaii have created pathways for long-term substitutes to earn full-time teaching jobs while working towards a teaching certification during their time in the classroom.

In March of 2020, Congress pulled $13.2 billion dollars from the original Education Stabilization Act within the COVID relief funding and used it for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). In March of 2021, The American Rescue Plan was made law, with $122 billion of that funding going to ESSER and the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF).

These funds were intended to address this major shortage of educators, with the intention of the bulk of those funds going to help cover the payroll and benefits of school staff to assist with hiring needs. Districts utilized those funds in increasingly creative ways, with the largest focus being on hiring more substitute teachers.

The Beaverton School District in Oregon proposed bonuses ranging from $500-$3,300 for newly hired substitute teachers, in addition to increasing the daily pay rates from $195 to $230 (The Oregonian Post). A district out of western New York not only increased their daily pay rate, but also offered an additional $2,000 per year for completing professional development opportunities.

This new incentive also included up to 7 days of paid leave, and both dental and vision health coverage (Buffalo News Website). Other districts, like Akron, Ohio, offered to nearly double the daily rate if you are a “super sub”, a substitute teacher that works everyday.

Unmasking the Larger Issue

So, great. Now we have a plethora of substitute teachers, woo hoo! We can all return to normal. But, wait, what happened to all of our certified teachers? Don’t we need them to give our children a quality and appropriate education?

In regards to the 2021-2022 school year, 89% of public schools in the United States expressed that their staff had reported concerns about getting their students to meet academic standards this year.

Let’s talk about the real crisis here: burnout.

While these districts and the federal government racked their brains scrounging for substitutes, the currently employed certified teachers were left to pick up the slack. They were required to take on extra kids, cover additional classes, even attend meetings in replacement of their absent colleagues. All of these amazing benefits and incentives were not being offered to those educators; it simply became the new expectation.

To address the impact these new stressors had on our current teacher population, Research and Development Corporation (RAND)  conducted a survey with educators in their American Teacher Panel in the winter of 2021. 

Findings reported that nearly 1 in 4 teachers indicated that they were likely to quit by the end of this school year. As if that isn’t shocking enough, the National Education Association (NEA), one of the largest unions whose members are made up of 3 million U.S. educators, conducted a similar survey to address teacher burnout and stress levels prior to the pandemic. The poll was conducted in January of 2022, and findings are concerning to say the least.

55% of NEA members say that they are more likely to leave education or retire earlier than they had initially planned, due specifically to the stresses of the educational environment that was created by the pandemic. That number has doubled since a survey given in July of 2020. In addition, 3/4s of members surveyed indicated that they have had to fill in for a colleague during this time. (GBAO)

What Can We Do To Help?

Aside from the fact that they are human beings, if the adults responsible for our children’s education are overworked, stretched too thin, and exhausted, it is no secret that the quality of the education will plummet. Our children may be pushed through regardless of performance or deficits, and important issues may fall through the cracks.

Does this mean you should be overly involved in berating your child’s teacher to make sure those things do not happen? No. Does this mean you should pull your child from public schools and go the homeschool route? No. This means that our teachers need us.

They need representation, advocacy, and, most importantly, grace. Staying productive and involved in our schools by attending board meetings and public forums that address policy changes relevant to our teachers and students. Volunteering within school buildings and hearing the cries of the teachers, rather than just government leaders with little-to-no classroom experience, is crucial.

Speak up. Advocate for fair living wages and financial incentives for teachers and teachers-to-be. Get involved in your school’s PTO and be a part of the village that is supposed to support those who need it.

For an anonymous, truly wise man once said, “It is more powerful to speak up, than to silently resent.”

Please make sure to share additional approaches for tackling this issue, or suggestions on how to better support our educators, in the please leave a comments below.



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