The Mental Health Crisis Causing Teachers to Quit
Lesley Allen will never know what triggered her final panic attack last fall.
She was outside supervising a group of students during a mask break at her middle school in South Berwick, Maine, when she felt a sense of overwhelming dread. Her anxiety spiked, her heart thumped out of her chest and her left arm went numb. I’m having a heart attack, she thought.
But before she could drag herself to the nurse’s office, she had to find someone to watch her sixth grade class.
It wasn’t the first time she’d felt like this. After a previous episode a few weeks before, her doctor put her on a heart monitor and ordered a cardiac ultrasound. The results were normal. Her heart was fine. It was another panic attack, her doctor confirmed. Unlike anxiety, panic attacks often have no trigger. They can pop up out of nowhere, frequently accompanied by feelings of intense fear, along with physical symptoms like a racing heartbeat, chest pain and difficulty breathing.
Allen’s panic attack on the blacktop was her third—all of them had taken place since the pandemic began, and two of them at school.
“My doctor said, ‘You need to do something. This keeps happening,’” she recalls.
So she did. A month later, after 14 years in the classroom, she left teaching. She is almost certain she will never return to a job she once loved, but which had begun to deplete her self-worth and made her cry almost every day.
“I just felt hopeless,” she says. “I figured, if I can’t keep it together to teach, then I’m failing. It affected my psyche a lot.”
If there was one sliver of solace during that difficult last year, though, it’s that every other teacher she knew was having an equally tough time. “I can’t tell you how many teachers use CBD oil,” she says with a laugh. “It’s totally legal, but we used to joke about it. ‘Did you put it in your coffee this morning?’ We had to do something to cope. It was the anxiety. Collectively, we all felt it.” Sometimes, when she felt an attack coming on, a few drops would quiet her heart rate enough for her to make it through the day.
Teaching is a demanding job at the best of times. Before the pandemic, teaching was among the most stressful occupations, on par with nursing. But there are indications that it has only gotten worse since COVID-19 entered the profession. Teaching may now be the most stressful profession period, according to a RAND survey from June 2021, which found, among other things, that teachers were almost three times more likely to report symptoms of depression than other adults. Clearly, teachers haven’t just reached their breaking point, but surpassed it, further imperiling a profession that has long struggled with low pay and declining morale.
Two years ago, when the pandemic first hit, teachers were heralded as first responders, and heroes. Celebrities such as Patton Oswalt and Dave Grohl heaped praise on them, echoing the amazement of harried parents everywhere. Their stock had seemed to shoot up overnight. Respect for the profession was momentarily restored, but it was fleeting. As the pandemic drags on, the pressure has piled up from all sides. In the past year, they’ve endured culture war attacks, worsening student behavior, and endless health and safety regulation changes.
Allen endured all that and more before drawing a line. She watched her school climate turn increasingly anti-teacher, as workloads surged and parents accused them of indoctrinating students, taking cues from right-wing talking points like critical race theory. Administrators admonished teachers to parents without a second thought. The final straw was when school leaders decided to overhaul the school’s grading system at the height of the pandemic, and denied her request for extra planning time. “The running joke was we had hashtag BeCreative and hashtag FigureItOut because we were not being given any help whatsoever,” she says.
The result is as disappointing as it is predictable: a mental health crisis that will take thousands—maybe tens of thousands—of teachers out of the classroom years before their time.
Recently, I spoke with more than a dozen teachers like Allen who left their jobs because of the tremendous toll teaching was taking on their mental and physical health, their personal relationships and their self esteem—not to mention the toxic, overwhelming and sometimes dysfunctional working conditions they shouldered.
Bethany Collins, who taught at middle schools in the Los Angeles area for more than eight years, left teaching in January after maternity leave wiped out her sick days—and her district told her she couldn’t take any more paid time off, even if she or her daughter tested positive for COVID. “Every minute I wasn’t with the kids, personally, I was beyond treading water with my mental health,” she says. “I was just drowning.”
In December, Emily McMahan gave up her career of 12 years as a special education teacher in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, after telling her therapist that her job felt like a prison, both physically and mentally. Most nights after work, she would sit alone for hours to try and get into a better headspace. It didn’t always work. “I couldn’t engage with my family,” she says. “I didn’t have time to exercise. I didn’t have time to cook. All these things in my life that brought me joy, I was giving up for a job.”
Brooke Barringer, a former fifth grade teacher in Redwood City, California, experienced unexpected weight loss and digestive problems that got so bad, she sold her car for cash so she could quit without a new job lined up. Along with anxiety, Charlene Boles, an elementary teacher in Westminster, Colorado, had headaches, stomach problems and a racing heartbeat she could never quite explain. Ellie Wilson, who taught fourth grade near Washington, D.C., before leaving in December, had anxiety flare ups not only when she couldn’t take a day off, but also when she could, because it meant other teachers were pulled away from their own classes to watch hers.
And then there was Stephanie Hughes, who taught elementary school in North Carolina for four years before moving to Indiana this past summer. After arriving in a new school, her mental health cratered as she struggled to adjust to a new curriculum and the relentless demands of frequent testing, designed to help students make up for ground lost in the pandemic. Her body rebelled against the continuous anxiety and exhaustion and she began having panic attacks, culminating with an episode where she sobbed in her principal’s office as they struggled to find a path forward.
“It was very clear that the situation wasn’t going to get any better or slow down to allow me to take care of myself mentally and emotionally,” Hughes reflects. “You’re always told as a teacher, ‘You’re doing it for the kids. It’s hard, but you do it for the kids.’ And I was just coming to realize, I’m doing them a disservice by staying in the classroom. I’m not able to give them what they need, because I’m not taking care of myself.”
Teachers Are Not OK
For months, advocacy groups, including the National Education Association, the country’s largest union, have been driving home the point that teachers are not OK. In January when the NEA polled more than 3,000 of its teachers, nearly all of them said burnout is a serious problem, and more than half indicated plans to leave teaching earlier than expected. The last time the association surveyed its teachers, back in August, only 37 percent were looking to leave. Most favored simple fixes, like hiring more teachers, adding more mental health support for students and, of course, raising pay, which is generally abysmal for teachers.
Researchers have even coined a term, the “teacher pay penalty,” to refer to the fact that the average teacher earns about 20 percent less than accountants, journalists, inspectors and computer engineers—professions that require a similar skill set and education. In a RAND survey of nearly a thousand former public school teachers, nearly two-thirds of those who left during the pandemic said their salary was a factor.
“School staffing shortages are not new, but what we are seeing now is an unprecedented staffing crisis across every job category,” NEA President Becky Pringle said when the survey results were released. “If we’re serious about getting every child the support they need to thrive, our elected leaders across the nation need to address this crisis now.”
The fear that burnout will contribute to a mass exodus of teachers isn’t overblown—but it isn’t supported by enough data yet. During the pandemic the public teaching workforce appears to have shrunk by nearly 7 percent, according to federal jobs data crunched by the Economic Policy Institute. Unfortunately, neither the federal government nor states reliably keep records on teacher turnover, making that figure hard to confirm.
Many districts aren’t seeing much change compared with any other year, though the data varies by region. In Austin, Texas, mid-year resignations are up about 11 percent. In Illinois, three-quarters of superintendents say the teaching shortage is getting worse. On LinkedIn, the number of teachers who left their jobs last year for a new career is up by two-thirds, too.
In other words, the worst may be yet to come. Researchers who track shifting demographics in the teacher workforce have found that the profession is becoming less experienced and more unstable compared with the 1980s, a phenomenon that predates the pandemic. “My prediction is that we’re going to see a big surge,” says Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who conducted that research. “And it’s going to be turnover- and attrition-driven shortages.”
Luckily for schools, not everyone who thinks about quitting will actually leave. But some of them will, and their colleagues that stay will suffer an even greater blow to morale. What this means for the next generation of teachers is unclear, but even in 2019, just before the pandemic, teacher preparation programs were graduating about 25 percent fewer students than they were a decade ago, according to federal Title II data. As recently as a few years ago researchers were sounding alarm bells about declining enrollment and interest in the profession, and some colleges of education have already reported double digit enrollment declines since the pandemic began. All this indicates that prospective teachers are starting to rethink their options—and have been for a while—which is a troubling prospect for a field where more than 40 percent of new teachers leave within the first five years.
If conditions are so bad for teachers, why don’t more of them quit, instead of just thinking about it? The short answer may be that to quit a job at all—even one that ravages your mental health—is a privilege that you may not be able to afford if, say, you’re a teacher who is behind on bills, a single parent or caring for a loved one with a health condition. In a country where nearly one in five teachers work second jobs, quitting requires a backup plan, especially for those without a safety net.
Other teachers, especially those who have never worked outside education, simply get used to the high levels of stress and difficult working conditions, explains Michelle Kinder, a licensed professional counselor who co-authored a book, “WHOLE,” about how schools can help lower chronic stress for teachers. “Your baseline shifts,” she says. “You start to feel like what you’re experiencing day-to-day is normal. And for some people, the idea of shifting into a circumstance where they could better take care of their mental health is scarier because it’s unknown.”
But those who don’t quit, even when they want to, put themselves at risk for any number of mental and physical problems. That’s what Jennifer Moss found when researching her book “The Burnout Epidemic,” which examined a broad spectrum of professions, including teaching, and identified the condition as a sort of workplace depression.
Drawing on the work of the Swedish psychiatrist Marie Åsberg and others, Moss concluded that burnout often starts small and builds over time. As burnout snowballs, so do its effects. “You can suffer from high levels of anxiety, depression, PTSD,” she says. “You see increases in suicide rates at that point. It’s pretty catastrophic. It’s a serious, consequential thing. It’s not a whiny, ‘I want more work-life balance’ problem.”
In a study published last year of more than 300 current teachers, researchers identified the top factors contributing to pandemic-era burnout, including anxiety over getting sick, communicating with difficult parents and dealing with over-demanding administrators. Burnout was prevalent—and consistent—across demographics including ethnicity, location, years of experience, and whether you taught face-to-face or virtually. “It didn’t matter if you were a brand new teacher or a veteran of 30 years, we saw no difference between those teachers when it came to their burnout scores,” says the study’s author, Tim Pressley, an assistant professor of education at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. “COVID just put everyone on the same playing field to say, ‘This is tiring. This is burning us out.’”
For teachers, burnout looks a little different than it does for other professions. In fact, one of the nation’s foremost experts on teacher dissatisfaction, Doris Santoro, who chairs the education department at Bowdoin College, rarely uses the term at all. She prefers demoralization. Since teachers don’t enter the profession for the pay, they require other rewards to sustain them, and lately, they’ve been dealt precious few wins.
“Many teachers are going into the work looking for a kind of moral satisfaction,” says Santoro, whose pre-pandemic book, “Demoralized,” profiled more than a dozen teachers who found themselves caught in an unforgiving system resistant to change. “If we can’t find a way for them to pursue it through teaching, they’re going to find a way to pursue it elsewhere.”
Kaitlin Moore was one of those kids who seemed destined to be a teacher. Growing up in Nashville, she’d play school with her younger sister, taking up position in front of the chalkboard. In college, she thought she might want to teach kindergarten, but ended up picking third and fourth grade, the age at which kids’ personalities seem to take on a life of their own. “We just had so much laughter, so much fun,” she recalls of her first five years in a suburban district near where she grew up, what she’s come to think of as her pre-COVID teaching career.
Her fondest memory of teaching dates from this period, and involves a spider of all things, which would rappel from the ceiling during class, always out of reach. Before long, students started calling it Frank. “The spider just became our classroom pet,” she says. “The kids would say, ‘Look, Ms. Moore, Frank is back. I told them, ‘Yeah, he stays up high so he knows I won’t get him.’” One day, when rearranging the bulletin board in front of the class, Frank fell from his perch and almost landed on her. “I hate spiders, and without even thinking I stomped on it, and the kids were like, ‘No!’” she says. “I just remember that being so funny because we formed our own inside jokes. In between learning, we had our own little community. And that’s the part I miss the most.”
Those cherished moments were hard to come by during the pandemic, when virtual learning was the default and in-between exchanges and jokes rarely transpired over Zoom.
When in-person classes resumed last fall, Moore volunteered to teach virtually for students who had opted not to return to campus. Her school still made her come in every day, even though the internet frequently went down. It got so bad, she began recording lessons at home and posting them online as a backup. Essentially, she was doing her job twice, which wore her down to nothing.
Meanwhile, administrators denied her request to work from home, telling her she had to take her turn at lunch and dropoff duty for the students who had returned to campus. There were meetings almost every day, not about students’ mental or physical well-being, but about their test scores. They were never high enough for worried administrators, who were all too aware that in Tennessee, high stakes testing plays a big role in how the state considers school performance, as well as in the teacher evaluations that determine pay raises.
“Because I was good at what I did, more work kept getting piled up on me,” Moore says. “There was literally no time for me to just decompress or have five minutes to just kind of sit and breathe.”
She organized her problems and presented them logically to her administrators, looking for solutions. The curriculum wasn’t working for her students; those all-important teacher evaluations hadn’t been updated for virtual learning; she was struggling with mental and physical exhaustion. In response, an administrator told her that if she was asking for help either she must not know what she was doing as a teacher or wasn’t committed enough to her job.
“I call it emotional blackmail,” Moore says. “They tell you, ‘It’s for the kids, you’re doing this for the kids.’ And if you don’t want to do something, well, then you must not love the kids enough.”
She caught herself crying in the bathroom every day between classes. She added extra sessions with her therapist and her doctor prescribed anti-anxiety medication. At home, she could barely talk to her husband without getting testy. Most nights, she would wind up crashing on the couch before it got dark. “I said, there’s no job in the world worth this.”
She pushed herself to complete the school year, but quit last May shortly after school ended, despite not having a new job lined up. Until the end, she still loved working with the kids. But the low pay, mixed with cantankerous administrators and demanding parents who frequently emailed her with suggestions on how to improve her teaching, had created an impossible dynamic.
After months of searching, she landed a full-time role in customer support for an education company. It’s a good job with flexible hours and managers who set reasonable expectations. She doesn’t even have to pay for her own supplies anymore. Yet still, nearly a year after leaving the classroom, she has lingering anxiety that will swell up out of nowhere.
“I thought changing my job would lessen that,” she remembers telling her therapist. But her therapist replied that up until just recently she had been operating in survival mode. She was working constantly without taking time to simply sit and feel.
Life After Teaching
Anyone who has worked an office job knows the drawbacks, especially during the past few years. Remote work is lonely and isolating. Zoom fatigue feels depleting. Days are filled with nonessential busywork. No one would ever confuse it for a career like teaching, often lionized as a vocation because of the difference it makes on kids’ lives.
Yet former teachers often see the nine-to-five life as a kind of Xanadu—a mythic combination of flexibility and respect. In the RAND survey of former teachers, about 60 percent of those who found jobs outside of education said they were drawn to both the flexibility and better pay. Teachers, after all, are accustomed to an environment where simply taking a phone call or using the bathroom requires significant planning.
“I love having my nights and my weekends to myself,” says Lesley Allen, the former Maine teacher, whose panic attacks have stopped and whose overall mental and physical health has improved now that she’s left teaching. Today she works as an instructional designer for a company unrelated to education. At times, her enthusiasm is so infectious, it can sound like she’s reading for an infomercial. “I had so much anxiety at school because of all of the expectations and the uncertainty. Now I work from the comfort of my home and I absolutely love it.”
The summer before she quit, Allen fine-tuned her resume and started applying to jobs. As part of her plan, she hired Daphne Gomez, a former teacher who started a consultancy business in 2019, called Teacher Career Coach, which has worked with more than 7,000 educators and amassed nearly 80,000 followers on Instagram alone.
In place of pricey one-on-one coaching, Gomez offers online courses to help educators refine their resumes and skillsets for other fields. Her clients often find helpful resources but also a sympathetic ear in Gomez, a former teacher who quit in 2017 due to anxiety and mounting concerns over her mental and physical health. When she left, she took a job as a consultant for Microsoft, speaking to schools and training staff. After events, teachers and principals would flag her down in the parking lot. They wanted to know how she got out, what careers were out there for ex-educators, and whether she could help them with their own prospects.
“It was always done in whispers and secrets,” Gomez explains. “That’s when I realized: Why are we stigmatizing someone developing a new career path? This is not something we would do in any other profession.”
Some of her clients do want to stay in education, as teacher-coaches, curriculum designers or to work for education technology companies, often in sales and customer support roles. Others want a fresh start. Her clients have landed jobs as curators at museums, education program leaders at hospitals, engineers at software companies, and as trainers and project managers at major corporations.
The past year has been the busiest yet for Gomez and her practice, though she can’t say for certain if it’s down to a teacher exodus or something more prosaic like marketing and referrals. All she knows is what she hears from clients and desperate educators day after day. “I feel like there are a lot more teachers right now at their final breaking point,” she says. “And many of them do not actually want to leave. This is their last resort.”
But leaving can be almost as depressing as the job itself, she adds, because teaching is often seen as a forever career. For teachers, it’s a shock to walk away from their school communities, their colleagues and their students. The guilt, it seems, is hard to shake.
What many find on the other side, though, is that there is a life after teaching, and it can be personally fulfilling. At least that’s what Kaitlin Moore, the former Tennessee teacher, discovered after hardly taking a day off in her new job for five months. She had wanted to make a good impression and, if nothing else, teaching had left her with a relentless work ethic.
“My manager said I should just take a whole week off and not sign in,” she says. “I thought, this is unheard of, because even at school there’s always the school play and literacy night and numeracy night. As a teacher, you’re expected to run on fumes. At my company now, they say, ‘That’s very unhealthy. Please don’t do that.’”
Catching a Breath
Most of the teachers interviewed for this story agreed that the hardest part about pandemic teaching wasn’t the tumult of March 2020, or being thrown into emergency remote learning without training or time to prepare. Back then, there was a sense of camaraderie, of knowing that nobody knew what they were doing but that everyone was trying. And working from home was not without its perks. One teacher even found the lack of interruptions—like fire drills, late students, and PA announcements—calming.
No, the hardest time for most was the following year, when students slowly began trickling back into classrooms, and schools, inexplicably, asked teachers to ricochet between supporting their students in the classroom and those learning from home. Students experienced a mental health crisis of their own, returning with a raft of social-emotional and behavior issues, while administrators doubled down on improving test scores and closing learning gaps. Empathy evaporated. Teacher wellbeing was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Since returning, the teachers I spoke with said they felt ignored and micromanaged by hapless administrators, disrespected by parents, and gaslit from all sides into believing their workloads and job expectations were reasonable. Most admitted to working more than 50 hours a week, which, ultimately, drained their mental health.
One teacher was asked by her district to learn a new piece of math software by herself and introduce it to students the following week. Several recalled the cruel irony of being told by administrators to practice self care, while being denied the personal days they had accrued. And in addition to becoming mentally and physically exhausted, Holly Allen, a former middle school teacher in Colorado Springs who quit in January, lamented bitterly that her principal instructed her to never leave during her lunch break, even when there were no students on campus, so the school’s parking lot would always look full. “You know when you run up some stairs and you can’t catch your breath for a minute? I felt like that for nine hours a day,” she says.
Right before she left the classroom for good, Bethany Collins, the new mom who quit over fears of running out of sick leave, received a handwritten letter from one of her seventh graders. She waited until a planning period to open it, and then called her husband in tears.
“She told me that she loved my class and I had inspired her to become a teacher,” Collins recalls. “I wanted to tell her, ‘Please don’t.’ When I think about my students and what I want for their lives, the one thing I want is for them to feel happy and fulfilled by their jobs. And I don’t know a single teacher right now that is—under these crazy circumstances—happy or fulfilled.” ⚡