Teachers, Facing Increasing Levels of Stress, Are Burned Out

Calling It Quits is a series about the current culture of quitting.

Driving home one day in the fall of 2021 from her job as an art teacher at a low-income public charter school near Sacramento, Calif., Ruth Santer fell asleep at the wheel. She often came home physically spent after a day of arriving early, wielding heavy art supplies and staying late to prepare art materials, all while managing a full classroom of middle school students. The work had always been strenuous but pandemic stresses had added to her level of exhaustion.

On that drive home, Ms. Santer, 63, struck another car, and though no one was harmed, she took the incident as a sign for her to leave her job a few years before her planned retirement. “There were a lot of factors but that was the moment when I said, ‘OK, I don’t think that this is safe or wise, to be this exhausted,’” she said.

Ms. Santer is far from alone. In a 2022 survey conducted by the National Education Association, 55 percent of educators said that they were thinking about leaving the profession, many of them citing pandemic-related difficulties and burnout. Teachers must not only face long hours in a stressful environment, but also the rise of political debates around Covid policies and curriculums. Here are a few of their stories.

Ruth Santer, Davis, Calif.

When the pandemic first began, Ms. Santer worked hard to figure out how to teach art remotely, but new issues emerged at the same time hybrid schooling did. In addition to the physical toll of her work, debates about masking, vaccines and gender identity entered the classroom, she said. “There are always a lot of stresses in teaching because everyone feels like they know about it. Everyone’s gone to school, everyone has an opinion about how it should be done.”

She quit, and after taking a short break, returned to her work as a graphic designer, a career where she had spent 25 years before becoming a teacher. Fortunately, Ms. Santer said, she’s covered under her husband’s health insurance and had recently finished paying off her home.

Though she feels she left at the right time, there are parts of her work that she misses, she said. “I do miss my students’ inspiration. Their work really inspired me,” Ms. Santer said. “But I have 13 years of examples of beautiful things to look at.”

Thu Anh Nguyen, Gaithersburg, Md.

For Thu Anh Nguyen, 43, quitting her job meant having to transfer to her husband’s health insurance, which included significantly higher expenses than she was accustomed to while working as a sixth grade teacher at a private school in Washington D.C. But the decision was worth it for the reduced stress she felt soon after quitting, she said.

“My husband said to me, ‘I don’t know that even health insurance is worth how miserable you are, because is it going to pay for all the therapy that you need for this?’” Ms. Nguyen said.

In addition to the stress and her lengthy commute, Ms. Nguyen was unhappy with the way the school had handled hybrid and in-person teaching during the pandemic, which she said only exacerbated the inequities she saw there.

“Whenever I brought up anything, I would get really easy and unsatisfying answers like, ‘Just take your kids outside,’ when I was talking about, like, our deep, existential threat,” she said.

Ms. Nguyen gave notice in November 2021 that she would be leaving at the end of that school year and is now a staff member at the National SEED Project, which trains leaders — many of them working in education — in ways to facilitate discussions of social justice. Her new job also has more flexibility and allows for more time to spend at home with her two children.

“It felt like no one was ever going to listen,” she said of her previous role. “Even if I had an inkling that things were going to change — if things hadn’t continued to just go downhill during those two years — then I would have stayed.”

Katie Newman, Seattle

Katie Newman, 40, had wanted to become a teacher since she was a child. She began her career soon after graduating from college and loved her job teaching high school social studies. But after 16 years, the last five of which she had spent at a private coed Catholic school near her home in Seattle, she decided to leave her job, and is now a full-time parent to her two children, who are 3 and 6.

Contributing to her decision to leave were feelings of burnout and a constantly changing teaching structure, as well as a covenant containing anti-LGBTQ positions that the staff was required to sign, Ms. Newman said. “I feel like I had to completely redo how I taught several times: first to do it fully remote, then to do a hybrid system.” She also expressed concern at the way that teachers’ work in the classroom was being attacked through laws targeting critical race theory in the classroom and book bans in schools.

Now, almost a year after quitting, she says she has more time to focus on her parenting, and since her family no longer needs to employ a nanny, she hasn’t felt much of a financial impact from the decision to leave.

While a teacher, she would wake up early to drive to school and go to bed thinking about lesson plans and her concerns about her students. “Now I just have to worry about my two kids,” she said, “and it’s a lot easier to sleep at night.”

Peter Mishler, Leawood, Kan.

By the end of his career, Peter Mishler, 42, had won multiple “Teacher of the Year” awards, and had even published a book about self-care for teachers during the pandemic. Yet at the end of the 2022 school year, he decided to leave his job after experiencing a number of “indignities,” both large and small, he said.

He expressed frustration with the lack of leadership at his school in the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the murder of George Floyd, lax attitudes toward Covid precautions and the mishandling of a sexual harassment case between staff members.

There were also smaller gestures that revealed that his work wasn’t being taken seriously, he said. While people in other industries might get bonuses for their work performance, Mr. Mishler recalls getting a pack of Lifesavers candy in his staff mailbox.

Initially Mr. Mishler didn’t think he would be leaving the profession entirely, but after interviewing at other schools he found the conditions to be too similar to the job he had left. He is now a copywriter at an advertising agency and says he “couldn’t be happier” with his decision. Mr. Mishler said he has a flexible schedule, works from home, and even has time to exercise.

“I feel like I’m not under fire in my job now,” he said. “My voice matters to my boss, I’m considered a valuable asset in my job, I’m safe where I work. Those things are really important, and I did not feel that way at the end of my teaching career.”

Gail Gallaher, Pasadena, Calif.

Gail Gallaher, 28, graduated with a master’s degree from Stanford University and started her first year of teaching in 2018. Just two years later, pandemic shutdowns went into place and she needed to quickly adjust to remote learning and other challenges in her role as a tenth grade science teacher.

Even after going back to in-person classes she described additional responsibilities, like keeping close records of her seating charts for contact tracing purposes. The emotional and physical stress of the job began to affect her health. “I worked a lot, and even more so, I thought and I worried about work a lot,” she said.

Her school was a Title I school in a low-income area south of Los Angeles, and suffered from systemic inequities and a lack of resources, including understaffing, Ms. Gallaher said. “A lot of expectations have been put on schools — and they’re good expectations, and we should care about the whole child, especially when some of our larger systems are failing. But we weren’t funded or staffed to do that in a sustainable way.”

The decision to leave did not come easily. She faced financial uncertainty as she looked for other jobs and was no longer eligible to have a portion of her student loans forgiven. But she eventually gave notice that the spring 2022 semester would be her last. “It’s so hard to quit teaching. It’s hard to stay, but it’s hard to quit,” she said. After taking a short break to recover, Ms. Gallaher recently found a job as a community manager for CommunityShare, a nonprofit civic organization.

For now, she’s happy with her decision and is excited for the future. “I’m just looking forward to finding new rhythms, setting down roots in a new community, rediscovering hobbies, spending more time with family, spending more time with my husband,” she said. “There are a lot of things I’m looking forward to.”

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