There's an interesting phenomenon that happens when it comes to change where the catalyst is adversity - people don't want to believe it's going to happen to them until they're in the midst of it. Even if they say they know it's happening, even if their brain understands the basis of the issue, they still won't prepare for it because they haven't fully internalized the situation enough to process through what that means for them. THIS is where I believe many districts are right now. Subconsciously, they believe the teacher shortage won't happen to them and even if it does, there has to be new teachers coming from the teacher colleges, right? There have been teacher shortages before and they've survived. It's fine. Everything's fine.
But it's not.
I believe there are going to be three waves of teacher attrition. The first wave has happened. It was made up of all the teachers who just left in the last three years for various reasons. The second wave is going to be this summer when teachers who dedicated themselves to just making it through the year for their students will leave. The third wave will happen over the next few years as teachers begin to really feel the weight of their trauma and it begins to show up in bigger ways. Right now, many of them are still in emergency response mode, but they're tired. Still, they figured they would never leave teaching. But even so, some of them will, and that is the third wave.
As an education ecosystem, we have never had to try to recover from this extent of attrition. Yes, we have a sub shortage. That is not going to compare to what is about to happen.
I also believe that there are currently three types of districts when it comes to addressing/accepting attrition.
We are great.
Believe it or not, there are districts (and individual schools in districts) out there that are not losing many teachers. Everyone recognizes how difficult the pandemic has been for educators, but overall they have maintained their supportive culture, they have made the adjustments that people needed when they needed them, and they do their best to lessen the load for teachers in meaningful ways. This has been done with collective purpose and divergent leadership - sometimes breaking the status quo to do what's best for humans. These districts will not only not lose many (if any) teachers, but they will be the ones that teachers are fighting to get into from neighboring districts. If you are not the "We are great" district, you should be worried. You now have competition and teachers don't need to settle.
We are good (but we're not).
The next type of district doesn't believe their people will leave because many of them have been there forever and they're leaning into loyalty hard. They've done some things to try to meet teachers where they're at, but overall they've continued with unnecessary initiatives during the pandemic that have put even the most seasoned teachers on edge. These districts often believe that they might lose some but not many (they're wrong) and what they lose they'll pull from the teacher colleges not understanding that the teacher colleges don't have the graduates that they normally do. And for the graduates that do come out, what kind of brand have you built during the pandemic? Has it been one that teachers, who will have their pick of where to go, will want to land? If you have people who are leaving, what makes you think that new teachers will want to apply?
Meh. We'll be fine.
I was recently speaking with a teacher who had put in her resignation for this summer through email and asked for a confirmation email back that they had received it. The only thing she received was a calendar invite sent to her for her to drop off her technology at an arbitrary date and time that wasn't even cleared with her if it worked on her schedule. These are the districts that will ultimately lose the most teachers because there is a complete lack of trust, compatibility, and support. The human resources department is the first and last communication that a teacher will most likely have with a district. Unless the district has a dedicated professional learning department, they are also the only department dedicated to the adults in the organization. This department better be human-focused, supportive, and solid or there is no chance that teachers would choose to accept a position.
So, what can districts do?
First, stop trusting that new teachers are coming. They're not. It's a numbers game. There are not as many students graduating in education and for the ones who are, they will have their pick of teaching jobs. Instead, invest in the teachers you have. Not just with professional learning but with pay, benefits, and emotional support. Invest in the teachers you have by hiring quality leaders who will create the culture and climate that is necessary for teachers to stay. Invest in your leaders and a common purpose so everyone is on the same page. Then, allow the happy teachers that are working in your district to be your magnet for new talent. This is the proactive side of teacher attrition. Do what you can to keep the teachers you have.
Second, work on your climate and culture (including taking a solid look at teacher workload - NOT their mindset or efficiency skills). Just one of the wonderful things about teachers is that they will go to extraordinary lengths for people that they trust and who make them feel valued. If they are leaving in droves, the district didn't do this. Period. This wasn't only about a pandemic. It was about the way that a district handled the pandemic.
Finally, leaders - stop what you're doing. Take a moment and assess. When was the last time that leadership spent any type of time in the classroom? I've seen crazy wonderful changes that happen when they do. When you take some time to reflect on where the district is through the chaos, what do you see? If you take off the district blinders for a second, what is happening at the micro-level? Is your district a place where you'd want to teach? If not, why would anyone else?
I'm nervous for the students who are in districts where teachers are leaving in record numbers. I spoke to a teacher who is leaving the classroom. In her school, there is only one teacher - yes, one single teacher - who hasn't put in their resignation or a request for transfer. I'm nervous about the teachers who are leaving and who can't afford it but emotionally they have no choice. I'm anxious for the teachers who have to stay to pay their mortgage knowing how miserable they are. Districts need to take responsibility for teacher attrition and start to review what it is that they can do to keep the teachers they have in classrooms. If a teacher resigns through email don't get angry and ignore the email. Instead, it would behoove you to reach out and ask what you can do to make them stay. That's going to be way more telling than the automated exit form that they may get, and they may give you the information you need to make a change that creates that loyalty you're looking for.