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.
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.”