In-person classes have resumed at most schools. Covid infections have leveled off. But teachers are exhausted and increasing numbers are heading out.

Masked and distanced, Lindsay McConnel helps a high-school student at the Tatnall School.
Masked and distanced, Lindsay McConnel helps a high school student at the Tatnall School. (Credit: Kate McConnel)

 This article, by high school student Kate McConnel, was produced out of News Decoder’s school partnership program. Kate is a student at the Tatnall School, a News Decoder partner institution. Learn more about how News Decoder can work with your school.

Breathing heavily through her mask, Lindsay McConnel, a veteran teacher, rushes to grab her computer to set up Zoom. It is October 2021 and after another outbreak at her school, half of her class is online, while the other half sits spread throughout the classroom.

McConnel’s middle schoolers share her sense of burnout. As she begins her history lesson, she is met with tired eyes and black screens.

Lindsay McConnel is my mom, but her experience teaching at The Tatnall School, a private day school in the U.S. state of Delaware, is not unique from the Covid experience of many students and faculty across the world. As a student in the same school I have witnessed the trials of her job and the effects that have lasted far beyond the most substantial Covid restrictions.

Many think that schools have returned to normal since the days of mass masking and rising cases, but is the exhaustion really gone?

Teachers are burned out.

During the pandemic, many educators struggled with the trials of their job under a new level of pressure, causing burnout, stress and depression.

According to a Gallup poll, 44% of K-12 teachers in the United States say they “always” or “very often” feel burned out by work, surpassing all other industries nationally. Second place is held by college and university workers at 35% — making educators among the most burned-out groups in the U.S. workforce.

While most Covid restrictions have dissipated, these symptoms have not. As a result, a 2022 survey by the National Education Association (NEA), found that 86% of schools that responded say they have seen more educators leaving the profession or retiring early since the start of the pandemic.

“I think that there has not been any reset time,” said McConnel. “A lot of things have changed and we have all just been trying to adapt on the fly. I do not think there has necessarily been enough time, in some ways, to take a minute.”

Dr. Andy Martire, the headmaster of Tatnall said that teachers are resilient. “People may have said this is tiring or this is taking a toll,” Martire said. “Nobody was complaining or whining. It was just okay, let’s do it. Let’s do it for each other, let’s do it for the kids. And that was really impressive.”

Staff shortages mean more work.

Martire also acknowledges his faculty’s struggles due to the pandemic. “During Covid, it was significantly more acute, how hard it was for teachers, physically, emotionally,” he said. “I think there is still some lingering fatigue, if not burnout.”

The working conditions during Covid deterred new teachers from the profession, in turn causing widespread staff shortages.

A study by the Institute for Education Sciences found that at the beginning of the 2022–23 school year, 45% of public schools nationwide reported having one or more vacant teaching positions and 53% reported feeling understaffed.

And the NEA survey found that 80% report that unfilled job openings have led to more work obligations for those left, further exacerbating burnout and fatigue.

Martire said that he has seen faculty leaving mid-year since the beginning of the pandemic. “That [is] really unusual, in my experience,” he said. “And I don’t know if that’s going to be something new that we are seeing here or not.”

More and more teachers are leaving education.

During the lockdown, Janna Kane taught kindergarten at North Star Elementary for seven years. North Star is part of the Red Clay School District, the largest public school district in Delaware.  “[I]t was extremely challenging keeping 5-year olds engaged on Zoom,” Kane said. “I had to go back and forth from the classroom to Zoom [many times] throughout the year.”

She is one of the many teachers who left the profession post-Covid. According to the NEA, 55% of educators are considering leaving the profession earlier than planned.

Longtime teacher Bill Schluter is principal at Tatnall’s Upper School. He said that current students are not interested in pursuing the teaching profession, perhaps because they see the aggravation that goes with it.

“If you are not getting paid well … plus you are getting a ton of [pushback], then, for what or for whom are you doing this?,” Schluter said.

He said that, in response to teacher shortages, at least one school district in Florida is even hiring National Guard members as high school teachers. This followed a record high of more than 6,000 teacher vacancies across the state in August 2022, according to the Florida Education Association.

But teacher burnout might not be a global phenonmenon. Michael Maupin, a teacher at News Decoder partner school Realgymnasium Rämibühl in Zürich, Switzerland says his colleagues did not have to face the same challenges during the height of the pandemic. “People always remained pretty civil and people collectively didn’t lose sight of our overall [aim] of coming to school, physically, and doing the [work],” Maupin said. “People got tired, but there wasn’t much burnout.”

Back in Wilmington, however, educators still struggle. McConnel said people are still tired.

“Covid hit like a storm,” McConnel said. “We were expected to adapt.”

Three questions to consider:

  1. In what ways has the return to the classroom post-Covid proved challenging for teachers?
  2. How can we make teaching more attractive as a career?
  3. Why might teacher burnout not be as big a problem outside the United States?
Kate McConnel

Kate McConnel is in her last year of high school at The Tatnall School in Wilmington, Delaware and plans to attend Tufts University next year. She loves reading and painting, playing lacrosse and working backstage for the school’s theater program. 

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Student PostsBack in classes, teachers find post-Covid exhaustion lingers