Jimmy Leonard – author & educator

Why the Great Teacher Resignation Is Not the End of Education

Jimmy Leonard  | October 5, 2022
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A teacher writing on a board with a student texting in the foreground

Teaching happens, even if it's not in schools.

October 5 is World Teacher’s Day, a perfect opportunity to thank a teacher, buy them a latte, or read a book to your kids. That last one seems indirect, but, trust me, teachers get all kinds of warm fuzzies when kids read with their parents at home.

But World Teacher’s Day is not just about saying thank you. It’s also intended as a day of rethinking the profession and considering how best to support educators, including adequate supplies and solving the teacher shortage. I can’t speak to every circumstance around the globe, but I do know the situation feels dire in America. 

Teaching is consistently rated as one of the most burned-out professions, and it’s an open secret that The Great COVID-19 Zoom-Learning Extravaganza was rough for everyone involved. Yet anyone in education will tell you that it only revealed problems with the system—it didn’t create them.

With some surveys suggesting that up to 40% of teachers are planning to quit in the next few years, it can definitely feel like public schools are doomed. But learning isn’t! We’re just witnessing the most significant paradigm shift of the last century, and understanding and embracing those changes are vital to rebuilding the house that is American education. The great resignation of teachers does not mean that no one in the profession one cares anymore or that students are left with no options. We just need to redefine some terms.

Why Teachers Resign

Take your pick. Low pay, endless hours, inadequate resources, too much standardized testing, not enough school safety, politicians dictating curriculum. Teachers feel exhausted and disrespected, but most of them would agree that they feel conflicted about leaving. 

So many teachers go into the profession for good reasons, and it’s genuinely a tough decision to resign, even when the work environment is downright insulting. Teachers are paid 20% less (often, it’s worse than that) than their college-educated peers; they get overworked, cussed at, and ignored, and yet people still sign up for it—at least initially. Solving the teacher shortage isn’t about convincing more people to teach. Tons of people enjoy leading, mentoring, coaching, instructing, or discipling. But the job called “teacher” has some significant strings attached.

Many decry public school systems for squashing all individuality and existing only to train students as “factory workers,” but the irony is that most factories would shut down in a heartbeat if they operated like a school. If schools were corporations, they’d have separate departments for customer service, IT support, accounting, operations management, product design, and human resources—but teachers do all of that by themselves. It’s horribly inefficient. It’s ludicrous, honestly. Imagine having a restaurant where one person had to wait on, cook for, and bus the tables for 40 different customers every hour. And yet that’s what teachers do.

I know there are a lot of other issues, but I contend that failure to departmentalize and outsource is a bigger contributor to teacher resignation than class size, unpaid overtime, or even the dreaded standardized testing. Most of the schools that are successful in America are the ones that have the staff and resources to outsource things like curriculum design, course administration, community outreach, tech support, counseling, discipline, and a million other things so teachers can just teach

You will never convince me that the problem is not enough people wanting to educate. One of the most fascinating things about teachers during the Great Resignation is that so many want to stay involved in education. They want to make a difference in kids’ lives; they want to train the next generation, but in many cases, they simply can’t afford to do that for low wages and the constant run-around of being a standardized test administrator/secretary/babysitter. It’s so prevalent that we have job search websites that specifically cater to “non-teaching” education jobs. That’s saying something! Even if “teaching” is in dire straights, education is thriving.

Why Education Will Be Fine

So how do you fix a broken system? More money? That was the first point on this year’s official White House Fact Sheet for World Teacher’s Day. That’s a Band-Aid, but it’s not a cure. Most Americans support raising teacher pay despite the slowness of it actually happening in most public schools, but solving the teacher shortage needs a more comprehensive and nuanced solution than just making it rain dollar bills. (Not that teachers don’t appreciate the effort.)

Teacher strikes have swept the nation in the last five years, demanding everything from better salaries and benefits to resources for special education to more social workers to smaller class sizes to—as was the case in Columbus, Ohio—climate-controlled classrooms. Which, when you have a room full of 25 kindergarteners and it’s 100 degrees outside in August, it’s weird that you have to ask for A/C, let alone go on strike for it.

A lot of that is part of a much larger conversation about reasonable, equitable working conditions, and if we addressed those things, this whole Great Teacher Resignation might slow down a bit. But if we’re talking about education as an industry, or even just student learning itself, a lack of A/C is not the root of the problem. Nothing showed that more than the push to take public education online during the pandemic.

We live in this paradoxical era of online education. On one hand, pretty much everyone hates online learning, at least in the sense of 2nd graders on Zoom or a bazillion Google Docs for your high school English class or endless forum posts in a college discussion. It is objectively awful to have to comment on some random classmate’s post about an article that probably neither of you read anyway. 

Oh, hello, online learning peer. You make a good point about that article neither of us finished. Congratulations on using smart words. I’m now further elaborating on this insincere response so my post looks long enough to get full credit. I suspect the professor doesn’t actually read these.

If you know, you know.

Yet in 2021, kids spent an average of more than 90 minutes per day on TikTok, and it’s not all renegade dances and balancing on milk crates. Even if it is, think about how many “how-to” dance videos show up on the internet. It’s not quite as cool as TikTok, but YouTube is still a thing for Gen Z and Gen Alpha. For as many teachers who leave the classroom as part of the Great Resignation, we have influencers and tutorial hosts popping up everywhere. The same demographic that hates online learning is learning online all the time.

The problem is not just the format but the content. You can’t just take a bunch of super boring in-person lesson plans and suddenly digitize them. Of course that’s still boring and ineffective. Online engagement happens with content designed for online interaction.

Kids read all the time. They just might not be reading Scarlet Letter and Lord of the Flies.

Kids research all the time, but it’s to find quick answers, not to write a lab report.

Kids go hard at learning stuff, but it’s the stuff they want to learn how to do.

And people know this, but a lot of well-meaning programs just try to make the boring content more interesting. How can we add some flair and dress up this assignment that feels outdated and irrelevant? Oh, I know. Let’s turn it into a rap song. Instead of trying to fix the lagging system, the harder—and perhaps the braver—choice is to take a new approach.

We’ve long been on a trajectory of kids feeling disconnected from the traditional K-12 canon and instead favoring an individualized, student-led approach to learning and discovery. And the corporate world is embracing this a lot faster than public schools.

Online Learning to Work

When people talk about solving the teacher shortage, it usually means hiring new instructors to fill vacancies in traditional K-12 schools. But I don’t think America is short on teachers at all.

Arguably since the dawn of the internet, we’ve seen a flattening of the corporate structure and a push to accelerate decision making. Ideas matter; independence and assertive attitudes matter. The ability to work efficiently and figure things out is an in-demand skill. And the way to figure things out is often through a repository of online walkthroughs, tutorials, and lessons.

If you need to upskill by learning a new programming language, or you need a certification for work, or if you’re trying to launch your own business, online learning is the paradigm for modern career development. But what’s significant is not the online part so much as the focus on learning the exact skill you need in your life right now part.

Think about the last time a random thing broke and you needed to fix it. If you’re like most people, you googled the problem and watched someone on YouTube tell you what to do. That person is a teacher, and you are a learner.

Since the pandemic, 74% of US companies are using or planning to implement a hybrid work model. Corporate training materials will be a huge part of that to prepare and unify a remote workforce. Even with the growing push for AI in manufacturing, fast food, healthcare, and other industries, we’re more likely to see humans and robots working together before we live in a fully automated world. We will need training to use and improve even the most autonomous machines.

Learning in the Future

There are difficult questions about how to proceed in public schools given the Great Resignation of so many teachers, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. But we’re entering a golden age of education in which knowledge of anything is accessible in a digestible video format. For those who do want to mentor, explain, and teach, the world needs you to do those things. Showing someone how to do a job or answering a difficult question is so valuable, and more and more people are realizing that struggling schools are not the only places where they can educate.

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Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard helps brands tell stories and reach new audiences. He enjoys running and hiking in the mountains.

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