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Statewide study probes deeper into teacher burnout

ATLANTA —Teachers were heading for the exits long before the COVID pandemic spurred the Great Resignation across all sectors of the workforce. And a new report provides further evidence that educators still have one eye on the exit.

State and local education officials say they are focused on slowing the continued exodus.

“It has always been a top priority of my administration to support those who directly support students – Georgia's hardworking teachers," State School Superintendent Richard Woods said. Woods first ran for office in 2014 on a platform of recruiting and retaining teachers.

“Unfortunately, we are going to lose many of those highly-qualified educators if we do not address the issues leading to burnout in the profession,” he said.

Evidence of a statewide teacher burnout epidemic first appeared in a 2015 a study from the Georgia Department of Education which found that nearly half of all new teachers hired since 2008 had left the profession. Teachers cited “burnout” as the greatest factor in their decision to leave the classroom, according to findings in the Georgia’s Teacher Dropout Crisis study.

Further troubling was that nearly a third of the 53,000 teachers surveyed in 2015 said they would likely quit teaching within five years. A majority said they would not encourage their students to go into teaching.

“Unfortunately, we are at risk of losing many highly qualified educators if we do not take a careful look at the factors contributing to burnout in the profession,” Woods said.

Three factors cited

The 2015 study pinpointed three areas that led to burnout: number of and emphasis on mandated tests, the teacher evaluation method, and teacher participation in decisions related to their jobs.

Since the release of the 2015 report, state officials have responded by reducing the number of state-mandated tests, providing a $5,000 pay raise for teachers and adding the Georgia Teacher of the Year to the State Board of Education.

Last month, the GDOE released a follow-up report to the 2015 study, titled “Teacher Burnout in Georgia…Voices from the Classroom.” A team of teachers from across the state was tasked with identifying root causes of teacher burnout.

Cherie Goldman, the 2022 Georgia Teacher of the Year from Savannah, served on the task force and said burnout exists across all grade levels.

“The data is clear, and I have seen it personally,” Goldman stated. “Every year Georgia is losing talented teachers to burnout.”

The group convened in 2021 and surveyed nearly 5,000 Georgia teachers. Based on the data collected, the task force presented recommendations for education policymakers on ways to mitigate teacher dissatisfaction.

The concerns are clustered around five areas: assessments, preserving and protecting time, pressures and unrealistic expectations, teacher voice and professional growth and mental health and wellness.

The reality behind the burnout

Treating teachers as valued partners with the best view of the classroom emerged as a key factor in stemming burnout.

“So many decisions are made [by people] who are no longer in a classroom, have been out for a long time, or who have never been in a classroom,” one 10-year elementary school teacher noted in the report.

The 35-page study includes recommendations teachers are hoping will help stem the tide of resignations.

A Georgia Department of Education spokeswoman said the department is working to develop ways to address the issues teachers cited in the survey.

“Some of our initial areas of focus will be classroom supply support for teachers, statewide mental health support, addressing the teacher evaluation system, and measures to address excessive local testing,” said Meghan Frick, GDOE communications director.

The fixes cannot come quick enough for one Fulton County teacher with more than two decades of classroom experience. Otherwise good teachers will continue to leave the profession, she said.

“It happens over time with teachers who are overworked, disrespected, and under-supported,” said the middle school teacher who asked not to be identified. “It shows in the form of stress, anxiety, lack of motivation, personality changes and other health issues.”

Though she is still in the classroom with no immediate thoughts of leaving, she says many teachers continually ask themselves, “Is this job worth it? Is this that for which I really signed up? Or am I ready to quit?”

While pay is important, the focus on money alone is not enough to keep teachers motivated to keep teaching, she added.

In Fulton County Schools, teachers are among the top paid in the district, thanks to regular salary increases and bonuses. Yet, the district began the last school year with 143 vacancies, despite hiring 568 new teachers. The district ended the 2021-22 school year with more than 200 teacher vacancies.

During a presentation at the start of the last school year, Chief Academic Officer Cliff Jones noted teacher hiring is a year-round process to address persistent vacancies.

One recommendation from the Teacher Burnout Task Force is to provide annual pay raises along with step raises based at stages of a teacher’s career. In many districts, including Fulton, step raises based on years of teaching experience are more focused on the early and later years, with fewer increases in the middle years.

Candy Waylock is an award winning education reporter who has covered all things education for Appen Media over the past 20 years. She is an Alpharetta resident.