Back to school: As the school year begins, stress is leading to a nationwide teacher shortage

The pandemic was the straw that broke the camel's back, says Dr. April Thames, a clinical neuropsychologist.

Schools across the country are welcoming back students, but many districts will be short staffed as a growing number of teachers have left the profession amid a stress-related mental health crisis.

In 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected that an estimated 270,000 primary and secondary teachers would leave the teaching occupation through 2026. However, the BLS recently reported that 300,000 public school teachers decamped from the education field between February 2020 and May 2022.

April Thames, PhD, clinical neuropsychologist and professor of psychiatry at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, said there is a reason why a large number of teachers are identifying mental health issues as their motivation to exit the classroom for good.

Stressors for primary and secondary teachers

“Many teachers are overworked and underpaid,” Dr. Thames said, citing those factors as significant issues leading to teacher burn-out. “More so, we’re coming off of a pandemic about which there is still a lot of uncertainty, and many teachers find themselves contemplating if they should be going back to work.”

The pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back, according to Dr. Thames. In addition to overcrowded classrooms and staff shortages, many schools are also under-resourced, requiring teachers to become more creative with their lesson plans, and also, perhaps, to have to dip into their own pockets to pay for necessary supplies.

Virtual learning created actual problems

Dr. Thames also noted that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, teachers were forced to create online curricula with very little time to plan. Many teachers found Zoom classrooms a challenge. Parents also voiced concerns that virtual learning was not effective for their children’s overall academic success, putting teachers under even more pressure. Some teachers complained that keeping children focused and enforcing discipline during classroom hours was particularly difficult.

Virtual learning also led to an opposite reaction; some teachers got comfortable teaching from home, and when lockdowns were lifted, many balked at returning to in-person classrooms.

“I’m not saying this is a primary factor for teachers not wanting to go back to the classroom, but many teachers discovered they can do a lot of the same things from home via Zoom that were necessary for in-person learning,” Dr. Thames said. “You’re not only going to get teachers who are burned out, but also teachers who resist doing things as they were before.”

Lack of support equals a lack of teachers

Quickly shifting to crisis mode for weeks and months on end, without outlets to deal with their heightened anxiety, took a significant toll on teachers. “It was a huge adjustment, when you think of it,” Dr. Thames said. “Much of the burnout that we’ve seen happened during that rapid-adjustment period.”

School districts would do well to make resources available for their staffs to seek and obtain emotional support, she said. “I think if there can be opportunities for teachers to see a therapist, that would be very helpful. Teachers need that support. It’s one of the most challenging jobs. Having to do mental gymnastics with a lack of resources is a recipe for disaster.”

Resources for teacher mental health and retention

As a university-level faculty member, Dr. Thames recognizes that elementary- and secondary-school educators face stresses that she and her academic peers do not.

“Primary and secondary teachers are responsible for kids who are in the most formative developmental stages of their lives,” she said. “They wear so many hats because throughout the day, they may find themselves having to be, in addition to a teacher, a ‘secondary parent,’ a ‘counselor,’ a ‘mentor,’ a ‘disciplinarian.’ Many are taking on roles they haven’t been trained for.”

The Semel Institute, along with other organizations across the state, is taking steps to address the needs of primary and secondary educators. Collaboratively, they have developed Together for Wellness, a resource-rich site to help teachers, parents, caregivers, teens and kids manage these difficult times.

Learn more about how UCLA Health is helping to improve mental health globally.