I am struck by the number of teachers who have contemplated leaving their teaching positions or who have actually left during the past few years. There are myriad reasons for their departures, but they may not be for the reasons you think.

When I was a little girl, my dolls and stuffed animals served as my pupils in my imaginary classroom. I hail from a long line of educators, and knew very early on that I wanted to be a teacher. This early, intended trajectory for my career came to fruition when I graduated from college with a bachelor of science degree in education. My first job was teaching pre-kindergarten in a large public school district. It was my dream job!! I loved teaching and only left to pursue career advancement in the field of Education. With the exception of professional growth and activist education, I would have never considered any other reason to leave the profession. Many teachers feel or have felt the same.

Teacher attrition is complicated. Reasons for teachers leaving the profession vary, but include retirement, their dissatisfaction with salaries, teacher burnout, the political climate, a lack of mentorship, increased workloads, concerns about their health and the health of their families (including mental health), discriminatory treatment, student behavior, working conditions, the number of recent school shootings, and regional challenges to finding affordable housing. On the other hand, some teachers leave the profession to serve underserved and underrepresented communities through other means, such as working for non-profit organizations that support children, or getting a law degree in order to develop or reform public policies affecting education and other issues. Of course leaving out the loss of teachers who endured the increased stressors related to teaching through the pandemic would be disingenuous—some reports indicate that they left teaching in record numbers in the past few years.

The pandemic, however, did not mark the beginning of teacher shortages. In fact, a nationwide shortage of teachers in K-12 school settings had already existed due to the inability of schools and school districts to recruit and retain qualified and committed teachers, especially in content areas such as STEM, and in positions serving special populations such as bilingual education and special education. Although it is true that the pandemic was a factor that exacerbated the existing challenges being experienced by school districts, tens of thousands of teachers were already leaving the profession for the reasons stated above, and well over 100,000 positions remained unfilled or were filled with less qualified teachers, under or uncertified teachers, or teachers who were given provisional or emergency certificates. Additionally, it is well known in the field of education that about 40 percent of teachers leave the profession in the first five years, and a new category of teachers who are now quitting teaching are first-year teachers.

While the pandemic certainly wreaked havoc on teaching as a profession, and though there were already vacancies across the nation, what is clear is that it directly and exponentially contributed to districts’ inability to attract and retain teachers. This lack of new hires strained an already serious teacher shortage. But what is substantially more troubling is the persistent and detrimental impact of these unfilled teaching positions on students who were and are the beneficiaries of teacher-led and student centered knowledge attainment. For some students, opportunities for academic remediation, due to the loss of direct teaching during the pandemic, have created learning gaps. For others, behavioral and social emotional growth and development have become stagnant leaving some teachers, especially those who are underprepared, at a loss for dealing with disruptive students or those who need additional behavioral support. Stories about these classroom difficulties have also been traced to a decreased enrollment in teacher preparation programs, which further complicates the teacher shortage. Instead of the pandemic being front and center as one of the more recent and foremost culprits for the shortage and for challenges faced by students, other challenges, one nonsensical, have caused well-trained teachers to consider leaving, or to leave (or never begin in) the profession. One challenge to teacher shortages in districts across the nation, including Austin and the surrounding area school districts, is the exorbitant cost to rent an apartment or buy a home. In response some states are developing financial assistant plans which may include contracting affordable housing or subsidizing rental down payments. Another current reason that some teachers have left the profession entails entanglements with their state’s legislation related to the value of diversity. Instead of continuing to research the impact of the pandemic on students, teachers, families, and the profession as a whole to find solutions, state politicians and state and local education agencies are more interested in the continuation of the policing and criminalization of black and brown students in school settings. Meanwhile others are ramping up their assaults against students’ sexual orientations, gender identities, and/or the banning of books that teach about historical events and figures, while substantially white-washing factual history. It seems that states, school boards, and other school leaders would rather attack students’ identities rather than affirm them, sanitize history rather than allowing teachers to teach about historical events or about people of color and women who have contributed to this nation, and/or rip selected history from the pages of states’ standards for history and social studies curricula altogether. To this end, the provision of safe spaces to teach, learn, and belong have been disrupted at a time when students need adults they can trust not to judge them or demoralize them, but to advocate for their right to exist as who they say they are (pronouns, racial categorizations, etc.). It is a common misconception that learning about the diversity of identities will shift one’s identity. Alternatively, it supports the self-worth of all students by valuing all members of the school population—an inclusive strategy.

Texas House and Senate bills [SB3; 87(1)] are responsible for a law that amended the Texas Administrative Code’s (regulations for Texas educators) guidelines for social studies curriculum. This law has caused teachers to feel they have no latitude when making curricular decisions related to teaching about past historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson and his family, Martin Luther King and his I Have a Dream speech, or the Chicano experience and women’s suffrage, etc. This falls on the heels of a recent proposal in Texas (around 2021-22) to refer to slavery as “involuntary relocation” and a Texas textbook that called enslaved Africans “workers.” You can’t make this stuff up! And, as a matter of course, during these assaults on state standards, there are those who claim to be vehemently opposed to Critical Race Theory (CRT), but when asked what it is, the answer is “I don’t really know, but I don’t like it!” I am not kidding! There are numerous Instagram and Youtube videos, as well as other media, that highlight a lack of knowledge about a theory that is at the center of the content reformation in our schools, as well as the dismantling of some diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs in higher education. I am sure there are those who would seek to label these videos as “deep fakes”, but that does not account for those whom I have asked personally, and who have provided similar answers. Let’s face it, some Americans are more likely to believe deceptive information if it protects them and those who they believe are “like” them, than they are to look for the truth, advocate for the “other” and do what is right over what is popular or propagandized—and this includes many of our politicians and some school leaders. By the way, Critical Race Theory is not a concept or strategy that is even taught in K-12 classrooms; but many would have you believe that it is in order to have an excuse to push their exclusive agendas.

Why does this matter? It has Important implications for Teacher Preparation and Certification Programs such as the one at Southwestern where we pride ourselves on teaching students to support and advocate for ALL students regardless of whether they are culturally or linguistically diverse, differently abled, identify their sexual orientation and/or identify as transgender, gender fluid, or are gender non-conforming, etc. I contend that in this case, it is not about WHAT you teach, if you do not value WHO you teach. My students are encouraged to hold opposing views, but are still asked to learn about the damage done to students when you do not affirm the identities of all students. If you are not there for all, I believe that you should not seek to teach in our public schools settings which include students from many different backgrounds and identities. With that in mind, I am concerned about these new teachers, due to the teacher shortage, being placed in schools without similar opportunities for diversity of thought that examine societal mindsets and behaviors that dismiss or endanger the lives of students based on their differences. I am also concerned about new teachers being placed in understaffed school settings that do not provide them with an effective mentor to coach them through the ordinary day-to-day challenges of teaching or, because they are new, being placed in schools or classrooms that may be problematic for a number of reasons—uncertain experiences that may impact teachers’ mental health.

Teacher Preparation and Certification Programs should be able to recruit and retain prospective teachers who do not have to worry about advocating for their students’ rights to identify as they wish, or about being accused of breaking a law when teaching factual historical content. These programs should also be able to trust policymakers, as well as school systems, to ensure that new and current teachers are supported through solution-focused programs and legislation that support their mental health, and provide strategies to work with diverse students. Additionally, national and state lawmakers should attend to pandemic recovery in school settings, challenges that contribute to teacher attrition, and ways to provide more training for those teachers who are underprepared to teach our children. Teacher shortages will always be complex, but the recruitment and retention of teachers will continue to be a challenge if attention is not paid to established reasons teachers leave the profession. In the meantime, support your local teachers and your local teacher certification programs; but also support the students they teach … no matter who they are.

Alicia Moore is the Cargill Endowed Professor of Education at Southwestern University. The opinions expressed are those of Dr. Moore and do not represent those of the Southwestern University Education Department or the Teacher Certification Program.