Editorial: Crisis in the classroom

·3 min read

Recent reporting by The Washington Post paints a grim picture of what students can expect when they return to school in the fall. Teachers are leaving the profession at an alarming clip, which could see some districts perilously short of educators.

There is no one reason why teachers are quitting in droves; rather, it’s a combination of many factors that have created this crisis. But it’s a problem that state and local leaders cannot ignore, and a worrisome trend they must confront — through bolstered resources, better services and greater respect — as quickly and effectively as possible.

The Post reporting, published on July 15, examined teacher retention and vacancy figures for school districts in Maryland, Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. The data shows a jump in resignations following the recently completed school year, particularly in Arlington County (where resignations are up 96% over annual average turnover), the District (up 52% over average) and Fairfax County (up 45%).

In other area districts — Loudoun County in Virginia and Montgomery County in Maryland are noted in the article — the numbers aren’t as bad. And Prince George’s County in Maryland is a regional outlier, with resignations down 28% over expected attrition.

These are not isolated, local issues but part of a larger national trend of teachers leaving the profession. The Wall Street Journal reported in June that 300,000 public school teachers and other staff left the field between February 2020 and May 2022, citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Polling in February by the National Education Association, the national teachers’ union, found “one in five public schools reported at least 5% of their teaching positions were vacant in January.”

Those vacancies were more likely to affect schools that serve low-income and minority communities, which tend to struggle to attract and retain talented educators. The NEA poll found the highest percentage of vacancies among special education teachers, and that 55% of those surveyed are now considering changing professions earlier than expected.

Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association teachers, told the Post that the departures were “a perfect storm” caused by a host of reasons, including frustration with pandemic-related restrictions, in-school behavioral problems, fears about school shootings, controversies about subject matter and employment concerns about pay and job satisfaction that are more common across the American work landscape.

All told, the potential dearth of teachers in classrooms across Virginia this fall is deeply troubling. It could not come at a worse time, when many students who struggled during the pandemic are still suffering from learning loss, and it could have profound implications down the road, when students in large classes and without more attentive, individualized instruction could slip through the cracks.

During its recent session, the General Assembly made some important decisions that could help make teaching more attractive to those already in the classroom and those entering the profession.

The two-year budget approved in June will raise the state’s share of teacher salaries by 10%, getting the commonwealth closer to the national average. Lawmakers also raised the cap on funding for support staff and put more money toward early childhood education and school construction.

But Virginia will need to do more. Per-pupil spending still languishes near the bottom of the national ranking, and while it matters more where the money goes, the total funding figure matters.

The commonwealth will also need to invest in mental health, with a focus on care for juveniles. The behavior problems that are rampant in public schools and driving teachers out of the classroom should be given greater emphasis by state and local officials alike.

Finally, we need to say, clearly and loudly, that teachers are not the enemy. They continue to do incredible work, under trying and changing conditions, and their devotion to improving the lives of Virginia’s children is beyond question.

This problem didn’t develop overnight and will take some time to reverse. If that’s not clear now, it will be in a few scant weeks.