On World Teachers’ Day, U.S. educators are sounding the alarm about post-pandemic burnout, huge staff shortages and staggering statistics linked to the current exodus of educators. Nadia Lopez, a former principal made famous by a blog post on Humans of New York, understands the current climate all too well. The founder of Brooklyn’s Mott Hall Bridges Academy made the difficult decision to leave her job in 2020. “I just didn't have any more to give,” she tells MAKERS. “My body couldn't sustain the constant scrutiny and lack of regard for my health and the lack of support to do this work.”
THE EXODUS OF EDUCATORS
For many educators like Lopez, the added stress of pandemic disruptions made an already-difficult job even more unsustainable. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a net loss of 600,000 public educators between January 2020 and the beginning of this year. Among the teachers that remain, more than half are thinking about leaving or retiring from the profession, according to the National Education Association (NEA). And it’s not just teachers. A recent study found that nearly 4 in 10 principals are also expected to exit within the next three years. “Everyone is trying to put out fires. Everyone is running the rat race. Everyone is just trying to get through another day,” says Lopez. “We are getting teachers in and we're cranking them out. But we don't care about the casualty that comes with that. And the ones who lose the most are the children.”
In 2010, Lopez founded the Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a STEAM-focused (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) public middle school that primarily serves low-income families and underprivileged kids. “I saw the school as a place like a community hub, educating these young people so that they could impact what was going on in their households,” says Lopez. The school gained national recognition in 2015 when Principal Lopez was featured in the popular social media account, Humans of New York. It went viral, launching Lopez and her school into the spotlight and even earning her a trip to White House for a meeting with President Obama.
Growing up, Lopez says her immigrant parents didn’t have a lot of money, but they still made her education a top priority. “They felt that providing me with a great education would offer way more benefits and give me access to having those opportunities to create my own wealth,” Lopez says. When it came time to choose her career path, Lopez says teaching was never really on her radar. But once she became a mom, she realized that outside of her family, the people who had made the biggest impact on her life were her teachers. “I just wanted to be exactly what they were for me, for other children."
A DIFFICULT DECISION
Lopez poured her heart and soul into her job as principal, often working 14-to-16-hour days. But by 2019, her health had declined to a level she could no longer ignore. She says the increasing stress of her job and lack of support from the Department of Education exacerbated her condition and triggered an autoimmune kidney disease. “I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking I had chest pains,” says Lopez. “It felt like I was having a heart attack.” Lopez took a leave of absence to recover, but then, the pandemic hit. She found herself, once again, working around the clock to help her teachers and students transition to a virtual learning environment. Lopez says doctors told her if she continued at this pace, one of three things would happen: “You will have to endure dialysis, a kidney transplant or prepare for early death.” Lopez made the choice to resign from the school she founded and loved so dearly. Her tweet announcing her departure read: “Unfortunately my resignation isn’t because I didn’t love what I do, it’s because school leaders deserve to be treated better.”
Unfortunately my resignation isn’t because I didn’t love what I do, it’s because school leaders deserve to be treated better. We give our entire lives to educate, guide, & protect children. Our responsibility is their success & well-being, but who ensures the same for the leader? https://t.co/3xOGi6ufxd
— Dr. Nadia Lopez (@TheLopezEffect) July 7, 2020
In addition to the many challenges presented by the pandemic, teacher pay has declined over the past two decades in more than half of U.S. states — in some states it has declined by 15 percent. Meanwhile, a tight labor market means dissatisfied workers have the opportunity to seek better jobs and better work environments. “Why should I stay in this profession when now there are corporations who will value my skills?” says Lopez. “Our work sets the foundation for where children have the potential of going, but there is such a lack of regard of what our influence and impact really look like. We prepare children for every industry that exists today.”
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
What can be done to reverse the exodus of educators? Lopez says it needs to start with collaboration and action. “Change doesn't come by just complaining about it. Get like-minded educators and teachers onboard to talk about what the problems are and then [get them] engaged in how to find solutions,” says Lopez. “Administrators need to encourage their teachers to engage in these types of conversations and be open to hearing what they're saying and provide the levels of support that's needed.” Lopez says things like investments in professional development and mental health resources can help teachers feel respected and valued. The NEA also stresses the need for long-term strategies for recruiting and retaining teachers such as raising salaries, beefing up health care benefits and improving working conditions. “In order for us to shift what's happening in education, it's going to require a concerted effort from the collective,” Lopez says. “And that includes parents, administrations, the community, all in partnership with the teachers.”
Nadia Lopez will share more of her story at the MAKERS Conference October 24 through October 26.