Lisa Wolfe, 56, wanted to be a teacher for as long as she can remember. As a child, she owned a set of Little House on the Prairie books that accidentally included a duplicate copy; she was thrilled she had an extra book to annotate and play teacher with. She recalls her own education fondly, describing how she loved being creative in school.
“I wanted to come back and teach,” she tells Fortune.
She did exactly that in 2002, taking a break in 2011 after becoming a mother. She returned to the classroom three years later, but it slowly morphed into something far from the one she once fell in love with.
Based in Colorado, Wolfe re-entered the workforce to teach a concurrent enrollment program that allows high school students to receive college credit for courses. But the program was eventually shut down, and Wolfe transitioned to teaching at a middle school. She says it was her most high-stress job yet, describing the new school as “soul crushing” in a post-pandemic landscape.
Students were reading way below grade level and the teachers received no professional assistance, such as extra prep time or training to help bridge the learning gap, she adds. Indeed, students worldwide are reckoning with a pandemic learning loss. The average math and reading scores plummeted to 1990 and 2004 levels, respectively, per the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
“We’re failing our students miserably,” Wolfe says, describing how she’d wake up at 2 a.m. to start paperwork and grading tests because she was so stressed out. After teaching for 19 years, she walked out the door of her dream profession in October 2023. “I’ve done enough,” she says. “I don’t have anything left.”
The plight of the teacher
Wolfe’s experience is a textbook example of how today’s educators are at the end of their rope and have been for some time. The teaching industry has long been marked by low pay, but as inflation took over the economy, many educators found it even harder to pay the bills without a raise. COVID-19 was akin to pressing a broken bone for the industry, which was already grappling with burnout and turnover. As teachers dealt with pandemic-disrupted learning, rising school violence, and politicians petitioning to censor important topics such as critical race theory and LGBTQ+ rights, they’ve became more and more stressed.
It’s fueled a teacher shortage in which many like Wolfe have left to pursue other jobs where they feel more valued. Between the 2021-2022 school year and this year, turnover was the highest it has been in five years, according to nonprofit education news group Chalkbeat’s analysis of eight states. Researchers from Kansas State University estimate that there are at least 55,000 teacher vacancies as of August 2023—and that the shortage is worsening in several states.
“I feel like the profession of teaching is no longer a profession—it’s like something people do after college for a couple of years to figure out what they really want to do,” Wolfe says, explaining that they eventually leave because of a lack of respect, poor conditions, and paltry wages. “So we lose all that talent and our students lose.”
By the time she left teaching, Wolfe was earning $74,000 annually, which she calls “pretty good.” It was the poor conditions that ultimately made her quit, which she traces back to the way schools are run. She describes an environment that lacked safety and resources for students, teachers, and administrative staff alike.
“I was unable to spend quality time with my family and take care of my own needs due to the load of unpaid labor that had to be completed,” she says. “I could no longer participate in a system that is failing students and teachers to such a degree.”
‘We’re not making a product’
Part of the problem, if you ask Wolfe, is that schools are being treated like companies in an increasingly corporate world. That kind of system doesn’t take into account the socio-emotional needs of children, since there’s a focus on teaching children pre-professional skills meant for white-collar jobs, per the National Education Policy Center: “Corporate influence is expanding well into the earliest years of schooling, turning public schools into agents of surveillance capitalism rather than protected spaces for unfettered learning and personal and intellectual development.”
With school districts running schools on a business model, Wolfe says, funding meant to be invested in teachers and students often isn’t allocated toward children. “They’re sitting on all this capital, and they’re not doing anything with it,” she says. Much of the federal funding schools received during the pandemic is “earmarked for very specific things” she says, like improving buildings or air conditioning systems.
This isn’t the case for all schools, though, and those that are better invested in are a different story altogether. Schools have become more segregated by income, Wolfe says. While her kids went to a fancy public school, Wolfe taught at another institution that had incredibly different conditions. “The disparity is just stark, and the kids know it,” she adds. “I think they’re mad, and they should be mad.”
If schools are the business, then students are the data points. The incredibly stressful search for higher-education emphasizes test scores from an early age at the expense of more holistic learning. And as test scores dipped during the pandemic, the focus on testing intensified. Chronic absenteeism has doubled since pre-pandemic times, adding fuel to the fire.
“We’re not making a product, we’re dealing with kids,” Wolfe says. “We’re trying to fit everybody into this model that just doesn’t work, and the job is not doable.” Gamifying everything, she adds, takes away from the creative part of teaching and comes at the expense of “conversation” and “deeper learning.”
Now, Wolfe is looking to semi-retire and substitute teach. She knows that the world she’s walking away from isn’t the same. “It just changed so dramatically, and [I remember] just thinking, ‘this is not my career anymore,’” she says.
The people are changing, too. Teachers are rejecting the old ideas about how the profession should work, as new generations lead the charge in how we perceive the workplace. “Attitudes towards work have changed so much, younger people have really kind of opened everybody’s eyes so that you don’t have to sacrifice your whole self to a job or profession,” Wolfe says. But teaching often works off of the idea of silent labor. “Education only works off of free labor from teachers. If teachers would stop working for free, it would collapse.”
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