High schools struggling to keep teachers on board after pandemic
By Johnny Tran
Soo-Jin Lee left a job she loved, teaching English at Annandale High School, in October of 2022 not because she wanted to, but because she felt she had to.
“My very first day at school about 5 years ago, I felt immediately at home,” she said. “I felt this is where I was supposed to be, which rarely happens on the first day on a job.”
She just wasn’t making enough money to stay– especially once she moved out of her parents’ home and had to support herself and her child.
“It’s ok to struggle in your 20s when everybody’s poor, straight out of college,” she said.
“When you get to your 40s, you don’t want to struggle as much, it's not romantic anymore.”
Schools have long had a problem attracting and retaining teachers due to the notoriously low wages the profession earns. Teacher retention has been a problem across the country, particularly since the beginning of the pandemic, which saw many educators leaving the profession due to stress, illness, etc.
Low wages were also a huge factor for many teachers leaving this year in Annandale. FCPS is ranked 5th out of 9 schools for total career earnings this year. For mid, max and min wage salaries for teachers, FCPS is ranked 7th, 9th and 8th which is the lowest out of any of the schools in the district.
AHS Principal Shawn Derose said that he hopes that pay will increase for teachers, but he doesn’t have a lot of power to change that.
While he is always concerned about attracting and retaining good teachers, he doesn’t think that AHS has seen more resignations due to the pandemic.
“At Annandale, this number has been fairly consistent throughout the years,” he said. Over the past 5 years Annandale has replaced about 25 to 30 staff members, Derose estimated.
Fairfax County Public Schools, though, has seen a spike in teacher resignations, according to the Washington Post. In 2022, 892 teachers resigned, an increase of 45% over the average between 2018 and 2021.
Nationwide, the pandemic– and the mental health fallout and burnout associated with it– has pushed a lot of teachers out of the classroom. Derose, though, doesn’t believe it’s affected Annandale teachers as much, however.
But, he said, it’s clearly a problem: “However, I do believe that there has been an increase across the nation in the number of educators leaving the profession. When I say educators, I mean teachers, principals, superintendents, even substitute teachers.”
And the pool of teachers looking to enter the profession has also dropped. Moneefa Thomas, who specializes in a training program for upcoming teachers called urbanteachers.org, said that this year their pool of teachers has decreased significantly.
“We were looking at numbers this year that were ⅓ of what we had seen in the pandemic in 2022,” she said. The average using the site had been around 200 per year– that year it was 40.
Lee said that the pandemic didn’t play much of a role in her departure– it was primarily because she wasn’t making enough money to support herself and her son
She now works in banking and in the corporate world. She doubled her salary which she said was really rare: “I think it happened because I left a very underpaid profession to come to a profession that pays well if you’ve got the skills”.
Lee misses her students though, particularly the ones who took several of her classes. Leaving teaching was like moving to a new neighborhood, she said.
She worries that the low pay for teachers will make it even harder to attract younger people to the profession.
“I guess Generation Z, millennials and mostly current people who are coming into adulthood, they don’t want to struggle as much, and so they might do the smart things like picking something they are actually good at and placing their skills in a lucrative market,” she said.
At Annandale, recruitment for new teachers starts this month, Derose said. While recruiting is a big job, he said he’s not worried about finding the right people.
“I am confident that Annandale will be fully staffed at the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year,” he said.
Johnny Tran is a recent graduate of Annandale High School in Virginia.