By Kelly Hagen, kelly.hagen@ndunited.org

For many of our members, the month of May marked the end of another school year. Whether it was their first year, fifth year, 25th year or 50th, it was the close of one chapter and the start of another.

For too many of our members, May 2022 was the final chapter of their career in education. Be it to retirement, planned or early, or to educators choosing to leave the profession they once chose, the statistics are alarming.

Some of that first data came earlier this year, in a poll we conducted at the start of 2022 of 1,149 complete interviews of North Dakota United members. The results were startling and put on display a growing level of dissatisfaction within the education profession.

Some of the key results of this poll, conducted by DFM Research, were:

  • 74 percent believe teacher retention for the 2022-23 school year is a major issue.
  • When hired, 90 percent of our members saw a future where they would retire as an educator; when asked now, that number declines by more than half, to 41 percent.
  • A troublesome 53 percent of educators polled said that they feel at least “some pressure” from politicians and parents to teach a certain way to be “less controversial.”
  • When asked if they feel appreciated, 40 percent said no, and just 5 percent said they did. This represents a steep decline of 55 percent from a poll in 2019.

One educator who had already written the final chapter in her teaching career last year at this time is Kari Nehls, of Bismarck. After 15 years as a teacher, Kari made the decision to leave the profession at the end of the 2020-21 school year.

She told her story on our Education Mindset podcast, which was also aired on “Main Street” programming on Prairie Public radio, that her decision to leave the profession almost came as a surprise to herself.

“Being an educator really meant, to me, that I was going to do everything within my power to help the kids I was serving,” Nehls said. “It meant giving 100% when I was at school and maximizing my time to meet kids’ needs – emotionally, socially, academically – (and) having high expectations for all of my students, but even higher expectations for myself. … A lot of the expectations that I placed on myself maybe helped attribute to my burnout. But early in my career as a classroom teacher, I remember a conversation, someone telling me, ‘Kari, you can’t be so passionate. … Because you’ll burn out.’”

Nehls recounted how she had grown up dreaming about becoming a teacher, playing “school” with dolls and her childhood friends. She went to college and got her degree and license to teach. Ten years into her career, though, warning signs began to flash.

“There were more excuses being made for things that were happening,” she said. “More politics was starting to filter in. … You know, there were those moments of joy that was like, okay, yeah, this is great. … I would say over the last six years is where I really just saw education going down a path that was very concerning to me.”

She emphasized that she didn’t leave teaching because of parents, the divisions created by the COVID-19 pandemic or, most certainly, the kids. “But those three things are what come up in conversations,” Nehls said. “A lot of people will say, ‘Oh, I can’t imagine dealing with kids these days.’ No, that was, actually, the best part. … But it was not kids or parents or COVID that caused me to leave. I left because I knew that I had done everything that I knew how to do to help create change needed to turn around the profession. And I was getting nowhere.”

Nehls likely felt in her heart, during the opening chapter of her career in teaching, that she would one day retire as an educator and close the book of her professional career. That’s not an uncommon sentiment in this line of work. While most other industries see workers drift in and out of jobs, often leaving the sector of employment in which they first started after college, educators demonstrate superhuman levels of dedication to their field.

Or they did.

“I think the one thing that jumped off the page at me was that a couple of years ago in a survey they answered, 90% of those respondents answered that they believed that when they went into the profession that they would retire from the profession,” NDU President Nick Archuleta said. “That number has dropped to 46%, and that is a problem.”

Archuleta also pointed out that the difference is even more stark in younger educators. “In the age group of 30 to 39, that number went from 91% to 26%,” he said. “When you consider that we are seeing fewer young people choosing education as a profession, and then we see people that are thinking about leaving the profession in large numbers, and particularly those teachers that are age 30 to 39, this is very concerning.”

Leaving any profession can be a tough decision to make. Educators especially struggle with the perception of leaving their jobs and don’t want to be seen as complainers. For that reason, it can be difficult to find an educator willing to put their name out there and potentially damage their professional reputation. One Fargo teacher discussed his decision to leave education after nearly 15 years in the job. He didn’t want to be identified, to protect his ability to find new employment, but felt it important to speak out on behalf of all the educators who can’t.

“I think … I just got to a place where I felt like my livelihood and my family was always on the line,” he said. “I was just one upset parent away from losing my job. Or, you know, in addition to the disrespect, that’s just not something people should have to deal with when they go to work every day.”

When he talked to his colleagues in education, they advised him to leave while he still could. “Talking to some veteran teachers, they said, we’re too close to the end. We can’t get out, and get out while you can. And it’s scary as a teacher, because that’s our degree. They want us to think that our skills aren’t transferable, and you feel stuck. … I was nervous to go, but it was a great move. And so, it’s sad to say that leaving education is a great move, but the way the world is turning, I’m obviously not the only one.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said that her department has heard a lot anecdotally about the way that teachers are feeling currently, and they are concerned about these stories. The results of our survey didn’t come as a surprise, she said, but its findings have helped spark an important conversation.

“To have that hard data of North Dakota teachers and North Dakota experiences is very valuable,” Baesler said. “And, as I expected, it has resulted in a lot of conversation … not about a theory or not about a worry, but actual information that is, I hope, leading us to a concentrated, intentional conversation about what is the existing problem, and what can we do to help and fix it?”

When asked what the Department of Public Instruction is doing to try to help alleviate the crisis of retention and recruitment of educators in our state, Baesler outlined a few important elements.

“Obviously, we need to compensate our teachers well,” she said. “Number two, we need to provide our educators with the support that they need in order to be successful. Professional development support, the opportunity of time to be together, to be innovative in their thinking, and to practice things with each other before they practice them in their classrooms. And then, I think the third bucket of a third pillar is to really honor and respect them as professionals and know that what they do is important.”

Like Baesler, 2021 North Dakota Teacher of the Year Kristi Reinke said that she wasn’t surprised by the sentiments expressed in our retention survey. “It broke my heart,” Reinke said. “I know, just from talking to many, many teachers, even locally, it didn’t surprise me.”

As part of her responsibilities as Teacher of the Year, Reinke had the opportunity to travel to various events and meet with fellow educators from across the country. During that time, she said that many of her colleagues were talking about these same problems in their home states. “A lot of the conversations went into teacher morale and all the extra things that are being added to teachers’ plates in a time where we’re already so worried about the safety of our co-workers and the safety of our students,” Reinke said. “It’s a problem everywhere. … These amazing teachers that I’m talking to are talking about leaving the classroom.”

As president of her local, the Minot Education Association, Reinke talks to a lot of her fellow educators about these issues. When asked about some possible solutions to this crisis, Reinke emphasized one very important, but often overlooked, element: time. “I think one big thing that would alleviate a lot of the issues is protection of planning time,” Reinke said. “I know everybody gets time during their day to do their grading and to plan. … But then it’s often being taken away to do this meeting or go here. And, right now, we’re using all of our planning time to sub because we cannot find any subs.”

Beyond planning time, Reinke said, time to take care of themselves would go a long way toward combating those feelings of frustration, “burnout” and being underappreciated. “Take some stuff off our plate,” she said, “and give us time to breathe. Give us time to take care of ourselves, without just throwing around the ‘self-care’ word. Let us actually self-care.”