'Am I going to die for this job?': Teachers are burned out and changing careers

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch
Teacher, Christy Rehm at her home near Dover on July 15, 2022.

Following years of pandemic-induced challenges, teachers are exhausted.

To make matters worse, the pace of retirements is picking up at the same time recruitment is dropping off, leading the state Department of Education to declare an "educator workforce crisis."

What's behind the trend?

Most educators from the York County area interviewed recently said that while they love their jobs, lately that isn't enough. They said they feel burned out from fighting the system, parents and their own bodies.

“By the end of every school year, I am so tired, I am so burned out that I often ... it takes me a month or better in the summer to even feel any relief at all,” said Christy Rehm, a Dover Township resident who teaches in the Conewago Valley School District in Adams County.

The 49-year-old added that she didn’t recover last summer and returned for the 2021-22 school year feeling exhausted. She went on a sabbatical in January following a medical procedure in November. Rehm, who has taught for almost 25 years, wasn't healing from her surgery, and her autoimmune diseases flared up from the stress.

Rehm is hoping to continue teaching until she can retire in about five years, but more of her colleagues are turning in their chalk. 

In 2019, 9,005 teachers retired, according to the state Education Department. In 2020, another 9,404 left the profession, and last year, teacher retirements hit 10,092. To date this year, 2,587 teachers across the state have retired.

The problem is there simply aren't enough new teachers to replace the retiring ones. Ten years ago, approximately 20,000 new teachers entered the workforce each year, Education Department records show. Last year, there were only 6,000 new teachers. 

Addressing the issue: The state Department of Education last month released a report — The Foundation of Our Economy: Pennsylvania Educator Workforce Strategy, 2022-2025 — on how to deal with the crisis. 

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It includes interviews with educators to try to get a clearer picture of why they are leaving the field and why so few others want to enter it

The report notes the loss of teachers may be more “dire” because other employers are attracting them with wage increases and other perks. The report said about 30% of educators indicated they are considering leaving the education profession for another. 

Rehm said her burnout makes it hard to get out of bed. She can never shut her brain off, is constantly anxious, never stops worrying about students and takes her work home with her. 

She’s not alone. Rehm said she knows an "insane” number of teachers who have to see doctors for mental health and physical health issues — and that number is increasing.  

“We are just trying to cope,” she said. “We are trying to get by and ... do our very best, and it always feels like our best is not good enough.”  

Conewago Valley School District Superintendent Sharon Perry said teaching is hard work and teachers get emotionally invested in their students. Plus, she said, they are coming off two years of pandemic uncertainty, which caused additional stress. 

"We're all tired," Perry said, adding that everyone is now trying to manage a new way of living thanks to the pandemic.

A former Northeastern teacher who asked to remain anonymous was hired right after college and taught for six years. She found that this past school year was the worst of her career due to multiple school board meetings that "got out of hand" and the changing COVID safety policies. 

She recalled that at one point last year, there were more than 60 positive COVID cases in her school, but administrators could not shut the school because officials feared pushback. She and Rehm noted teachers had to use their planning periods to cover for sick colleagues.

The former Northeastern teacher — who would only share her experiences anonymously because some of the issues, like masking, had become political and she feared retaliation — said there was a lack of custodial or support staff to disinfect the classrooms daily, so teachers had to pick up the slack. Teachers weren’t paid extra for the extra work. 

Also, student behavior last year was the worst she had seen, she said, with more than 20 expulsions for drugs when there are normally around five, and students behaving in unsafe ways, damaging or stealing property or disregarding adults. 

A national problem: Northeastern Superintendent Stacey Sidle said the former teacher's experience is felt in schools throughout the country. 

"Staffing limitations and health and safety restrictions caused us to make many difficult decisions that were necessary in order to continue to educate our students in a consistent and safe environment," she said. 

Sidle said she remains amazed by teachers' and staff members' dedication and energy. 

"If any Northeastern employee experiences burnout for any reason, significant resources are available to help by contacting any member of the administration," she said, adding that the administration and school board thank the teachers for their hard work and commitment. 

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Pam Ludd, a 54-year-old former Northern York County School District special education teacher, felt burned out and quit in January after 30 years. She planned to make it another decade but lost her passion in the fall. 

She felt constantly stressed out, like she was “never on top of anything,” until one morning she realized she didn‘t love teaching anymore. That was her sign to leave because she didn’t want to be that kind of teacher.

Stress from teaching impacted her mental and physical health, which was a problem because she is raising a school-age teenager. 

“It kind of came down to am I going to die for this job or ...” she said. 

Ludd also was frustrated with how teaching has changed, she said, such as how masking became politicized.

“It never should have hit the level of the classroom,” she said, adding that teachers are supposed to model for students what civil discourse looks like, but that wasn’t it. 

Some students argued against the masking rules because of what they learned at home, which wasted valuable educational hours. They also picked on those who were masked. 

Ludd said teachers had to deal with officials adding more to their plates, such as the students' mental health issues and trauma from COVID — and nothing was removed from their plates  

“I get it,” she said. “But I’m a teacher. I’m not a social worker. I’m not a nurse. I’m not this. I’m not that.” 

Northern York County School District Superintendent Steve Kirkpatrick said navigating a pandemic for the past two years has taken a toll on everyone. He spoke to staff in all of the school buildings during a faculty meeting last spring about what they have gone through and what the district's vision of the future is.

He noted some staff he has seen recently seem refreshed and optimistic about the new school year. The district will kick the new year off on Monday by having everyone gather to recognize staff and community contributions and to work on a path forward. 

“Things, over the years, have just gotten increasingly more demanding in the teaching profession,” Rehm said, adding it feels like a bureaucracy because of paperwork, computer work, managing files and all kinds of data. 

She is not against documentation and data, but the revolving door of politicians is a problem, as they tack on more and more for teachers to do, she said. She said teaching is no longer just about working with students — and it is overwhelming. 

Politicians make evaluations of the education system without understanding it, Rehm said. The politicians have forsaken a lot that is important for teachers to do a good job, she said, such as adequate’ pay. 

“Whether you’re underpaid, or whether you’re paid just right or whether you’re overpaid, which I don’t think there’s any teacher that’s overpaid, but regardless of what your pay is — there's always going to be people who say you’re paid too much to be a teacher,” Rehm said, adding that she is tired of hearing that teachers are lazy, don’t work all year and so on. 

A rotating cast of administrators also isn't helpful.

“It’s just a constant cycle of different ideas that aren’t necessarily new,” Rehm said.

The state's report noted some teachers "described the demoralizing effect that shifts in policies from one administration to the next have on the teaching force, the state."

Teachers must also continue their required education. 

“To maintain our certification, we have to be constantly taking classes,” Rehm said, explaining it is increasingly difficult to maintain those programs due to the stress.  

Rehm herself has a principal certification, a letter of eligibility to be a superintendent and a doctorate.

Because she took a yearlong sabbatical, she has to return in January to serve out at least that year.  

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“I’m hoping to stay until I retire,” she said, noting that the state has added more retirement qualifications in the past few years.  

Rehm needs another five to seven years to meet the state’s requirements. To get full benefits with the new requirements, she explained, the age of the teacher and the number of years taught essentially have to equal 90.  

She isn’t sure if she will last five to seven years because of the stress.

Still, Rehm said, “I don’t feel like I’m done.” 

— Reach Meredith Willse at mwillse@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.

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