Schools have face extraordinary challenges over the last two years, but perhaps the biggest is still to come in 2022: stopping the Great Teacher Resignation.
The pandemic has prompted many people to rethink their careers, highlighting dissatisfaction with pay and working conditions, with unprecedented numbers voluntarily leaving their jobs.
Teaching has so far largely been insulated from this phenomenon, dubbed the Great Resignation. Indeed, as a relatively well-paid and secure profession it has proved something of a safe haven during the turbulence caused by successive lockdowns.
But all that could change as we learn to live with Covid and options outside of teaching become more appealing.
And if the big challenge of 2021 was to get children back into the classroom, the challenge for 2022 is to keep teachers there.
While teachers have escaped the mass layoffs and furlough that have affected other areas of society, they have not escaped the impact of the pandemic.
The rapid forced switch to remote teaching; uncertainty about when in-person teaching would resume; anxiety about the personal risk when it did resume; switching back to remote teaching – all have put exceptional strain on teachers.
And while many teachers stayed put convinced that 2021 could not possibly be as difficult as 2020, the fact that for many it has been even harder has caused a lot of soul searching as to whether a long career in the classroom is sustainable.
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This has not gone unnoticed. In Detroit, schools switched to online learning every Friday, while a number of districts extended school holidays in recognition of the toll the pandemic has taken, even though this has not always gone down well with parents.
Even if many of these end up staying put, the scale of the dissatisfaction is deeply worrying.
So far, aside from the temporary measures adopted by some school districts, efforts to avert a staffing crisis have largely focused on trying to increase recruitment.
But while the early stages of the pandemic saw an increase in applications for teacher training, recruitment, in the U.K. at least, has subsequently fallen to pre-pandemic levels.
And at these levels, it is barely enough to replace those who retire or leave in a regular year, let alone a year like the one we are in now.
Instead, any sustainable approach to staffing must focus on retaining the teachers we have now.
And the principal route for doing this is not through extra pay but through improved working conditions.
Ironically, in this respect at least the pandemic may actually turn out to be useful.
As well as creating extraordinary stress, it has also created an unprecedented opportunity through the influx of technology into the classroom. Harnessing this to make a teacher’s job easier is one of a number of possible routes to easing workload and encouraging teachers to stay in the profession.
Teachers are not the only ones to have found their job has become harder over the last two years, but given the shortage of teachers even before the pandemic, anything that reduces numbers still further is a big concern.
And if the experience of lockdowns and school closures has taught us anything, it is the value of face-to-face teaching, and the importance of keeping experienced teachers in the classroom.