It wasn’t just one thing that drove former San Antonio Independent School District teacher Galen McQuillen away from public education after 15 years.

Like many teachers, he felt overwhelmed and overworked. He didn’t feel safe when he had to return to teaching in person during the pandemic, and he didn’t make enough money or have adequate health insurance to cover his wife’s medical bills when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Barring massive systemic change, it was time for me to get out,” he said.

McQuillen certainly isn’t alone. A recent survey by the Texas American Federation of Teachers of more than 3,800 school employees found that 66% considered leaving their jobs in the past year and just 12% of respondents felt safe at work during the January omicron surge.

But the struggle to attract and retain teachers started before the coronavirus pandemic closed classrooms in March 2020. About 8% of public school teachers in recent years left the profession annually, through retirement or attrition, according to a 2021 national survey of teachers by the RAND Corporation.

That issue is compounded by a shrinking pipeline of teachers. Between 2006 and 2019, the number of education degrees awarded by U.S. colleges and universities fell by 22%, despite a rise in overall graduates, The New York Times reported.

The tipping point

“We’ve seen a decline in the number of people considering teaching as a profession,” said Angela Breidenstein, coordinator of the master of arts in teaching program at Trinity University.

While enrollment numbers may increase after the pandemic, Breidenstein said getting teachers to stay has always been a concern for schools. The pandemic led some students to reconsider enrolling in a teacher preparation program because they worried their internships in virtual or hybrid learning environments would not adequately prepare them to teach on their own. They’re also worried about their health and safety, she said.

That was the tipping point for McQuillen. His wife underwent a double mastectomy in 2020, and her doctors said COVID-19 would be a death sentence for her. An art teacher, McQuillen petitioned SAISD to continue working from home, but he had to return to the classroom that November.

“The longer I was there, the more it felt like the safety protocols that we had in place were inadequate,” he said. “I spent most of my day walking around with this giant pole I had made with pool noodles on the end of it that was 6-feet long, trying to push kids away from each other.”

McQuillen considered staying with the district as an instructional specialist, a job that typically does not require classroom work. But as more teachers have resigned or retired, school districts have tapped every available employee to substitute. Instead, he took a job with Capital One in project management, which allows him to work from home.

“I definitely have days right now in my new job where I just feel like laughing and this overwhelming sense of joy and relief,” McQuillen said. “And then I immediately feel extremely sad because, in order to get to where I feel safe in my life and safe in my future, I had to abandon the thing that I still feel the most passionate about.”

About half the public school teachers who quit after March 2020, but before their planned retirements, left because of COVID-19, according to the RAND Corporation report.

Students and their parents pass by a sign asking them to mask up during a back to school event at Advanced Learning Academy in August.
Students and their parents pass by a sign asking them to mask up during a back-to-school event at Advanced Learning Academy in August. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

The pandemic exacerbated the already high levels of stress many teachers had before having to vacillate between virtual and in-person instruction. Teachers reported stress as the most common reason for quitting, almost twice as common as low pay, according to the survey.

“This pandemic has made us reexamine everything at all levels of education,” Breidenstein said. “People are saying we need to go back to normal, and we’re saying normal is not good enough, and it probably wasn’t good enough before to produce equitable outcomes for each and every kid.”

Even before the pandemic, teachers often didn’t have time to develop individualized lesson plans for students and provide them with one-on-one feedback, she said. Teachers have too many students and too little lesson-planning time to manage individual learning experiences.

“That’s the kind of thing that I think keeps teachers up at night is ‘am I doing a good enough job?’” she said.

Caught in a culture war

Not only do teachers have staggering workloads and packed schedules, they also now contend with pandemic politics and a culture war over what’s taught in schools, Breidenstein said. She pointed to the ongoing legal battle between Gov. Greg Abbott and several school districts over whether the governor has the authority to stop districts from implementing mask mandates.

“It was dizzying what was happening week after week, between the governor and the superintendents and school districts,” she said.

Breidenstein said fewer students likely enrolled in Trinity’s graduate program because they were watching these political battles play out and “waiting to see what’s the right time to come dip my toe back in the water, if at all.”

A new state law restricting how race and racism are discussed in classrooms and battles over what books are available to students have further complicated educators’ jobs. McQuillen said the “eroding public faith in public education” and the “gutting” of the system by lawmakers also influenced his decision to quit teaching. He worries how these policies will impact the education of his two kids.

“There’s a culture war going on in public schools right now, but there’s also this change in the theory of what public education is supposed to be,” he said. “We’ve lost sight of how pure and important it is.”

This politicization of public education led at least one North Texas superintendent to resign and coincided with the departure of eight others, the Texas Tribune reported.

But Breidenstein said these questions over what is taught in public schools are not new to educators. They carefully watch these conversations and consider what they mean for students.

“We have to continually examine why people have different ideas about what should be taught,” she said. “What are the expectations that families might have for the experiences that students have? What are larger societal expectations?”

Prepared and undaunted

COVID-19 hasn’t driven everyone away from education. For student teacher Lilian De La Rosa, the pandemic opened her eyes to the realities of teaching, but it never made her reconsider her career choice as a high school English teacher.

“It definitely brought up concerns,” she said. “Is this worth giving up my safety for? I’m here, so it is.”

Student teacher Lilian De La Rosa interacts with students at the International School of the Americas on Friday.
Lilian De La Rosa, who earns her master’s degree from Trinity’s graduate teacher program in May, is currently serving as a student teacher at the International School of the Americas. She will be placed at another school next month. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

De La Rosa will earn her master’s degree from Trinity’s graduate teacher program in May after spending a year observing and sharing teaching responsibilities with San Antonio teachers. She said the program, along with a virtual teaching fellowship she did over the summer, helped prepare her for leading her own classroom.

“We’re seeing some of the challenges that teachers face, times ten,” she said. “I told myself, ‘if I can handle things during the pandemic, then I think that really sets me up for success in the future.’”

Michael Fain, another Trinity graduate student, said he has gotten more comfortable teaching during the pandemic since he became fully vaccinated against COVID-19. He also wears an N95 mask to protect himself, but he understands why some teachers left, especially before vaccines were available.

“It could have been a death sentence for a lot of people,” he said.

Both Fain and De La Rosa said they were concerned about finding a work-life balance after they graduate, but they couldn’t see themselves doing anything else. Plus, they have their peers and mentors in the program to lean on for support in their classrooms.

“For me, it’s relationship building. I do not see myself sitting in an office and not interacting with anybody,” De La Rosa said. “I really thrive off of talking to people, and teenagers are so interesting. They’re so fun. That’s how I decided what age I wanted to teach.”

Fain, who plans to teach music, also said the relationships he’s built with students and “seeing the light bulbs go off” when they learn a new musical concept keep him engaged in teaching.

“It makes me feel amazing when I can have that aha moment and see that happen in someone’s mind,” he said. “And even during the pandemic, that hasn’t changed. Students still have those moments.”

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.