Susie Compton loved her third-grade students at Truman Elementary School so much, she stuck it out another year, rather than retire mid-pandemic. After being able to teach her students face-to-face again this year, she was ready to focus on her family and make the decision to leave the profession after three decades in it.
This story was published in collaboration with KY3 News. See the related story from anchor and multimedia journalist Frances Watson.
Melissa Albright was among the first wave of Springfield Public School teachers motivated by the pandemic to leave. Health was not the main concern. Efficacy was. Thirty-one years into her career, she thought she had one year left. But as it became clear much of that final year would be taught virtually, the self-described “non-techie” chose to avoid the challenge of teaching kids reading and writing and history over the computer part of the time. It was a decision she wrestled with deep into the summer of 2020 before deciding to break her contract and retire.
By the time the email arrived encouraging teachers to give early notice of their intentions for the 2021-22 school year, Stephanie Reid was waiting for it. She sent her resignation letter on the first day the $1,000 bonus was available. Now a real estate agent and property manager, Reid gives the same maximum effort to her new career, she said, “But I love it and I am so thankful every single day that I am not a teacher, and it’s really sad to say that.”
Caron Parnell is on the fence. A French teacher at Glendale High School, Parnell has been frustrated by the district’s response to the COVID pandemic, and even more frustrated with undisciplined students who spend class time on their cell phones — often, she said, responding to texts from their parents.
“I ended last year thinking that nothing could be worse than the year we had just completed,” Parnell said. “Like I thought, if I could survive this year, you know, surely it’ll get better; I can do this again. And I seriously considered putting in last year (to resign). And it definitely did not get any better. It’s much, much worse than it was last year.”
If she quits, Parnell will join a growing number of Springfield Public School teachers — and teachers across the country — who are making the decision.
This year alone, 131 Springfield teachers decided to leave or retire in time to receive a financial bonus the district put in place in order to get an early start on recruiting their replacements, according to personnel reports to the school board examined by the Springfield Daily Citizen.
The review of four years of reports finds this year’s total is nearly double the 70 teachers who claimed the bonus in advance of the 2021-22 school year. It also is greater than the previous high of 106 who filed early as the 2020-21 school year approached, receiving bonuses of $1,000, $750 or $500 depending on how early they informed the district of their decision. The bonus was first offered to teachers as planning for the 2019-20 school year approached, when 77 teachers gave early notice.
John Mulford, SPS deputy superintendent, said his hunch is that there is a correlation between the 131 giving early notice this year, and the relatively low number last year.
“When we talked to people that we expected to retire, many of them shared with us that they didn’t want last year to be their last year that they were teaching,” he said. “So they were hoping to return for a more normal year this year and retire this year.”
He added: “So what will be interesting is next year and the years moving forward, as we do get back to some normalcy, to see if we level back out and around that 100 to 110 mark and see if that becomes consistent.”
None of the bonus-related departures account for the full number of teachers who eventually decided to leave the district.
Along with rewarding educators who give early notice, the district is now looking to add teeth to a board policy that would financially penalize teachers and other staff who breach their contracts. On April 12, Mulford explained why specific penalties for staff leaving — up to $3,000 — were a new necessity.
“Springfield has not had to deal with this a whole lot,” he said. “And if we did have it, we had a large enough applicant pool to backfill. However, over the last year, that has changed.”
Missouri has a teacher shortage and Springfield Public Schools, along with districts across the state and country, are entering a new reality where open positions are not easily filled. The state has averaged 11 percent attrition over the past six years — three percentage points above the national average — according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In Springfield, the 131 teachers who have given notice early enough this year to receive a bonus for doing so account for nearly 9 percent of the SPS teaching positions alone, and that is not a full accounting of teachers who are retiring or leaving for jobs in other districts or other fields altogether.
Burnout, exhaustion among reasons teachers resign
The reasons that lead each teacher to leave are inherently personal, but some common themes and terms emerged in conversations with those who have left or are still weighing the option, and in conversations with union representatives, PTA volunteers, the superintendent and others who work with teachers across the district.
Many spoke of burnout, of exhaustion, of hitting a breaking point. State and national surveys of teachers show these are issues not specific to Springfield. The head of the National Education Association said in the recent edition of the union’s magazine that elected leaders must immediately address this “five-alarm crisis.”
According to a 2021 Missouri State Teachers Association survey of 2,834 educators throughout the state, 51 percent of them have thought often or very often about quitting the profession. While nearly three-quarters of the respondents said their work remained quite or extremely meaningful, nearly half of the respondents said they felt overwhelmed. A vast majority said they frequently or almost always felt stressed, citing poor behaviors and motivation of students, substitute and staffing shortages and a lack of community support among their stress points.
It is a reality that SPS administrators have addressed this school year with listening sessions, counseling opportunities and a paid mental health day for not only teachers, but all staff members. The district is also using federal pandemic relief funding to add two full-time certified support staff members at each of the district’s high school and middle school buildings, and one such staffer at each of the elementary schools. Nineteen federal grant-funded positions were posted on April 14 among the 252 job listings on the SPS website.
The added likelihood that teachers will leave also led the district to recommend that the school board add specific financial penalties for teachers, certified staff, professional staff and administrators who break their contracts. At the same time, the district is trying to keep pace with the rising cost of living. Last year, SPS teachers received a 3 percent pay raise, and Mulford said the district must continue to offer competitive wages at a time when teachers’ skillsets are highly attractive in other short-staffed industries.
“We’re definitely going to do everything we can to increase wages, as much as we feel is responsible, based on our revenues,” Mulford said. “So that’s No. 1. But then beyond that, it really is about trying to address other issues that might cause teachers to explore leaving the profession.”
Stephanie Reid measured the space beneath a set of kitchen cabinets to make sure she cut a piece of floorboard trim the correct length before drilling it into place. Then she applied a new coat of white paint to a bathroom shelf. An electrician’s power tools blared from another bedroom as she cataloged the work remaining on the afternoon’s to-do list. When she isn’t showing homes or closing sales as a realtor in…
Administrator’s emotional plea: “Our community better embrace these people”
Across the district, there are countless examples of teachers who have fostered positive learning environments with their students. But Mulford said that day-to-day frustrations can get in the way of the rewarding work that called teachers to the profession, and he said he believed the best way to retain people is to address those.
During an April 12 school board meeting, Mulford provided the board and public with some insight on those frustrations. It was unprompted, at the close of a presentation about the proposed three-tier busing schedule for next school year. Mulford was thanking staff members who have filled in to drive bus routes during the pandemic, and then he broadened his scope of thankfulness.
“I thought it was an opportunity to talk about that general philosophical approach that we’re in a tough labor market right now, and if people are going to enter the field of education, and stay in it, they have to feel like they are making a difference and that they are supported,” Mulford said this week.
That night he cautioned the board’s two new members, Kelly Byrne and Steve Makoski, that he was at times prone to cry when sharing how the SPS team has responded during the pandemic, and as he described how teachers are covering cleaning duties on SPS campuses, his voice cracked. “They are taking (students from) other classrooms into their classroom when we have sub shortages,” he said. “I mean, everybody has stepped up. And that goes on to all of our support staff who have worked overtime to come in on the weekends.
“The private sector is poaching educators, and they’re saying, ‘Hey, you can come here and double your salary.’ And quite frankly, with some of the headaches that educators have dealt with and the attacks on public education, you know what? Sometimes that becomes appealing. And so, we have to recognize that.
“And if we want people to choose the field of education, and stay in it, then they have to feel valued and supported. And we will certainly be doing what we can as district leaders to make sure that happens. But I want to tell you, our community better embrace these people. Because if you want a good teacher for your kids, they better know that they’re appreciated. And so I think we’re at a critical point right now in our education system in Missouri.”
When he finished speaking, many attending the meeting applauded.
In a later interview with the Daily Citizen, Mulford said mid-career shifts happen in every profession, but several dynamics are changing the number of people who might be considering leaving teaching.
“I do think the labor market, the way it is, has definitely caused more people to explore other career opportunities, especially in light of what I would call the attack on public education,” Mulford said. “More and more demands are being placed on educators without increased funding to not only support the demands, but support competitive salaries in the workplace. And so when you put all that together, and then you add in the whole COVID stuff we’ve experienced the past two years, certainly anybody at any level in education has found it to be frustrating at times.
“But our hope is we can do everything we can as a school district to support them, and show them that they are making a difference and keep them in the profession.”
Stresses of pandemic add to teacher shortage
Michelle Morgan, a Missouri State University history professor and teacher educator who studies the American education system, said that the teacher shortage is not a new concern.
“It’s been very much in the news, particularly since the Great Recession,” she said, adding she is speaking from her own experiences as a parent, researcher and teacher-educator, and not on behalf of MSU. “This periodically emerges, and it’s been particularly acute over the last 10 to 12 years, but it was a little bit more limited of an issue. It was math. It was science. It was special education. It was high-poverty schools, and particularly isolated rural schools. And there were a whole host of reasons for that. And those reasons haven’t gone away. We see not just the issues of pay, which are critical, but also the weight that teachers carry related to standardized testing, to the general lack of both institutional and societal support that many teachers feel as they’re being expected to solve all of society’s problems with limited resources.”
But the additional responsibilities and stresses brought on during the pandemic have pushed many educators closer to leaving. Nationally, 55 percent of 3,621 NEA educators surveyed in January said the pandemic had made them more likely to retire or leave their career in education.
Laura Mullins, president of the Springfield NEA, said she has heard a similar refrain from teachers she has talked to who had been on the fence about retirement or quitting and made the decision to leave. The departing teachers who bring up the pandemic don’t always focus on the public health crisis, she said, but rather the delays in student learning and development that have compounded since its sudden onset in the spring of 2020.
“Normally you go in, and kids are kids, and you can count on the kids knowing this amount of information,” said Mullins, a sixth-grade math teacher at Pershing K-8 School. “Then, the struggle is moving them academically. So this year, it hasn’t just been an academic struggle. It’s been a mental health struggle, and I think teachers are just the kind of people that take the mental health of their students and their families home with them.
“I think we were ready for the academic struggle that we knew would happen. But I just think, when you’ve got a child that isn’t self-regulated, they can’t learn. You can’t expect them to learn when they are struggling to regulate themselves. And so that has grown, the number of students in a classroom that have those struggles has grown substantially. And it wears on you mentally and sometimes physically.”
Mental health of staff is a growing concern
What Mullins has heard from union members and other teachers echoes what SPS Superintendent Grenita Lathan has heard across the district. When she was hired in the summer of 2021, Lathan spent the first part of the school year visiting every public school campus and holding candid conversations — Gather with Grenita, they were called — with teachers, administrators, counselors, custodians, everyone.
“I kept hearing about staff mental health, and just how drained people were,” Lathan said.
On Oct. 22, she gave everyone employed by the district a paid mental health day after listening to their collective concerns.
In January, Morgan, the parent and MSU history professor, emailed the school board and urged its members to support the temporary mask mandate for students. A mother of four, two of whom are current SPS students, Morgan wrote that masking was a path to keeping students in school, which is where they need to be — for their sake, and for the sake of parents who suddenly had to adapt to having their kids at home for two weeks of school last winter. She wrote that, in her personal opinion as a teacher-educator, the current teacher shortage “will only become more acute” if the demands being placed upon teachers continue in an environment where health and safety aren’t prioritized.
“I am exhausted, and my childrens’ teachers (who must be beyond exhausted) are doing an amazing job under ridiculous conditions,” she wrote.
Morgan said she can’t speak to the feelings of teachers across a district that employs nearly 1,500 of them. But in listening to young educators, Morgan said she has frequently heard the anticipated challenges of the career have been compounded by responsibilities that have accumulated during the pandemic.
“I think what I’m seeing now is a weariness, a sort of feeling like there are just so many challenges,” she said. “And every time the schools shut down, or students are absent, that puts significant added pressures on teachers. From my perspective as a teacher, when my students are absent, it just creates more work. And when our in-service teachers are so stretched thin already, the additional work of trying to make sure that students are caught up and have access to what they need, and all those kinds of things, I think, is very stressful.”
Mullins said recent changes to SPS discipline codes have allowed students to repeatedly misbehave without facing consequences, and those incidents have increased in the first full year back.
“What we immediately found out this year was that the discipline code was not able to handle the behaviors of these kids,” she said.
In March, Mullins spoke during the public comment session of a school board meeting about some differences of opinion she and the SNEA had with SPS about some recent changes. She said a plan to sub in a math or reading course in place of an elective for secondary students who are struggling in those subjects “is essentially like asking a math teacher to teach a student how to play an instrument” because the elective teachers are being told they will likely teach some of the remedial courses. And she argued a recent administrative reorganization was a top-heavy approach at a time when teachers are in need of smaller class sizes to help improve academic performance and student discipline.
“As evidenced by recent personnel separations in BOE agendas, we have a record number of teachers leaving the profession, creating over 100 positions currently posted,” she said. “This, coupled with the limited workforce our community is currently experiencing … I believe the focus should be filling the positions with the highest impact on students first. The academic success of students cannot be put on the backs of the remaining veteran teachers to lift the load.”
But she couched her comments by saying that Lathan’s leadership early in her tenure has shown that “there are many great things that are on the horizon for SPS.” In an interview with the Daily Citizen, Mullins said she has appreciated that Lathan’s administration is evaluating all kinds of district policies, and has been responsive to teachers’ issues with the disciplinary codes for SPS students.
“She believes in discipline,” Mullins said. “So things are turning in that direction, but through that turn, there’s been a lot of inconsistencies with how discipline is handled in the buildings. And so that is something that she’s working on. But meanwhile, the day-to-day is exhausting for teachers. I just talked to one that was spit on in the face, told to **** off. And that’s elementary. So, you know, at some point, I think they just say, ‘I just can’t do this anymore.’”
Mullins said that she views it as the district’s job to recruit and hire teachers, and her job as a union representative to keep them happy. Sometimes, she said, she feels like she’s not holding up her end of the bargain.
“The ones that could retire, we lean on them,” Mullins said. “The ones that I am broken about are the ones that aren’t — they’re just leaving. They don’t care about their retirement. They are vested in our retirement system, and they are leaving anyway. It is that miserable. They are done. And those are the ones that I feel like, if you can’t help them get to the end of a successful career, that’s where I feel bad.”
Retiring was not an easy decision
In Susie Compton’s case, the pandemic inspired her to stay one more year than she had to.
“I could have retired last year, but I didn’t want to go out that way,” said Compton, a third-grade teacher at Truman Elementary School. “I didn’t want to go out with masks. I wanted to see my kids’ faces. I wanted my last memories of my classroom to be seeing those beautiful faces.”
Compton, who is the Springfield CTA president for the Missouri State Teachers Association, said she is retiring this year to spend more time with family. She is a caretaker for her mother and has a third grandchild on the way. Still, she wasn’t sure this would be her last school year when it began.
“Why was I on the fence?” Compton said. “Because I love my kids. I love my kids, I love my job.”
And, she added, skilled teachers are needed more than ever. Compton said her students’ parents, like her and other teachers and everyone else, entered survival mode during the pandemic. They shouldered new, challenging responsibilities when their children suddenly had to learn remotely in the spring of 2020. She doesn’t blame them for students who did not attend Zoom meetings or turn in work, but she said it is apparent some of her students this year missed numerous learning opportunities in the years before they arrived in her class.
“At third grade, for instance, at the beginning of the year, we do i-Ready,” she said. “That’s a district-level benchmarking. I had kids testing at kindergarten level, but they’re in third grade. Middle of the year, I’m down to two that are at kindergarten level. The community would say I’m doing a bad job because I have kids at kindergarten level, but they came to me that way. But what about those kids that I’ve moved from kindergarten up to first grade or second grade? That’s a whole year’s progress in three quarters.”
Technology obstacles led to retirement
When the early notification incentive windows opened in late 2019, Melissa Albright passed on $1,000, then $750 and then $500 before the final window closed. Even though her teaching partner took the $1,000 and filed her paperwork that year, Albright decided to sign a contract for the upcoming school year and keep going as a fifth-grade teacher at Wilson’s Creek, in part because her youngest son was graduating that May and going off to college.
“I told my husband that I had my years in, obviously, and I could have retired, but I did not want to have that empty nest and be retired at the same time,” Albright said. “Because I’ve always been busy.”
But the pandemic added a complicated new set of variables. After classes suddenly went remote in the spring of 2020, Albright found it challenging to educate students the way she was used to, face to face.
“I still had a love for what I did,” she said. “I taught reading and writing and history, and I have a love for the children and a love for what I was doing. And of course, COVID hit, and we went online. Being a non-techie teacher, it was an abrupt shift.”
Albright had a student teacher who helped bridge the technology gap.
“She just made a huge difference with the quality of technology that she was able to integrate — videos and lessons and podcasts, quizzes and all kinds of different things,” Albright said.
Still, Albright found virtual teaching to be challenging, and as she learned more about the hybrid in-person/virtual model SPS planned to deploy to start the 2020-2021 school year, she wondered how effective she could be and how much she would enjoy teaching in such a setting.
“I was having a conversation one night with my husband, and I said, ‘I just, I just don’t see how this is going to work — having kids two days a week, and then another set of kids two days a week and then one day online,’” she said. “I said, ‘I just don’t know that it’s doable without going crazy.’ And he said, ‘Well, you can retire. Why would you put yourself through something like that if you don’t have to?’ And I said, ‘Because I’m not ready.’”
Her husband suggested she at least find out more from her union rep about the process of getting out of her contract, and about how much she would earn in retirement. She did, and learned that her retirement take-home pay would be similar to her check if she continued working. Because she was a “high dollar teacher” with a doctorate and over three decades of experience, she reasoned SPS could potentially hire two people with the dollars allotted for her salary. She mulled over the decision for a day, and then wrote her resignation letter and called her principal, whom Albright said pleaded with her to stay. The district told her she’d be released from her contract if a replacement could be found. Albright knew there were already qualified candidates who had applied for another opening at the school. The day after she called her principal, a replacement was found and the pleading ended. All of a sudden, Albright was retired.
“And I’m a planner and I didn’t have a plan.”
In August, Albright was approached about part-time work with her union that would eventually lead to her current full-time position as a Missouri NEA UniServe regional director based at the Springfield office. She now works with teachers across Southwest Missouri who are weighing the same decisions she did. The job didn’t start until after the school year began, and that first day back was a day she needed a plan for. So she gassed up the family Jet Ski.
“That first day of school came, and I knew all my friends were back to work,” she said. “So I went down to the lake and got on the Jet Ski and just went for a really long ride, just to kind of keep my mind off the fact that I wasn’t back in the classroom. I wasn’t there with my friends. You know, it was just a really good time to just soul search — think about next moves, relax, and not focus on the fact that everybody was doing the thing that I love to do and I wasn’t part of it.”
Teacher ‘not looking to just jump ship,’ but situation is bleak
Parnell, the Glendale teacher who is still weighing whether or not to return, still has a ways to go before she qualifies for retirement. As a language arts educator, she teaches a small collection of students year after year, and their passion and desire to learn another language in her class is one factor that makes her want to return next year. So is Glendale’s administration, which she said is the best she’s worked for in her 15-year career.
“I’m not looking to just jump ship, because I want to keep working with these people who I have hopes that maybe they’ll be able to help improve the situation,” she said.
But the situation, she said, is bleak. While she’s been supported by the parents who have reached out to her, she said those conversations rarely take place. Instead, she said, many of them send texts during the school day to their kids, her freshman-year students who have been tethered to their cell phones in ways they had not been before they spent time learning virtually.
Parnell shared this with members of her neighborhood association last month, at a meet-and-greet event with three of the five candidates for the SPS school board — Brandi VanAntwerp, Charles Taylor and Kelly Byrne. She said when it was Byrne’s turn to speak, he asked her to tell people about her experience teaching this year.
“Everybody was kind of like, ‘Wow.’ Open-mouthed,” she said. “They couldn’t believe what I was telling them about what’s going on in the schools.”
At his first school board study session on April 12, Byrne was among the board members who asked Mulford questions about encouraging similar candor from departing teachers during their exit interviews. It’s a process that HR is trying to improve to help conditions for other educators before they decide to leave, Mulford told the board.
In an interview, Mulford said administrative policies won’t be the decisive factor for teachers deciding whether to leave or stay. “We have parents who are certainly very supportive of their school and their teacher, and are great partners, and then we have those that could grow in that area. And so what we’ve got to make sure that our community understands is that we can still be supportive and still have critical conversations about our kid and what they’re learning and what our expectations are as a community and as a parent, but still be supportive of that teacher, especially when it comes to discipline and things like that. So that’s an area that I’m not sure I have a great answer to. And it’s not unique to Springfield, by any means. I think across the country is that the more teachers feel supported by the community and the parents, the more likely they are to stay in the profession.”
Lathan is leading steps to build those connections as well, Mulford said, pointing to the SPS University events that are being held at schools to share resources with SPS families to help their children and bring parents, teachers and administrators face to face.
“It’s about connecting the schools to the community, letting the community know, letting parents know what we have to offer to support them but then also give them an opportunity to interact with teachers and district staff,” he said.
On April 26, Byrne and Makoski will attend their first regular board meeting, and they will receive an information packet that provides a rundown of recent personnel moves, including separations. Taylor, who had held a board seat for two terms before losing his re-election bid, said that when he looked at that list, he didn’t second-guess why teachers at the top of the retirement system would put in notice.
“But if it’s somebody who has maybe 10 years of experience, so an experienced teacher, but probably not enough to be at the top of the retirement, I worry about those,” he said. “Why is that no longer an attractive profession? I’m sure individually, they all have their own independent reasons. But in the aggregate, there probably are some patterns there that should keep board members up at night.”
How to get involved
Teachers and administrators alike have called for more community support for teachers at a time where they’re feeling like their actions and instructions are under the microscope. Along with that, you can either volunteer or apply to fill staffing gaps that teachers are stepping up to fill across SPS, such as substituting for vacant crossing guard positions.
You can also speak up. Springfield Public Schools board meetings are public events, and up to 10 people are given time to speak if they sign up in advance. The seven-member board also receives public comments by email, phone and mail. Correspondence can be sent to email@example.com, 1359 E. St. Louis St., Springfield, MO 65802 or call 417-523-0026.