By Rebecca Griesbach

Instructional coach Melissa Cook, left, jokes with fifth grade teachers Dontavious Barkley and Gayle Holladay during training to teach math at West Forest Intermediate School in Opelika, Ala., Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. (Julie Bennett |

Alabama has struggled with educator staffing for years, but data shows shortages have worsened in specific areas and at different stages of the pipeline. According to the ACHE report, at least 1700 teachers aren’t certified in their particular subject areas, shortages are worse in secondary fields and in rural areas, and the number of college students seeking education degrees is also on the decline — by 25%since 2013.

That means it’s more important for multiple voices to be a part of the solution, Purcell said.

“[The survey is] some- thing that allows us to know that we’ve got to address this, that it isn’t just a district issue,” Purcell said. “For a long time, it was sort of felt that since districts did the hiring, it was more of a district issue. But as you can tell, the production everywhere makes it a stressor throughout the state.”

Who’s leaving, and where are they going?

ACHE sent out the survey, which was developed with state education officials and college deans, to districts at the end of the last school year. About 18,000 of the state’s 93,000 school employees — mostly from larger districts and dispersed evenly among upper and lower grades

ACHE sent out the survey, which was developed with state education officials and college deans, to districts at the end of the last school year. About 18,000 of the state’s 93,000 school employees — mostly from larger districts and dispersed evenly among upper and lower grades — responded to at least some of the questions, with just over half of districts represented.

A third of respondents were over 50 years old and had more than 20 years of experience as educators. Just over three-quarters of the respondents were teachers, and about half of respondents reported having a master’s degree. About 80% of respondents were white and female.

Of respondents who answered questions related to their plans to stay in the profession, more than half — about 8,600 — said they were thinking about or planning to leave the profession in the next five years.

Respondents were more likely to say they planned to leave if they:

Worked in urban districts

Had longer commutes from home to school

Were eligible for retirement

Did not go to college in Alabama

According to 2020-2021 data from the Teachers Retirement System, Alabama schools saw teachers retiring at the highest level in nearly a decade, though it’s tough to say how big of a dent that’s making in the workforce. But Purcell’s recent survey results, he said, should “concern us all.” Just over a quarter of respondents — about 2,300 educators — who said they have some plans to leave noted that they intend to retire in the next five years.

“People have a tendency to retire as their friends retire, as it becomes a movement… and I think that’s especially the case because of the fact that they don’t feel appreciated, that there is some burn- out to that,” he said. “What is that toll? People have to decide, ‘Well, do I stay for another five years or is this plenty?’ So yeah, I think we should all be concerned.”

Of other educators planning to leave, about one in five said they plan to leave the profession entirely, and 13% said they’re trying to find a job at another Alabama school district. Teachers in large metro districts, who are closer to suburban and county districts, Purcell said, were more likely to transfer to other schools.

The 45% of respondents who said they planned to stay in their jobs for a while were typically Alabama natives and bachelor’s degree holders who work close to the college they attended, the report noted. (Experts say location is a key factor in retention and recruitment, but the state department of education does not currently track how many Alabama students end up teaching in-state).

Why are they leaving?

Respondents cited personal issues, salary, work environment, access to resources and other career opportunities as factors that might influence their decision to leave.

“Teachers are telling us that they really need better working environments, they need more support,” said Megan Boren of the Southern Regional Education Board, which recently released a report on teacher pay and benefits. “They need to be better prepared for the job and to just generally feel supported by the public and lawmakers — and then they tell us, after all that, I’d love to be able to have a raise and be able to pay my bills and not have to have a second job.”

On the state level, officials said they are hearing complaints of teachers feeling overwhelmed and exhausted at higher rates. Melissa Shields, who’s in charge of school improvement at the state department, said teachers need more support from their communities.

“A teacher told me yesterday, ‘We’re more fragile than my Grandma’s china,’” she said. “A lot of teachers right now have this sense of urgency but they don’t have the stamina.”

The nearly 1,000 respondents who said they intended to leave this year were asked if COVID had a factor in their decision. About two in five of them said yes, with more citing increased teaching duties than health concerns as their reasons for leaving.

Of respondents who said they might leave for personal reasons, just under half reported being “burned out.”

Research shows poor fund- ing, high emotional demands and inadequate preparation can lead to higher levels of burnout among teachers — which can have negative effects on student outcomes.

Alabama has higher base salaries and some of the lowest healthcare premiums for teachers in the Southeast, according to the SREB report, but that’s not enough to stop some educators from leaving the field.

Of respondents who cited pay as their reasons for leaving, about two in five respondents said their salary was too low and opted for higher salaries in other fields or districts. Others said they were uncompensated for “instructional activity outside of the classroom” — a complaint that was recently raised by Tuscaloosa County teachers in a class-action lawsuit, which charged that the teachers were overworked and underpaid during a year of virtual learning.

Educators who complained of poor work environments typically cited pressures of high-stakes testing and other account- ability measures, a lack of administrative support, student discipline, uninvolved parents, and a general lack of respect by the public for educators.

Even among respondents who had no plans to leave immediately, many cited similar factors — low pay, high student and teacher ratios, burnout, and disrespect — as stressors that were “taking a personal toll.”

Those issues can vary widely between districts, Purcell said. Teachers in hard-to-staff rural areas, for example, were more likely to be frustrated with larger workloads and student/ teacher ratios, while others might have more issues with a lack of school support.

“We do need to act now. I do think that it is a social crisis for today,” Purcell said, noting that state officials should work with local districts to find solutions that fit their unique needs. “We did see a lot of variability between districts, so it seems to me that some of it is related to local issues and their environment.”