From August of 2020 to February of 2021, 749 Michigan teachers retired. That's a 44% increase from the 519 teachers who retired in the same time period during the 2019-2020 school year.
Those who work in education say the COVID-19 pandemic has likely played a role in retirement numbers increasing, but teachers leaving the profession is an issue the state has struggled with for years.
Doug Pratt is the communications consultant for the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union. He says the stressors brought on by the pandemic are having a big impact on their membership.
"Some of it certainly is pandemic safety related. We hear every day from our members about the burnout that’s happening, the level of stress that comes from the constant shifting from in-person to virtual to hybrid to back to in-person learning," says Pratt.
Pratt says that the pandemic is only one piece of the puzzle, however. He says people were choosing to retire or leave the profession earlier and earlier for years before the pandemic.
"We've been dealing with a lack of respect for the education profession for a long time: a lack of autonomy, a lack of treating these experts as the experts they are in educating our children. Between that and the stagnating pay for educators, these are all contributing factors that are pushing this to become an even bigger issue than it already was," he says.
And if more teachers are retiring, Pratt says, that issue is only made worse by fewer and fewer people choosing to pursue teaching as a career in the first place.
"The lack of people coming into the profession has been getting worse and worse. When I started working in Michigan schools 20 years ago, there was a constant demand for educators, and lots of applicants. You'd see 20, 30, 40 applicants applying for one job. Now, that number is in the single digits." Pratt adds that this is even harder on early career teachers, who often have low starting salaries and student loans.
Peter Spadafore is the communications director for the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. He agrees with Pratt, and says the pandemic has only exacerbated an already existing problem.
"So this is not something that’s new, but we do think that the pandemic and the added stressors that came with the multiple modes of educating children and the added pressure that comes from that has increased folks’ desire to make those intentions about retirement earlier," he says.
Spadafore says it's likely that schools will have trouble finding educators to staff schools come fall.
"Teachers, adminstrators, all sorts of classifications of school personnel: I think there are going to be increases in shortages. We've seen the shortages for years in these fields, and it's not going to get better overnight. I think next year is going to prove very difficult to get qualified candidates into those spaces in the numbers we're going to need," says Spadafore.
Pratt says there needs to be real, systemic change to keep teachers in Michigan, starting with improved school funding and the ability to compensate teachers fairly at every point in their careers.