NYC teachers hit hard by burnout; many leaving

After a long day of teaching and then trying to tend to her family, only one word sums up Samia Wattoo's current state of mind.

"It's burnout," said Watoo, a special education math teacher at Francis Lewis High School in Queens.

"It is getting very, very hard because I come home and it's just pure exhaustion and it's hard to spend time with my kids. It's hard to spend time with my husband," she added. "Just coming to work every day, I feel like it takes a lot of energy out of me when I get home. I just don't have that same effort for my family."

Burnout is the talk of the teachers' lounge in schools across the U.S., according to Wattoo, who has taught for 19 years, the last two in a global pandemic where masks and remote learning have been thrust upon teachers and kids overnight.

"I definitely hear teachers a lot more saying, 'What am I going to do with this teaching degree?' We had younger teachers teaching for five years. They're just ready to go," Watoo said. "And even I have to say to myself, this is my 19th year teaching. I hope I can make it to 25 years, but it's getting very difficult."

That defeated feeling may be the reason the New York City Department of Education is reporting a spike in teachers leaving their posts. Year over year, the number of teachers has declined 2.5% and the number of paraprofessionals has dropped 15%, according to the state comptroller's office.

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The anecdotes about why are everywhere.

"It's been extraordinarily stressful. Two years or so we have been through this thing where the mayor just said, 'OK, go teach at home,'" ESL teacher Arthur Goldstein said. "And I had never used Zoom before, and I had never used Google Classroom."

Goldstein teaches at Francis Lewis High School and is a member of the High School Executive Board of the UFT, the union that represents teachers. He said that teaching from home was the "worst" and made him want to retire, so he is glad to be back in the classroom.

"I really like being with the kids — and the kids give me energy and inspiration," Goldstein said. "I really want to help these kids, and that is the best part of this job." 

It is unclear if things will change now that more kids are vaccinated.

But for those who have long questioned what comes next, the data shows that educators are in demand outside of education.

The UFT is battling attrition and retention, according to a union spokesperson.

"Keeping a stable pedagogical workforce in the schools has been a constant challenge for the city's Department of Education," the spokesperson said. "Even before Covid, the system had to replace more than 5,000 teachers every year who retired or resigned. The long-term effects of the pandemic are going to make this problem even more difficult to solve."