Palm Beach Post | By Sonja Isger | October 14, 2021
With more than a dozen years invested in teaching, Carrie Andersen couldn’t imagine anything but a lifelong career in a public school classroom.
“I thought I’d be one of those 67-year-old English teachers with a bun in my hair trying to relate to the students,” Andersen said.
COVID-19 changed everything. The 46-year-old quit this summer and opened her own academy instead, one that manages homeschooling sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
Andersen’s concerns began as a matter of personal safety. A diabetic with hospital-visit-inducing blood sugar problems, the Jupiter High teacher early on sought remote work. But weeks after schools reopened, her principal demanded all hands return to campus.
Andersen said she took a leave instead and began formulating a Plan B.
Andersen is one of more than 155 teachers who resigned somewhere between late summer and the end of September, according to Palm Beach County school district records. That’s roughly double the number of resignations during the same span pre-pandemic in 2019, and up by a couple dozen from the same time last year, reports Gonzalo LaCava, the district’s chief of Human Resources.
The hike in teacher resignations reflects a trend nationally. The field has been shrinking for some time, but COVID appears to have speeded departures.
More teachers likely to quit their jobs since pandemic began
In its annual teacher survey last winter, RAND Corporation found one in four said they were likely to quit their job, up from one in six prior to the pandemic. Teachers also reported higher job-related stress and symptoms of depression than the rest of the workforce.
A dive into those who resigned even as the school year was ramping up indicates that the departed had invested on average just over five years in Palm Beach County classrooms.
About 20%, or roughly 30 teachers, had logged a decade or more, according to the district’s data. At least seven teachers had 20 years or more experience.
The numbers reflect a phenomenon long bemoaned in education circles that the first five years are critical, and many leave the profession early.
In Florida, only 65% of teachers who were hired in the fall of 2015 were still working in the state’s public schools five years later, according to Florida Department of Education data. Palm Beach County fared slightly better, retaining nearly 68% of its teachers in that time.
Still, the departures this fall have contributed to staffing shortages that are driving class sizes higher at some schools and regularly sending principals on a desperate hunt to cover both daily and long-term vacancies.
Andersen misses many things about her old job at Jupiter High. The 150 students and staff she would greet between the parking lot and classroom door each morning. The camaraderie of her colleagues — they now meet at happy hours. Touching so many young lives before they head out on their own.
“I don’t miss the BS, the standardized testing, the administration, the politics. I don’t miss the (health) risks,” said Andersen, who is vaccinated and manages a small cadre of students who are also inoculated against the illness.
Setting up her own business has been challenging. “It was like having a second child,” Andersen said.
“This will be my legacy, my family’s legacy. It’s an education revolution,” said Andersen, whose husband still teaches math at Jupiter but also contributes his expertise as part of The Andersen Academy. His parents pitched in as well, supplying the seed money to launch the endeavor.
“I never thought in a million years I’d open my own business,” Andersen says. “The pandemic, like for so many other people in the world, showed me that there were other things, other ways you can structure your day. It redefined my world as an educator.
“It’s terrifying. I’m only two months in. It’s my financial future. But it’s also the most liberating thing I’ve ever done,” Andersen said. “I wouldn’t go back.”
‘If we’re frontline workers, why aren’t we being taken care of?’
Vanessa Nieves says the little things were chipping away at her enthusiasm for teaching for awhile.
The commute from Port St. Lucie to her job teaching with non-native English speakers at William T. Dwyer High in Palm Beach Gardens was wearing. Two hours of lesson planning on Sundays. Picking up the tab on $500 in classroom supplies. All on an annual salary of $51,000, she said.
“The job became really demanding. All the different testing. A lot of things were thrown in our lap,” said Nieves, who was hired in 2018. “I had summers and holidays off, but I needed more.”
Then COVID-19 piled on.
With a compromised immune system, Nieves wanted to work from home. When headed for the classroom this fall, she had to wear a mask, but at the time students had the option not to. “If we’re frontline workers, why aren’t we being taken care of?” For that matter, she said, “How come the governor, the DOE, how come they don’t fight for our pay raise?”
She liked her principal, her colleagues, but the woman who had an eye on rising to an administration position no longer felt valued.
“When things started happening with COVID, you got to see what was really happening. People don’t care about you,” Nieves said. She misses her fellow teachers, her former bosses, “but the other aspect gave me a sour taste.”
Nieves, who is 34 and says she has worked in some aspect of education since she was 18, has a side hustle producing local events. She’s still sorting what comes next.
“I’m a stay-at-home mom. I had lunch at Publix. I was at the beach yesterday. I’m looking into volunteering. I’m doing it for myself, not because someone told me to,” Nieves said.
‘I saw the flexibility that being able to work from home gave me’
Since 2014, Alison Berg honed her craft as a speech pathologist in the county’s schools. Then she became a mom on the first day of last school year. When it came time to return to work, she did it remotely, a door opened by the pandemic.
“I saw the flexibility that being able to work from home gave me. There was a lot,” Berg said.
Still, Berg was ready to give working in-person with students a try this year, and she headed back to Orchard View Elementary in Delray Beach.
“After being back a month, I kind of realized, COVID, me having a baby, my life has completely changed,” Berg said. “I’ve changed so much, but the school was the same. My job was the same. Everyone was the same. It was not what I wanted to be doing. I’m a speech therapist, but I want to be more flexible with my time.”
“I just feel like the world has changed since COVID. Everything is different.”
Berg quit. The 32-year-old is now doing contract work in her field. She’s also doing early intervention work with infants and toddlers.
“The district was great to me. I’ve learned so much. My life just doesn’t fit with the day-to-day of being in a school anymore,” Berg said. “I definitely miss my team and all the people I worked with, and I miss my students. I was with them for seven years. They definitely made me the therapist I am.”
Mask mandates, online teaching prompt some to leave
More than a couple teachers said they, too, exited the classroom to tend to new families.
Others contacted by The Palm Beach Post said they resigned from Palm Beach County schools to work in private schools, schools in other Florida districts or schools out of state.
Mask mandates or lack thereof prompted more than one to rethink their job. Going into the school year, the district required staff to wear masks, but masks for students remained optional. Within weeks, a mask mandate was imposed on students as well.
The matter has been divisive not only among parents, but also among employees, with concerns falling on both sides of the issue.
Still others said the pandemic was exhausting.
Across the country, teachers said it changed their working conditions, demanding, for example, that they master online teaching, trouble shoot technical problems and manage behavior for students — and sometimes families — who dialed in to class.
They had new health concerns when teaching in-person. And many are also responsible for caring for their own children. That requirement didn’t go away when full in-person classes resumed this fall. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of the county’s students have been quarantined at home daily since school began.
From teaching to candlemaking
“It was honestly just the perfect storm,” said Krystle Bounds, another teacher who left Jupiter High before the school year began. “I’d just started a new family. I started a new business. And on top of that there was the added workload the pandemic created.”
The Spanish teacher said she began making candles as an exercise in relaxation. She liked the creativity of choosing the scents and ingredients. She handed out a few and people began inquiring about buying more.
“During the summer, while we were on break, I did a few candle shows and thought, ‘Whoa, this is really fun.’ It just grew into something,” Bounds said.
She read a lot about candlemaking online. Watched loads of videos. Suffered many failures. But she’s now cooking nonstop in order to maintain a 200-candle inventory for the weekends, when she and her family work four farmers markets in three days.
“I had always wanted to be a teacher. Probably at the age of 9, I was teaching doll classes, apprenticing. I always had the teaching bug,” said Bounds, whose first career was in the legal arena.
“I was into immigration law. I made more money than I did teaching, but it wasn’t my passion. Teaching? I loved it. There is a great perk of summer off when you have a family,” Bounds said. “I thought it would be forever.”
But, the 36-year-old said the workload has increased tenfold, while the pay has stayed the same.
“The teaching profession is really a hard profession these days. We’re held very accountable. We have testing. We must make sure kids are performing. Make sure they are wearing their masks. When we went online, your time tripled to make it accessible. Even though everything is in-person this year, you still have to make things accessible online. The workload has grown,” said Bounds, who began teaching 13 years ago.
If COVID-19 hadn’t come along, Bounds said she may never have dipped into a new hobby. The candle business is hard work. “Yesterday, I worked a 13-hour day. It’s not easy.
“But I will say, teaching is emotionally draining, physically draining in a way that no other job is. We’re parents. We’re referees. We’re friends.”
The pressure to perform for evaluations and to be there for kids while dealing with COVID protocols piled up. “When I thought of all that combined, it just was not worth it,” Bounds said. “I was not ready to go back to the sheer exhaustion.”
Instead, she’s elbow deep into her fall line of pumpkin spice and blueberry aromas. Ghost themes and acorns.
“I never could’ve predicted this. But I love it. I’m so glad I did it. ”