It took years for Danthu Pham to get her credential, but just months of teaching during the pandemic to quit the profession.
In February, just a couple of months after finally getting her teaching credential, the Vietnamese language teacher founder herself waiting on thousands of dollars in back pay because of a high-profile payroll meltdown in the San Francisco Unified School District.
Pham had already drained her savings and didn’t know how she’d cover rent. Wracked with anxiety, she said she kept checking her phone for updates and considered applying for rent relief.
“I don’t think any teacher would want to quit after her first year,” said Pham, who taught at Tenderloin Community Elementary School. “I really do want to be an educator, but I didn’t have the right environment for me to continue, and I had to make that hard decision in March.”
Pham is among scores of teachers who have left, or are reconsidering their place, in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD)—and, in some cases, in the profession entirely—after a demoralizing school year back in the classroom. And the ramifications of that exodus threaten to upend stability in the district beyond just this coming school year.
Leaving in ‘Record Numbers’
Teachers nationwide have indicated plans to leave the profession at astoundingly high rates since the pandemic began: A survey by the California State Retirement System found that public school teacher retirements jumped by 26% in the first year of the pandemic—the second highest percentage on record—compared to 2019, while districts statewide struggled to fill vacancies last summer.
Locally, SFUSD has seen “teachers resign in record numbers,” the district’s head of human resources, Sam Bass, told The Standard in a July interview.
By his count, he said the district had a total of 450 classroom positions that needed to be filled for the upcoming school year and around 25% of those jobs remain vacant. At the same time last year, 20% of vacancies were unfilled.
It’s unclear how the “record numbers” of teacher resignations cited by Bass compare to previous school years. Beyond the figures provided by Bass, SFUSD has been vague about the extent of the problem.
In a May staffing report, SFUSD reported 85 classroom vacancies for the 2021-22 school year: 68 from resignations, 15 due to retirement, one for a new position and one due to a voluntary transfer. That total number rose to 143 credentialed teachers by June 20.
Past reports tallied in the spring show that while retirements ticked up, total staff vacancies dropped from 833 in 2019-20 to 524 in 2020-21, when classes were still being taught virtually and before pandemic fatigue hit a new high. However, those reports don’t distinguish between staff overall and classroom vacancies, the metric cited by Bass.
District spokesperson Laura Dudnick did not provide total teacher resignations compared to vacancies for the coming school year, saying the district didn’t have a staffing report that broke those numbers down.
Educator layoff notices sent to tackle a budget deficit—which were almost entirely rescinded by the district due to the number of vacancies—have also spurred teachers to look elsewhere for job security since the spring.
“Seeing teachers resign in record numbers is not all that surprising to me right now, given how hard distance learning was,” Bass said. “And coming back into in-person learning has been equally as hard because our students suffered.”
‘Harder By the Day’
Conversations with dozens of teachers this calendar year point to educators either past their breaking point or on the brink.
Staffing shortages and payroll issues compounded the chaos of the full return to in-person learning, which required additional care to deal with stark behavioral changes in students, many of whom were struggling to catch up after so many months spent tuning into classes virtually from home.
Chris Clauss was one of those who found herself on the brink—but, despite the instability of the past school year, she has resolved to keep teaching special education in San Francisco. She wants to stay for the kids, especially those she’s watched grow since their freshman year at George Washington High School.
It’s not been easy.
Though committed to her job and active in the union, the multiplicity of crises—including the layoff notices and drawn-out payroll fiasco—shook her faith in her future at SFUSD. The district racked up 1,000 reported cases of missing pay and other compensation errors, despite a union agreement borne out of a building takeover attended by Clauss.
“More people I respect and love working with have told me that they’re leaving the district, and that hurts, too,” Clauss told The Standard in April. “I really started thinking about how much longer I can stay in SFUSD. It’s impacting my bandwidth to help students.”
For 61-year-old Brad Lakritz, the decision would be easy if his household didn’t need the money. At James Denman Middle School, where he teaches eighth-grade social studies, he’s seen increasing indifference and defiance from students.
“I would retire today if I could,” Lakritz told The Standard in April. “It’s getting harder by the day. I see my colleagues every day with the stress and strain on their face. Even with the mask on, I can see it in their eyes.”
Going to the classroom in the midst of Covid, coupled with the sudden shift in the teaching landscape, was anxiety-inducing for an older teacher who saw his peers retire early as an alternative.
Lakritz was also dismayed by how politicized the profession became during the pandemic, with polarizing debates that put more pressure on educators from outside the classroom.
In San Francisco, voters recalled three members of the Board of Education in part because of an effort to rename schools and because of backlash over the district’s decision to continue remote learning. Meanwhile, school boards across the nation have fielded right-wing attacks on teaching the full race-conscious history of the United States.
“We just spent two years with … people just totally shitting on teachers and schools,” said United Educators of San Francisco President Cassondra Curiel. “The state of California itself and the nation overall have done the consistent work to undermine and underfund [education] at all levels.”
Curiel recalls hearing about an impending teacher crisis expected in 20 years—as far back as the early 2000s.
“We already had a teacher shortage prior to the pandemic—particularly in hard-to-staff areas like math, science and bilingual and special education,” said California Teachers Association spokesperson Lisa Gardiner. “But the pandemic has accelerated the shortage further.”
California has increasingly invested in teacher residencies and comprehensive teacher pipeline programs to keep new teachers in the profession, said Desiree Carver-Thomas, a researcher and policy analyst with the Learning Policy Institute. It also offers up to $20,000 grants for teachers in “high-need” fields, incentivizing more to pursue the field with less financial burden.
And the results are starting to show, Carver-Thomas said. The level of interest in becoming a teacher in California has steadily increased, according to data from the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing. There were 16,737 teachers earning their preliminary credential in 2016-17 and by 2020-21 that number rose to 19,636 credentials in the works.
“Turnover is just as important to pay attention to as those new teachers,” Carver-Thomas warned. “The state role is important because what we often see when some districts are more effective at recruiting and retaining teachers than others, it has high equity implications. Students in low-income communities bear the brunt in teacher shortages.”
Though the recently signed state budget includes significant resources for districts to address teacher recruitment and retention, Gardiner said districts must make it a priority.
Otherwise, Gardiner said, “they will lose educators to neighboring districts and other professions—and students will suffer.”
Private and parochial schools are experiencing staffing challenges, too, said Rick Ayers, an assistant professor in teacher education at the University of San Francisco. Cities like San Francisco have the added challenge of the high cost of living, with momentum to build affordable educator housing stalled.
And with teachers like Pham leaving so soon into their tenure, or mid-career educators rethinking the profession, the stability of that pipeline is in question. All this comes as enrollment has consistently declined and is expected to drop further, which Carver-Thomas said could be an opportunity to bring down the state’s high student-to-teacher ratios.
“People are barely hanging by a thread,” said Rori Abernethy, a sixth-grade teacher at James Denman Middle School. “The number of kids leaving is not going to outpace the number of teachers leaving … You’re creating more instability in our system for an entire year [without retention].”
SFUSD has more than 500 positions open for all staff positions as of mid-July—a level Abernathy has never seen and with only weeks to go before a rush of onboarding amid ongoing payroll glitches.
But Bass is confident that San Francisco’s public K-12 classrooms will be staffed by the start of the school year. He cited retention stipends approved by the Board of Education and increased pay rates for substitute teachers as part of the staffing strategy.
“I am optimistic, even with the growing number of resignations and retirements that we’ve had, that we’ll be able to fill all of our positions,” Bass said. “We have some safeguards in place in case we are not fully staffed in August.“
If worse comes to worst, though, the personnel chief said administrative staff may have to once again teach—a last-resort move that had ripple effects on operations when the district turned to that option this past last school year. Former Superintendent Vincent Matthews even stepped into the classroom as a teacher.
‘That Aha Moment’
While the district prepares to staff all of its classrooms, educators continue to struggle to connect with the passion that brought them there in the first place.
It was tough for Clauss to see students struggle during the pandemic without enough support for their emotional and academic needs, she said. But witnessing students figure out something for the first time breathes life into what can feel like a thankless job, she added—at least up to a point.
“You stop getting energy from the ‘a-ha moments’ because there are just 6,000 other things behind that ‘aha moment’ that make it so hard to do this job,” Clauss said. “It’s so frustrating to see.”
That’s why so many of even the most passionate educators end up leaving.
“They just can’t handle being treated as less than human,” she said. “Because in the end, even the kids can’t fix them.”Ida Mojadad can be reached at [email protected].
Jesse Rogala can be reached at [email protected].
Mike Kuba can be reached at [email protected].