Burned-out teachers are leaving the classroom for jobs in the private sector, where talent-hungry companies are hiring them—and often boosting their pay—to work in sales, software, healthcare and training, among other fields.
The rate of people quitting jobs in private educational services rose more than in any other industry in 2021, according to federal data. Many of those are teachers exhausted from toggling between online and classroom instruction, shifting Covid-19 protocols and dealing with challenging students, parents and administrators.
Teachers started leaving classrooms in 2020 when the pandemic upended education and child care, and the number of resignations from the private-education sector hit nearly 550,000 between January and November, federal data show. More than 800,000 resignations were handed in during the same period by people in state and local education.
Quits in the educational services sector rose 148% in that time frame, while quits in states and local education rose 40%, according to federal data. By comparison, quits in retail trade rose 27% in the same time frame. According to LinkedIn, the share of teachers on the site who left for a new career increased by 62% last year.
The exodus is worsening a nationwide teacher shortage and proving a boon to hiring managers in industries such as IT services and consulting, hospitals and software development. Teachers’ ability to absorb and transmit information quickly, manage stress and multitask are high-demand skills, recruiters and careers coaches say. Classroom instructors are landing sales roles and jobs as instructional coaches, software engineers and behavioral health technicians, according to LinkedIn.
The potential for career and pay growth—some roles are paying tens of thousands of dollars above typical teacher salaries—is alluring amid a long stretch of Zoom learning and pandemic-stressed classrooms, former teachers say.
"Every time I met somebody, they’d say, ‘We love teachers! I don’t know how you do it,’" says Amelia Watson, who is 24 years old and taught sixth grade in Pearl, Miss. She quit in early January to work for a staffing agency as a recruitment coordinator after posting on LinkedIn that she was open to work. "That feels good, but it’s simply not enough to get you through each day."
Shelby Ashworth, 31, says she typically arrived at least an hour before school started and greeted her masked kindergartners with air hugs. She knew it was time to consider a new career when she had trouble getting out of the car each morning after she arrived at her school in Smyrna, Tenn.
Ms. Ashworth, who sells watercolors and lettering prints through an Etsy store, started considering a career change in March 2021. She thought a graphic-design job might offer her the flexibility and growth opportunities she wanted and briefly considered earning another college degree before deciding to teach herself the Adobe suite of design programs and build a portfolio.
When a graphic-design job opened at a nearby book distribution company, Ms. Ashworth realized she knew the hiring manager and reached out, landing it last summer. Now, she designs ads and digital guides and works on the company’s website. She gets to work from home three days a week. She has more time with her 4-year-old daughter and got a small raise in the new job, though she says she would have taken a pay cut to do it.
"My happiness was worth more," she says.
Some teachers say they started looking for new roles toward the end of last school year to minimize disruption to their classes. Others tried to hang on to avoid leaving midyear but said the strain became too great. The most resignations in 2021 were handed in during September, October and November, according to federal data.
Teacher pay varies widely by geography and seniority. In the 2019-2020 school year, teachers in public elementary and secondary schools in California, Massachusetts and New York earned more than $80,000 a year, on average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Teachers in Florida, Mississippi and South Dakota earned less than $50,000. Many, but not all, teachers receive pensions.
Raven Wilson, 30, says she had three goals as she considered quitting her job in education: earn more money, work in tech, work with adults.
She searched online, following Instagram hashtags such as #careersforteachers and #teachersleavinged to see what had worked for others, and paid $3,000 for a training course in instructional design that she hoped would help her transition to the field, only to realize that she disliked it.
Ms. Wilson, who lives in Newport News, Va., refocused her job hunt on companies whose products she had used in the classroom. Last April, she landed a job at an educational-technology startup, training teachers and administrators to use the company’s software and troubleshooting issues. She says she liked the autonomy but wanted to make more money. In October she moved to a similar role at a company that makes software for English learners. Ms. Wilson says she now earns twice what she did teaching first grade.
"I left the one career I thought I was going to do forever," Ms. Wilson says. "Why settle for anything that was not for me?"
Many teachers struggle with leaving a career they consider a calling, says Daphne Gomez, a career coach who helps teachers break into new occupations. The pandemic has shown teachers they have other options and avenues to success, whether they define that as money, fulfillment or professional growth, she adds.
Ms. Watson, the sixth-grade teacher in Pearl, Miss., hoped to stay the school year to avoid suspension of her teacher’s license, a penalty that some midyear quitters can face. But she says her mental health was deteriorating and she needed to move on, despite that risk. When a recruiter approached her on LinkedIn in the fall she started interviewing and started the new role earlier this year after the school semester ended.
Ms. Watson now helps onboard new hires for a global staffing agency. The money is the same, she says, but the career shift has been transformative.
"I’m treated with respect by my supervisors," Ms. Watson says. "I really feel like the intelligent, driven, real person that I am again for the first time in three years."
For some former teachers, the ability to eat lunch or go to the bathroom at a time of their choosing has been a change. Others say leaving education has been emotionally wrenching, but it helped them recapture a sense of hope in their professional lives.
"The people I interact with on a day-to-day basis are happy," says Nicole Routon, who taught middle school science for 13 years in Louisville, Ky., until December. In January, she became a corporate trainer at a financial-services company, training employees in areas such as improving customer interactions. The company lets her work from home unless she is running an on-site training.
Ms. Routon, 39, says she took a pay cut to leave the classroom. She misses laughing with her students, but says she is happier in an environment where problems are treated as solvable and co-workers are open to new ideas.
"It felt like a sinking ship," Ms. Routon says of teaching school during the pandemic. "Nothing is changing and everything is a problem. It’s a hard state to live in all the time."