Eric Stinton: Teachers Aren’t Burned Out, They’re Being Hung Out To Dry - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at

Educators need more supporters to speak out against an aggressive and loud minority.

Last month, the Hawaii Department of Education reported an alarming spike in teacher turnover.

Comparing the 2021-2022 school year to the 2017-2018 school year, turnover is up 12.3%, an increase largely driven by teachers leaving. Nearly three times as many teachers resigned than retired after last school year. 

For many, it came as a surprise to hear why teachers were leaving. Instead of pay, which has historically and notoriously been overmatched by Hawaii’s cost of living, the teachers who left cited work environment and student behavior.

Considered together, that sounds a lot like burnout. 

Hawaii’s teachers aren’t alone; a National Education Association survey last year found that 55% of educators are thinking about leaving the profession earlier than they had planned. Though we often think of burnout as the result of being perpetually overworked, that’s not the whole picture.

Burnout also means being confronted with challenges that seem insurmountable, immovable. It’s a concoction of helplessness and hopelessness, a belief that things are the way they are because of forces beyond your control, and there is nothing you can do to make it better. 

Both low salaries and burnout correspond to teacher shortage and turnover, the two biggest problems in education today. They are related issues — high turnover discourages people from entering the profession, and the shortage means there are fewer replacements for the teachers who leave — but they are separate issues, and their solutions are distinct.

It’s worth parsing them. 

Increasing pay is important for a lot of reasons, first and foremost to make up for neglecting to do so sooner. But for the 17% of teachers who work second jobs – most of whom are early in their career – it would grant them a substantial amount of time and independence to focus on their teaching and their lives outside of teaching, which we are increasingly expected to forfeit.

Higher salaries would also improve cultural attitudes toward teaching. In a country that valorizes wealth, more money equals more respect, and basic respect for educators is in even shorter supply than educators themselves.

Mostly, however, higher pay would attract more people to the profession, the kind of competent and capable candidates who may have wanted to go into teaching but realized they could make more money doing less difficult work. It’s an investment, no different than the ones we make for other jobs that are critical for society to function – doctors, lawyers, engineers and the like.

Schools not only equip kids with the skills and knowledge to participate in society and lead meaningful lives, they also allow the workforce to function by providing mass child care. That’s worth investing in.

All this to say, higher pay would address the teacher shortage, but its impact on turnover would be limited, since turnover is driven by burnout. More money might make teachers more willing to be burned out for longer, but it doesn’t address the causes of burnout, stuff like work environments and student behavior.

Elementary students in class at the Ka 'Umeke Ka'eo charter school in Hilo HI.  10/29/13 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat
Teachers get exhilarated when they see their students grasp new concepts. (PF Bentley/Civil Beat/2013)

According to Alexandra Robbins, however, the premise of teacher burnout is a myth.

“Districts are putting everything on teachers’ shoulders and then blaming the teachers when they say it’s too much by calling it burnout,” she said. “Instead of saying teachers have the highest levels of burnout, which studies have shown, we should be reframing the issue as: school districts are the employers worst at giving their employees the supports and resources they need.”

Robbins is an award-winning and bestselling author of eight books, most recently “The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession,” which came out last month. In it, she follows three teachers across a school year: a middle school math teacher from the South, a special education teacher on the West Coast, and an elementary school teacher on the East Coast.

Their stories illustrate the daily challenges that are driving more educators than ever to leave: Difficult students who don’t get the classroom support they need, hostile parents who bully officials and administrators into getting their way, and more responsibilities being added to an already unmanageable workload, without any additional time or compensation to handle them.

The result is as authentic a look into the life of a teacher as you can get without actually teaching. Robbins also taught as a long-term substitute during the year she wrote the book. 

Based on those experiences and hundreds of conversations with teachers across the country, Robbins highlights four things that teachers need and for which they have long been shouting into the void — higher pay, more on-campus support staff, more autonomy, and a job that can be completed during the school day.

“Districts keep putting money into the wrong things,” she said. “They fund shiny new curriculum programs that aren’t really going to change anything in the schools. They add more positions to the district and central offices that earn multiple times what teachers make. They don’t need those people, what they need is more teachers and aides in school buildings.”

Pauoa Elementary School 3rd grade Teacher Kristin Tatemichi goes over a lesson in class.
The politicization of education, especially on social media, has had a knock-on effect on the ability to recruit teachers. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

Robbins highlights how the profession has changed dramatically over the last 20 years due to the implementation of high-stakes tests and teacher accountability measures that have no demonstrable effect on teacher efficacy or student performance.

“Starting with No Child Left Behind, politicians created this climate of fear in which teachers were judged by how their students did on standardized tests,” Robbins said. “A teacher’s job security could hinge on how a random student did on a random day, not taking into account whether the student was well-fed at home, whether they came to school with a stomach ache, if the parents were involved at all, or if the student was homeless — all these factors that are out of their control. They were punitive measures against teachers whose students did not do well on standardized tests that weren’t written for every student.”

Meanwhile, social media has turbo-charged the politicization of education, which has had knock-on effects on the ability to recruit and retain teachers. “Through social media, certain subgroups of toxic parents and community members spread their messages, and feelings toward teachers polarized more easily and more quickly and more widely,” Robbins said. “If you look at surveys, the vast majority of parents are happy with their schools and don’t think culture wars should play out in schools. Most of the people who say they aren’t happy with schools aren’t parents of school-aged children. They’re just aggressive and loud.”

Hawaii has thus far dodged most of the “parent rights” lunacy gaining steam on the mainland, though it’s ascendant here, championed by some elected officials like GOP Rep. Diamond Garcia. But the fact that a vocal minority acting in obvious bad faith has a spot on the education committee in state government, despite preaching a message rejected by most people in the islands, is proof that teachers need more supporters to speak up.

“We need allies to stand up for educators, show up to meetings, lobby. Districts seem to listen to non-educators more than educators,” said Robbins. But support shouldn’t just come at the policy level. “Parents should be saying in front of their kids that they trust their teachers. Teachers know when a student in their class has a parent who speaks poorly about teachers. When you hear someone disparage teachers, when you see someone do that on social media, you have to shut it down.” 

But Robbins does not settle on despair. She highlights the small, beautiful moments that make teaching so meaningful, despite all the noise and nonsense and tedium.

“I love that teachers call students their kids,” she said. “People don’t realize how much time and effort and soul teachers put into educating other people’s children. They get exhilarated to see a student grasp a new concept they didn’t understand before, or when they see or hear from former students.” 

In the book, former students visited the East Coast elementary school teacher, calling her their favorite teacher. “The way she described it to me, seeing them show up that day, she said it was like her heart grew four sizes bigger. Feeling a part of that moment, it’s life-affirming.”

Moments like these should not be seen as counterweights to all the nonsense shoveled onto teachers, but as evidence of how much unnecessary nonsense teachers have to go through to do the things that really matter. 

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at

Latest Comments (0)

Although pay isn't the only thing, as the article points out, it is a big thing and since this article printed, teachers are set to accept a 15% pay increase over the next 4 years. All of this with no metrics in student improvement, testing scores or any objective methodology, just show up for 8 months and you are eligible.I'm all for teachers earning more and being elevated in the community for their importance of educating our youth, however, as in most professions, this should be performance based, rather than a universal increase with no strings attached. As the cost of a public education creeps closer to a private, shouldn't there be some comparable metrics? And let's be fair, the teacher work year, less breaks and holidays is less than 9 months. So reading about annualized salaries is not a true or fair comparison because annualized it would be at least 30% more. Lastly, not to be left out the HGEA is already calling for fair wages because they feel undervalued. Interesting when you apply the same metrics on productivity and efficiency, as I venture to guess there won't be any. No wonder why the state budget grows with little to show in results.

wailani1961 · 7 months ago

Solutions are under our noses, hands down. Just mimic the two high performing schools who constantly filled the state senators and representatives service academies’ lists of nominated high school students. One is sitting next to a funky canal and the other is next to a noisy highway. Budget wise is almost the same with public schools. But the most glaring difference is generational family support… locked arms in supporting their students.

Srft1 · 7 months ago

Although we could advocate and lobby for teachers to get higher pay and resources-I've said it many times and I'll say it again- The parents need to be more involved. They need to email the DoE, their state reps and go downtown and show support for their teachers. Saying it at the school is one thing, but yelling it at your reps and those in power-and not just a few, all of you--will affect change within the system. Yeah, teachers could definitely get paid more, using some of that surplus money albeit, but if no one is advocating for them, why is the state going to increase funding. This not only applies to education, but to everything I see people of Hawaii complain about, but don't want to say anything, so you don't rock the boat. That's some BS. It's crazy for me coming from the mainland, that the people of Hawaii accept such mediocre standards of living. If this was the mainland, someone would be out of a job, especially in the wealthier neighborhoods.

dudewithglasses · 7 months ago

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