“During the pandemic…we really had the time and the motivation to sit back and say, do I like the trajectory of my life? Am I pursuing a life that brings me well-being?” So said organisational psychologist Anthony Klotz, the man who coined the phrase that sums up the historic exodus of people from their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic: the ‘Great Resignation’. By August 2021, workers were quitting in their millions, with a record 4.3 million resignations in the US alone. Among those looking for greener grass elsewhere were those employed in the education sector.
From teachers to caretakers, lecturers to school bus drivers, the Great Resignation has hit all manner of roles in education hard. In 2021, a survey by Education Week in the US found that 48% schools were struggling to fill full-time teaching positions and 77% couldn’t hire enough substitute teachers to plug their staffing gaps. Coupled with high levels of staff illness due to the pandemic (on top of ‘usual’ absences), the pressure felt by schools was ever-increasing.
It should be said however that the pandemic wasn’t the source of this wave of quitting; more likely it was the catalyst for a change that had already been bubbling under the surface. Poor pay relative to other professional roles, increasingly long hours, budget cuts and the declining status of teachers in society has led to staff feeling undervalued and not listened to for a long time. After two years of unprecedented disruption and what many see as a lack of leadership from governments around the world, it’s no wonder that teaching staff are itching to get out of the classroom.
The question is, where are these educators going instead?
Education professionals from K-12 and Higher Education are highly qualified, often with years of experience and a well-established career under their belts. While there will be a number who choose to retrain and start out in a completely new career, for many leaving a traditional school or university environment doesn’t mean they want to quit education altogether. So when you love your vocation, but the culture and institutions built around it that make staying no longer viable, where do you go? For many former teachers, the world of education start-ups has welcomed them with open arms.
EdTech start-ups in particular have seen a significant rise in interest from former education sector workers, something that Nikhil Pawar of edtech platform Vedantu puts down to the growing use of and confidence in online learning and teaching during the pandemic. “[We’ve] noticed in our hiring and onboarding of late is that they (teachers) have become a lot more comfortable with online tools,” he said. "Earlier, we would have to put in a lot more effort in training because they were used to the offline world.” Teachers want to use these new-found digital skills. The traditional classroom environment isn’t enabling them to, so they’re looking for somewhere that does.
Capitalising on working models made popular by the gig economy, these start-ups all have similar selling points: the offer of better pay, flexible working hours and the space for creativity that many teachers complain just doesn’t exist in the mainstream system. Online learning platforms like Outschool and Varsity Tutors contract teachers on an hourly or daily basis to teach small groups on a range of topics, from costume design to Korean folklore to communication and social skills. This freedom to teach on all kinds of topics that might not be directly covered by mainstream curricula is attractive – but so is the money that can be made.
CEO of Outschool, Amir Nathoo, estimates that teachers are able to make up to $60 an hour and that total earnings for those teaching across the platform is more than $40 million. Compare this to the average teacher’s salary, which equates to around $30 an hour, and you can see why getting into these start-ups is a much more appealing option. Even if teachers are using these platforms to supplement other income sources, they still feel a greater sense of autonomy and flexibility. And it’s not just teachers that are seeing the education start-up sector as a viable new career option. EdTech is attracting many other professionals, from sectors like banking, engineering and scientific research, who are looking to share their expertise with new audiences.
The fall-out from the Great Resignation for K-12 education is pretty chronic. A 2021 poll of school leaders and support staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland found that a whopping 95% of staff were worried about the impact their career was having on their wellbeing. 35% said that they would ‘definitely’ not be working in education in the next five years, a sentiment echoed across the pond, where one third of US teachers are thinking of leaving the profession.
In Higher Education, things aren’t much better. As a sector that is often accused of being slow to change, there is much to be done to retain the best academics and staff. While that outlook may be bleak (to put it mildly), if Higher Education were to get it right for its staff, the role the sector could play in supporting both employers and employees in the future is invaluable. Many of the millions of people who left their jobs in 2021 will be looking to upskill and even retrain to secure a new career that better meets their financial needs, location requirements or work-life balance expectations.
For many, the answer is the entrepreneurial path. From education consulting to teacher training, and a wide range of associated project work, education professionals are beginning to look for other outlets for their rich experience and first-hand knowledge of the front lines. However, the step from full time employment to self-employment is a huge one, for which many are unprepared. The entrepreneurial path is something for which our education system rarely readies us.
This is where universities and colleges can step in, providing the degree programmes and courses that can fill skills gaps and support changes in career paths. Flexibility is key – lack of elastic working options is one of the main reasons, so many quit their 9 to 5s, after all. Alongside traditional courses, institutions offering shorter qualifications and bite-sized modules will prove to be popular.
Positioning themselves as a solution to the shortages in other sectors could be pivotal to Higher Education’s success post-Great Resignation. Who knows, maybe through working with the flourishing education marketing and EdTech sectors – where many former teaching staff are now sharing their expertise – universities and colleges can turn this historic challenge into a future-proofing opportunity.
It is time for education providers and professionals to work together as roles are repurposed, and an increasing number of us step out of formal employment into a more fluid environment. Rather than lament the loss of talent, we need to both examine why these professionals are leaving in the first place, and also to embrace and support their new pathway, so that the sector does not lose their expertise entirely.
At NEO Academy, we give our support to the K-12 and Higher Education institutions who embed entrepreneurship throughout their offer. If this latest shift in the way of working has taught us anything, it is that while this path will not be walked by everyone, we should all be equipped to do so if we choose.