Meet the 29-year-old teacher with four degrees who wants to join the Great Resignation because she’s tired of working ‘way above’ her paycheck

The pandemic upended the teaching industry. Nina is one of the hundreds of thousands of teachers who want out. But she doesn’t know where to start.

Students sitting at their desks in a classroom

Teachers have been quitting left and right this year because of burnout. Maskot—Getty Images

It felt like a calling: Nina’s parents are both teachers in her home country of France; her brother is teaching back home too. Her aunts, uncles, even her husband’s father is a teacher. “It’s insane,” she tells Fortune

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It felt like a calling: Nina’s parents are both teachers in her home country of France; her brother is teaching back home too. Her aunts, uncles, even her husband’s father is a teacher. “It’s insane,” she tells Fortune

There was familial pressure to become a teacher, to say the least, but Nina, 29, says she is passionate about teaching and loves the kids she works so hard to educate. She taught for two years in France and has been an English language arts teacher in an Arizona high school since the pandemic started. But she’s not sure she can do it much longer. Like many workers in the waning days of the pandemic—especially teachers—she is seeking a career change. But she’s not entirely sure where to begin.

“I just don’t want to be a teacher,” Nina, a pseudonym Fortune is using to protect her privacy, recently wrote in the career guidance subreddit. “But I’ve been in education for so long that I don’t feel like I am qualified enough to do anything remotely interesting even though I have the fire and willingness to work hard.”

The pandemic, which brought about two years of debating how—and what—to teach kids, fueled a teacher shortage that has put more pressure on staff, intensifying burnout and leading more teachers to search for an exit ramp. The effect is similar to what employees in corporate America face amid layoffs and the Great Resignation, in which millions of workers have vacated positions amid continued pandemic fatigue.

A National Education Association poll from earlier this year found that 80% of the union’s members say job openings have led to more work and obligations, with more than half of members planning to leave education sooner than planned. Nina counts herself among them, hoping to follow in the footsteps of the 300,000 teachers and public school staff who have left the profession since the pandemic. 

Her reasons are plenty: a lack of trust and support, stress and burnout, contending with historic learning loss, and depleted staffing.

“I thought I would be a high school teacher for a while and maybe be a high school teacher on a reservation, but no,” Nina says. “I don’t think it would be good for me to be a high school teacher my whole life…Essentially, every time I’m frustrated with my job, I go on Indeed.”

The pandemic has made teaching unbearable

Nina moved to the American Southwest fueled by a desire to work with the Native American population there, particularly the Navajo Nation. She had goals of teaching native students. What she found was a school system ravaged by the pandemic. 

COVID-19 highlighted and exacerbated the inequalities facing Nina’s at-risk students and the small charter school where she teaches. When the school went remote, some of her students were stuck at a home without a computer for online class or in environments in which online schooling was virtually impossible.

Like many teachers across the country, Nina had to give credit and pass along students who are far behind high school reading levels to the next grade. Broadly, the learning loss for America’s children has erased decades of academic progress. What pains Nina more has been the pressure to graduate students who are simply not equipped nor ready to graduate. But what’s the alternative: Waste years of their lives by holding them back? It’s become untenable for her.

Then there’s the school administration. She constantly feels patronized, undervalued, and not trusted, she says. And the school is so short-staffed that she’s been forced to teach special-education classes.

“They’re asking us to do things that are way above our paycheck,” says Nina, who holds two master’s degrees in Native American studies and American studies plus two bachelor’s degrees. “I am not a special-education teacher, and I am not paid like one.”

Looking for the right next career has become almost a hobby these days, she says. She finds herself drawn to nonprofit work, the political or advocacy sphere, even something still in education or academia—anything but teaching.

“I want to use my skills that I spent so much of my time learning and that brought me here to the U.S.,” Nina says. “I came to the U.S. to work with Native American people and work for environmental rights. It happened for a little bit when I was doing my Ph.D. program, but the pandemic happened and lack of funding happened, so here I am.”

Feeling stuck with no way out 

Teaching can be a comfortable gig; that’s what Nina’s parents always preached: the time off and job security. She doesn’t want to get too comfortable, though. A colleague of hers has a Ph.D. and told her he started teaching just to pay the bills, but he fell into the trap and has been teaching much longer than originally planned. 

But Nina is unsure at this point how to navigate such a career change. While she’s got four degrees under her belt and an expertise that for all intents and purposes exceeds the scope of her current job, Nina’s worried that if she waits too long, her training will become all but irrelevant.

And she doesn’t want to be stuck in an endless job search. A colleague, somewhat jokingly, told Nina recently she had been looking for a career change for 15 years. “I just kind of felt, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to be her,’” Nina says.

Workers across industries have expressed concerns about staying relevant in their work and skills after a pandemic that not only put people behind, but also made them reevaluate careers and work-life balance. Nina had her first child during the pandemic, which took a lot of her focus, she says, but lockdown and the isolation that came with COVID-19 gave her a lot of time to think about what she wants and what’s best for her health and career.

She’s been turned down for two jobs already, one that would have been perfect, she says. She’s not deterred, though. There’s always more frustration at school that pushes her back to the job boards. Fellow Redditors offered advice and guidance in droves, suggesting other potential careers, working with a headhunter, or simply sending encouragement.

“I’m going to stay as long as I can stay until I find something better…I will not resign and then look for another job,” she says. “I love the kids. I like my colleagues. They’re not my favorite people, but I respect them and we have a good dynamic…And I don’t want to be unemployed. I have a baby, and day care costs just as much as rent now, so there’s that.”

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