If educators could advise their younger selves whether to pursue teaching as a career, 55% say it’s unlikely, according to results of a just-released Merrimack College national survey of 1,324 teachers.

Results of the nationally representative survey that were released during a webinar hosted by Education Week on Friday also revealed that 44% of educators surveyed were fairly or very likely to leave the profession to pursue a different occupation in the next two years. This was the highest percentage reported since the 1980s, according to similar polls conducted in the past few decades.

Less than half of the educators polled said they felt respected and seen as a professional by their communities. Female teachers reported feeling less respected than males at all levels of K-12 schools.

Dan Sarofian-Butin, professor and founding dean of the Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College, said the findings are troublesome, particularly that just 4 in 10 teachers felt respected by the general public.

Surveys frequently show that fewer college students want to go into teaching, he said.

“So when I teach future teachers, teachers are the front-line workers of our democracy, right? We’re not just teaching reading and writing and arithmetic. We’re teaching students how to become good citizens. When we have less high school kids and college kids wanting to become teachers, it really worries me,” he said.

The first-ever Merrimack College Teacher Survey was conducted Jan. 9 through Feb. 3 and has a 95% confidence level.

The survey results, titled “Deeply Disillusioned,” indicate that just 12% of the educators polled reported they were “very satisfied” with their jobs. This was significantly lower than previous surveys by MetLife conducted 1984-2012. The MetLife survey found 62% of teachers were “very satisfied” with their careers in 2008. The lowest number across the span of the MetLife surveys was 39% in 2012.

When asked how state-level legislation on critical race theory, the teaching of history and issues regarding LGBTQ students, families and educators impacted teachers’ feelings about their work, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, responded: “Do you have about 30 minutes for this answer?”

Educators and systems of education have endured controversies in the past, whether it was teaching about evolution or controversies about communism and McCarthyism, she said.

“You have these inflection points ... where a portion of society feels uncomfortable with what the arc of history and the arc of society is, and that is the recipe for a culture war,” she said.

Teachers’ work is “relational,” Weingarten said.

“When kids can’t express who they are, or teachers express who they are, then there’s something hidden or not organic in a classroom. When we can’t teach honest history, then we are not doing what we need to do to help the arc of history turn towards justice. ... Teachers feel uncertain and really uneasy with these new laws, which are intended to basically erase the diversity of who we are as a society,” she said.

Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at University of Virginia, said the survey results indicate that “teachers feel tremendously unsupported by a lot of groups that they have traditionally felt really supported by and that includes a lot of parents.”

During the pandemic, there were many school districts in which teachers were concerned about their safety because they didn’t feel that proper protocols were yet in place, and meanwhile, “parents of kids that they love were asking them to go back immediately.”

Willingham said educational research now shows that educators’ teaching practice improves over time so it is important to retain veteran teachers.

“So when we talk about losing experienced teachers, this is a very serious, potentially very serious problem. It’s not just a question of, ‘OK, there’s turnover and we need to hire more people.’ We’re losing our best people and so we do need to dig deep” to find out what is behind their dissatisfaction and what can be done to remedy it, he said.

The survey also delved into teacher compensation, which is particularly timely in Utah as school districts and local teacher associations are beginning to complete their salary negotiations for the upcoming school year.

The survey revealed that a typical teacher works about 54 hours a week and less than half of that time is devoted to directly teaching students, the survey found.

According to the poll results, just over one third of educators who have been teaching more than 20 years said their salaries were fair for the work that they do.

Meanwhile, among teachers new to the career, those who have taught less than three years, one quarter said they felt their compensation was fair, compared to 18% among educators who have completed three to nine years of teaching and 27% of those in the field 10 to 20 years.