GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — While the pandemic has exacerbated preexisting stressors on Michigan educators, a growing shortage of teachers was a problem long before COVID-19 steered lesson plans.

According to data from the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System, retirements between September and December 2020 were up between nearly 43% and 71% compared to the mean from the four previous years. 

Last May was the next highest jump at nearly 20% under the same comparison.

“And that’s just people who are retiring, let alone people who are up and leaving the profession,” Michigan Education Association director of public affairs Doug Pratt told News 8. “It certainly has to do with COVID safety, but also just the burnout, the stress that educators are under, and students, in this environment.”

That burnout is not exclusive to the last year, Pratt said, but the pandemic did solidify decisions many teachers were already weighing.

“It got to the point where I’m not going to have anything left if I don’t do something for me,” Jennifer Hockstra, who has been teaching for more than a decade, told News 8. 

She took a leave of absence in November from teaching math at a Montcalm County school.

“My husband got to the point where he was like, ‘You’re never really home, you’re never here. Even though you’re physically here, you’re not present.’ So there’s just not a way to draw a line,” Hockstra said, adding her workweeks were upwards of 70 hours even before the pandemic hit.

That lack of work-life balance was amplified by changes in education and a decline in respect for the profession as a whole, she and Pratt agreed.

“Funds kept getting cut, downsizing, so we were trying to do more with less,” Hockstra said. “It’s just a horrible feeling to feel like I put my heart and soul into something and to get treated like that. It’s rough.”

They pointed to a number of examples: slashed budgets, frozen wages, evaluations being based on standardized test performance. 

“I think curriculum should fit children and not children fitting curriculums, and so these standardized tests are kind of arbitrary,” Kentwood second grade teacher Julie Brill told News 8. 

She pointed out that the heavier reliance on student testing performance in teacher evaluations doesn’t take into account outside factors, like home-life distractions, that affect scores.

“There are things that I just simply cannot control that are happening outside of the school day,” Brill said. “It feels a bit like hoop jumping with some of that.” 

She’s retiring at the end of the year after more than three decades in the classroom, a decision that has been in the works for three years.

In 2018, Brill was featured on News 8 Daybreak for her commitment to her students. Those lucky enough to be in her classroom know the warm affection that typically greets students.

“That kind of stuff has changed. Now we’re not even doing elbow bumps. It’s just kind of air high fives or I’m just like greeting them at the door, ‘Hi, come on in. Make sure you sanitize your hands and eat your breakfast,'” Brill said.

Both she and Hockstra are proud to say relationships with students have carried on after they’re in their classes. 

“I still have kids that keep in touch with me. There’s kids I check in on just because you get a soft spot and over my 11 years, I’ve had a lot of kids, you know, when they grew up, I kept in touch with them,” Hockstra said.

Opportunities to cultivate those lasting relationships are declining as a whole, according to the MEA. Prior to the pandemic, enrollment in colleges of education was down 50% on average between 2010 and 2020. Additionally, one in five new teachers leave the classroom within the first five years of entering the profession.

“Both of those are historic highs,” MEA communications consultant David Crim said in an email. 

Stuck in the middle of all of these factors are students who have faced the toughest year yet in the classroom.

“What I’m seeing is kids stepping up to the plate,” Brill said. “I am seeing them try their hardest… They are seriously my personal heroes this year.”